Aid officials meeting in Washington have stressed the need for improved security in Afghanistan, saying looting and fighting in places vacated by the hardline Taleban are hampering efforts to deliver badly needed food. They spoke during a conference organized by the U.S. Institute for Peace looking at ways to boost the humanitarian aid response for Afghanistan. Their calls for increased security came as U.S. officials voiced opposition to any immediate plans for a multi-national peacekeeping force in Afghanistan.
The panelists say their main concern is the security situation in Afghanistan, which they say is keeping food out of the mouths of needy Afghans.
Kenneth Bacon, President of the U.S. based Refugees International, says the situation has gotten worse since the hard-line Taleban gave up much of the country under pressure from the Northern Alliance and U.S. bombing.
"It's grave in Mazar-e-Sharif, it's grave in Jalalabad," he said. "There are other areas where people are just not getting the food into the villages and are therefore not getting fed even though large amounts of food are coming in to the country."
The U.N. World Food Program and other groups have been trucking thousands of tons of food and other supplies into Afghanistan. But officials say looting by armed bandits and factional fighting in territory controlled by the Northern Alliance is hampering efforts to distribute the supplies.
Mr. Bacon says a multinational force is badly needed to keep the peace and allow aid workers to do their jobs.
"Refugees International and a number of other groups have been calling for over a week for the deployment of a peacekeeping or stabilization force into Afghanistan. We have no fantasy that this would be easy or immediately stabilize the situation - end crime, disorder and lawlessness. It would not do that," Mr. Bacon said. " But what it could do is establish some secure beachheads that then would allow aid workers to come back in."
But U.S. officials have voiced opposition to bringing in a multinational force any time soon.
While U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stressed the urgent need for stability and security Friday, he said the Pentagon prefers forces made up of local soldiers - not international ones.
The White House says the main focus for now is winning the war against terrorism, and Mr. Rumsfeld acknowledged the Pentagon has concerns that a multi-national force could interfere with its ongoing military operations.
Several foreign countries have already offered peacekeepers for the effort, though U.N. officials say they have not yet decided who should make up a peacekeeping force.
There is certainly a consensus that there needs to be peace and order in order for the distribution of food," said Catherine Bertini, who heads the UN World Food Program. " How that is going to be accomplished is still being discussed."
But U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has, in the past, sounded doubts about whether an indigenous force would be able to keep the peace before a workable government is set up.
Afghanistan's immediate food needs were also highlighted Friday by a report from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. It singles out Afghanistan, saying more than seven-million people there are in need of immediate food assistance.
Andrew Natsios, of the U.S. Agency for International Development, says aid efforts also need to focus on long-term reconstruction, especially in agriculture.
"They are capable of producing the food. Eighty percent of the people in Afghanistan are either herders or sedentary agriculturalists - they are farmers," he explained. "Unless we get the agricultural system moving, we will have people without jobs. We need to get them back to work so they can feed themselves."
Citing the FAO report, he says there is an urgent need for hundreds of thousands of tons of seeds and other agricultural aid.
He says helping Afghan farmers become productive again will also ease the security situation. It will lessen the need for trucking such huge amounts of food aid around the country - a situation he says makes it tempting for looters and is, what he calls, "an invitation for insecurity."