The Hunger Factor

American and British forces are aiming their bombs carefully to avoid harming civilians, but the war could still cause a catastrophe in Afghanistan. Food supplies, already inadequate, are dwindling further as relief efforts are disrupted by the intensifying war. The Bush administration needs a better plan for averting large-scale famine and starvation in Aghanistan—quickly.

The United States has been air-dropping an average of 35,000 meals a day into Afghanistan, but six million people there need food aid. To deliver less than 1 percent of what’s needed not only is insufficient, but could undermine our efforts to persuade the world that the United States cares about the welfare of Muslims. World Food Program convoys, financed largely by the United States, are still going into Afghanistan, but not regularly enough to meet the need. International aid groups say border closings, truck drivers’ fears of going out onto the roads, and confusion inside Afghanistan are making large-scale food delivery extremely difficult. There is another reason, too, why America can’t assume that food deliveries will go on as in the past: The Taliban may not let them. The Taliban have already impeded some relief efforts; yesterday they seized half of the United Nations food supplies in parts of Afghanistan, according to a United Nations official. And resistance fighters can’t be expected to defeat the Taliban quickly enough so that food can soon be delivered under a friendlier new government. At last count, the resistance forces were still outnumbered at least two to one by Taliban fighters. Although American air strikes can help, air power generally does not deplete enemy forces by more than 1 to 2 percent a day. At that pace, Kabul may not fall until November. Even when it does, some parts of Afghanistan will almost surely remain in Taliban hands. At the same time, Afghans are also finding it hard to flee to neighboring Pakistan and Iran in hopes of getting food.

Some officials of food aid groups have called for a halt in the bombing while winter food supplies are brought in. But that would delay the real solution to the crisis—a new Afghan government. The Bush administration needs a vigorous plan to provide famine relief even as it continues the bombing.

First, the American military food drops should immediately increase by several times over. There is no reason that daily deliveries should be limited to what fits inside two C-17 military planes.

Second, in the parts of Afghanistan safe for landing planes, the United States and its coalition partners should begin to deliver large quantities of food and other necessities in a Berlin-airlift style operation—and do it now, while the weather is still good. These deliveries could be made in areas controlled by Northern Alliance forces and by tribal leaders in other regions of Afghanistan who agree to join the resistance coalition.

Third, Washington needs to begin preparations for creating safe havens within Afghanistan. Displaced people within the country will need secure areas where they can receive food and shelter. Depending on the course of the civil war, such zones might have to be protected in coming weeks by several thousand ground troops from various countries, including the United States.

These measures may sound extreme. But they are well within our capabilities and pose only modest additional risks to our forces. If the alternative is to risk a winter of humanitarian catastrophe within Afghanistan, we really have no choice