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US: Afghan Food Drops Needed Until Wider Aid Program Is In Place

U.S. and relief officials briefed U.S. lawmakers on the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. Their testimony at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Wednesday came three days after U.S.- led air strikes began against suspected terrorist camps and Taleban military installations.

The United States began air-dropping food rations into Afghanistan on the day the air strikes began.

A U.S. official says the rations, which are expected to feed only a fraction of those estimated to be in danger of serious hunger, are meant as a stopgap measure until a more substantial effort can be arranged.

Andrew Natsios, the head of the Agency for International Development, described a desperate situation in Afghanistan. "There are 1.5 million Afghans who are seriously at risk of starvation this winter, and there are another five to seven million Afghans facing critical food shortages, and they are partially or fully dependent on outside assistance for their survival."

But the U.S. food drop operation came under criticism from one relief official at the hearing. Nicolas de Torrente, executive director of the U.S. office of the relief group Doctors without Borders, said air drops are ineffective and potentially dangerous. His biggest concern is that the operation is being conducted by the U.S. military.

Mr. Torrente argued it is important to clearly separate what he called "humanitarian and military agendas." "If aid is not perceived to be entirely neutral and independent of political objectives, it can be claimed by one or both sides as part of the war effort," he said. "And aid workers can then be targets of war. When aid is delivered by military actors, it becomes increasingly difficult to convince armed factions on the ground of the impartial objectives of western organizations in these very volatile and politically-charged environments."

But Ken Bacon, president of Refugees International, said the U.S. air drops were helpful, though not sufficient. He estimated that 50,000 metric tons of food aid will be needed each month.

"To be successful in meeting humanitarian needs, the United States must work with the United Nations in neighboring countries to resume significant food deliveries to Afghanistan over land," said Mr. Bacon. "Refugees International recommends a strategy of flooding the country with food by the most efficient and effective means available. Cross-border shipping by truck from Pakistan, Iran, and the former Soviet republics in the north offer the best possibility to transport the maximum amount of food to areas with concentrations of vulnerable people. This effort needs to begin at once, as winter weather, especially in the north, will impair road transport."

On a positive note, AID'S Andrew Natsios said the U.N. World Food Program, which had suspended its operations in Afghanistan after the start of the air strikes, resumed deliveries Wednesday. He said the U.N. agency sent truck convoys with 3,300 metric tons of food from Iran, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan.

For his part, Committee chairman Joe Biden, a Democrat from Delaware, is proposing an international reconstruction aid package for Afghanistan after the military action is over. "One of the things we can do with the rest of the world," he said, "is to see to it that there is secular education, we can be involved extensively in demining operations, we can be involved in crop substitution for narcotics because they are the world's foremost producer of opium, and basic infrastructure projects like wells, water purification and hospitals, village hospitals." He estimated the cost of such a plan to be in the billions of dollars.