For 20 years, I have traveled the world, first as a U.N. relief worker and now as a human-rights activist. I've witnessed famine in Africa and visited burned-out villages in Central America. I have seen people dying of starvation and people dying from the wounds of war.
But having just returned from Afghanistan, I now believe that few places are as absolutely horrific. Twenty-three years of war, coupled with three years of severe drought, have left a destitute and traumatized population.
The U.S. bombing campaign, while helping to defeat the oppressive Taliban regime, has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in two ways.
First, hundreds of thousands of people, terrified by the bombs, have fled their villages and swelled the ranks of the refugee population. Second, before the Oct. 7 air attack, millions of Afghans were receiving international assistance despite the difficulties of working with the Taliban. But after the bombing began, humanitarian agencies pulled their staff from the country and closed, or severely curtailed, their operations.
The United States has a tremendous responsibility to do everything it can to stem the starvation facing hundreds of thousands of Afghans. The U.S. should support an international peacekeeping force that will establish a measure of stability and help get food to those in need.
Today, the conditions in the refugee camps in Afghanistan are shocking. There is a widespread shortage of food, blankets and tents. Many children have no warm clothing or even shoes and socks. And with no toilets and no clean drinking water, hygiene is abysmal, and dysentery is spreading.
People are dying every day from cold and starvation, which will only get worse during the bitter winter. Graveyards are springing up next to the camps, attesting to the alarming human conditions.
In parts of the country where the fighting has stopped, humanitarian agencies are trying to resume operations. The opening of the Friendship Bridge on the Uzbekistan-Afghan border is welcome news, allowing thousands of tons of food and other supplies to enter the northern part of the country.
But provisions will not get to those who need them unless the roads are secure. Right now, roving bands of fighters or bandits regularly commandeer food convoys, taking the supplies to feed troops, to feed their families or to sell on the market. With many men owning a Kalashnikov, looting and sudden eruptions of violence are so common that truck drivers and aid workers risk their lives to deliver assistance to those who need it most.
And while the Northern Alliance says that it can secure the roads without outside forces, its record, to date, is not promising.
All of the aid groups I talked to in Afghanistan say that unless an international force is sent in to secure the roads, Afghanistan will be the scene of a humanitarian crisis of horrific proportions.
The good news is that England, France, Turkey, Jordan, Bangladesh and Indonesia have all offered troops to carry out this mission. The bad news is that the Pentagon and the Northern Alliance are resisting the introduction of such a force.
Why? The Northern Alliance reportedly thinks an international force would erode its power. It has reluctantly agreed to a small force in Kabul to guarantee the safety of the transition government, but not a force to secure humanitarian shipments.
The U.S. government opposes an international force because it fears that such a force could interfere with this effort to destroy al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden. If the international forces get in trouble, the rationale goes, the U.S. would feel compelled to bail them out, and this could detract from the main task.
The U.S. government's objection to a multinational force to get food to starving people is both morally wrong and strategically shortsighted.
Staving off mass starvation is not only the right thing to do for the Afghan people, it is also in our self interest. If the Muslim world sees the U.S. as willing to bomb but not feed people, it will deepen the suspicion and mistrust already felt by millions.
In the long run, ignoring the life-and-death needs of poor Afghans will set back the larger campaign against terrorism.