GENEVA -- From the start, the United States has tried to present the military
offensive in Afghanistan as a move not simply to punish the Taliban but to
liberate the Afghan people from the Taliban's repressive regime. Secretary of
Defense Donald Rumsfeld repeatedly said the United States was parachuting
humanitarian aid to the oppressed.
It did not take long for one of the world's most prestigious aid
organizations, Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), to level
sharp criticism at the U.S. air drops. Jean-Herve Bradol, president of the
organization, speaking from Islamabad, deplored what he called "PR," focusing
his criticism on three main points.
First, he said, airdrops are a huge waste of money. The packages,
containing enough to feed an adult for a day, land all over the place, with no
guarantee that any, or even most, will be retrieved.
And 37,500 rations per night are mere drops in the bucket in a country
where 7 or 8 million are starving. The money ($25 million for the duration of
the bombing, according to U.S. government sources) would be better spent
provisioning the regular aid convoys already in action.
Second, since Afghanistan is one of the most mined countries in the world,
haphazard drops like these, if noticed by the local population, could easily
lure people into mine fields.
Finally, Bradol's main grievance is that much of the local population will
associate -- reasonably -- the planes dropping the food with the planes
dropping the bombs. According to Bradol, there is already a strong tendency on
the part of many people in the region to lump together all Westerners,
regardless of why they are there. From that, it is just one short step to
associating all international aid staff with the newly arrived military. "We
do not," he stated emphatically, "want to be confused with people conducting a
The Swiss-based humanitarian group, Terre des Hommes, has condemned the
airdrops point-blank as "dangerous and badly targeted," calling instead for
the opening of a humanitarian corridor to avoid what they denounce as "the
deliberate confusion between military operations and humanitarian aid."
Last May, when the various international aid agencies operating in the
field under United Nations auspices launched an international appeal for
Afghanistan, "a forgotten country and a forgotten people caught up in a
forgotten war," nobody was interested. With almost no response to the appeal,
aid agencies had to borrow from their own budgets to keep the help coming.
And last November, in a speech before an international symposium, U.N.
Secretary General Kofi Annan touched on this subject. Admitting that military
intervention might be undertaken for humanitarian motives, he said, "Such
military intervention should not, however, in my view, be confused with
Annan recounted an experience during the war in Kosovo, when NATO troops
had become much engaged in relief activities: Cornelio Sommaruga, then head of
the International Red Cross, came to him, furious, saying, "You have to do
something. You have to tell NATO to respect the line. They are taking our
space, and we cannot create confusion and give the impression that the same
people who are bringing the bombs are bringing the bread."
While U.N. aid agencies operating in the region are silent for the time
being, there has been much behind-the-scenes discussion about the U.S.
airdrops, and one highly placed U.N. agency official decried them as "a
publicity stunt." It remains a delicate subject, however. With U.S. military
action dominating the scene, an aid agency voicing overt criticism of the
United States risks being sidelined and severely handicapped in its efforts.
Nonetheless, the fear that aid agencies could become easy targets for those
who see them as part of the war machine is apparently not unfounded. Following
the first night's bombing, the headquarters of the U.N. High Commissioner for
Refugees in Quetta, Pakistan, near the Afghan border, was pelted with stones
from outside its surrounding wall, while the office of UNICEF (the U.N.
Children's Fund), with no wall around it, was torched.
The Red Cross's Sommaruga, in his remonstration to Annan, put it this way:
"Ours is the bread, let them focus on the fighting or whatever they are there
Robert James Parsons is a Geneva-based journalist writing on international issues for the Geneva daily Le Courrier.
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle