Senior Bush administration officials say they're increasingly optimistic that large-scale hunger can be avoided in Afghanistan in the coming winter months. The flow of relief aid is expected to be greatly increased by the opening of a key river bridge linking Uzbekistan with northern Afghanistan.
The Bush administration officials say the pace of aid deliveries to Afghanistan has greatly increased in recent days with the collapse of Taleban control. And they say they think enough food can be delivered to avert famine in mountainous areas of the country that are likely to become snowbound in the next few weeks.
In a briefing for reporters here, the U.S. Agency for International Development said cross-border deliveries of food aid from the United States and other sources into Afghanistan have been running at nearly twice the 1,800 ton-per day target rate since the last week in November.
Shipments by barge from Uzbekistan and overland from Iran had lagged badly amid heavy fighting and U.S. bombing operations earlier in the month. But the director of the U.S. aid agency, Andrew Natsios, said he is now optimistic that famine can be avoided among seven million Afghans a third of the country's total population he said have been severely affected by warfare and drought.
Mr. Natsios attributed his optimism in large part to Uzbekistan's decision announced Saturday during a visit by Secretary of State Colin Powell to reopen the only bridge crossing the Amu Darya river into Afghanistan.
Uzbekistan had closed the span the Friendship Bridge in 1997 because of security concerns related to Afghan political unrest. Though the United States had long pressed for its re-opening, Mr. Natsios said it was only late last week with the end of harassment of relief traffic in the area by escaping Taleban troops that Uzbek officials decided it was safe to proceed. "After the fall of Kunduz and the collapse of Taleban and al-Quida, troops did escape. And they were attacking relief convoys that were coming down from the barges south from the bridge and the barge area down into Mazar," he says. "And so the government of Uzbekistan legitimately said well, wait a second, they're attacking your convoys. They're going get across the bridge if we open it up. So, it has not been until really basically last Thursday, that things calmed down enough that they were secure about those troops and the security situation along that road."
Uzbekistan allowed a trainload of food supplies to cross the bridge Sunday. Mr. Natsios said he hoped a second train laden with vehicles badly needed for distribution efforts by relief agencies would be able to cross on Tuesday after repairs to the trackbed.
The Bush administration has committed $320 million to Afghan food aid and refugee relief about half of which, Mr. Natsios said has already been spent.