BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 04.11.01

Film: TERRY DIGNAN Reports on how much aid is needed inside Afghanistan and how much is actually getting to those who need it.

TERRY DIGNAN: In Afghanistan thousands are fleeing to refugee camps. Few people have suffered more than these. The Afghans have had to cope with civil war, drought and a regime shunned by the outside world. Now, as the United States bombs the Taliban, Afghans are on the move, frightened and hungry. While many in Britain argue against any let-up in the bombing, others warn there's an urgent need to re-think the strategy: GLENYS KINNOCK MEP: The humanitarian crisis is clearly very serious and I think reaching disaster proportions both inside Afghanistan and on the border areas and, of course, that is exacerbated by the prospect of the winter months and the difficulties that that would entail in terms of being able to deliver the amounts of food that would be needed. MAJOR ERIC JOYCE MP: Stopping the bombing now would enable the al-Qaeda and bin Laden to regroup and the Taliban to regroup and that would have obvious implications for the medium to long term, for the people of Afghanistan and for indeed the people of the developed nations who may be attacked by them. DIGNAN: This Birmingham-based charity is buying food for Afghanistan, thanks partly to money raised from selling donated clothes. Before September the eleventh more than five million Afghans relied on the United Nations' World Food Programme. Islamic Relief staff in Afghanistan report the numbers needing aid are growing. Many people are trying to escape the bombing even though they have little food to sustain them. SAKANDAR ALI: There's been a, a massive population movement out of the cities. There is no communication systems in Kandahar city. Again there is no electricity or running water. And generally people are fleeing. People are afraid, people have seen death. DIGNAN: Aid agencies like Islamic Relief argue that millions of Afghans face disease and starvation because supplies of food have been disrupted by the bombing campaign. Those living in remote mountainous areas are said to be most at risk - in just two weeks time the winter snows could cut them off from the outside world. All this is testing the Government's resolve over its support for the bombing campaign ALI: Potentially, most of them will not have enough, because if at the moment we are only sending in nineteen per cent of what's actually needed, even if we multiply that, it's certainly still not going to be enough. DOMINIC NUTT: The bombing and the military campaign following the September eleventh atrocity has exacerbated the situation hugely. We cannot easily get lorries into the country to deliver food. DIGNAN: The World Food Programme says Afghanistan needs fifty-two thousand metric tonnes of food aid per month - that would have meant sending in about one-thousand, seven hundred tonnes per day in October. Our Government says progress is being made towards this target. During the week to the twenty-ninth of October, the World Food Programme dispatched a daily average of one-thousand, four-hundred and thirty tonnes. But according to Christian Aid, using Food Programme figures, the average delivery for the whole of October came to just seven-hundred-and-sixty-three tonnes per day. The charity claims that so great is the accumulated shortfall that in the next fortnight before winter sets in Afghanistan will need an average daily delivery of nine-thousand, seven-hundred-and-one tonnes. As freezing conditions approach, there's little hope of reaching this figure. KINNOCK: I've looked at the figures very carefully and seen what the World Food Programme and others are saying, and it does appear to me that although we are delivering food now, it doesn't seem to me that we can anticipate meeting the kind of targets that we would need to meet to get to the people particularly in the more remote areas. DIGNAN: The United Nations' is buying more trucks to carry aid into Afghanistan. But the biggest problem is distributing food to rural areas of the country. While our Government blames the Taliban, some non-governmental organisations - NGOs - blame the bombing. The UN's World Food Programme, which is responsible for getting most of the food into Afghanistan say it's far from easy operating in a country at war. CATHERINE BERTINI: First, we don't have any communications with our staff and, and we have a difficulty in reaching the staff in order to arrange, arrange programmes for delivery inside Afghanistan. Second we have very few vehicles inside Afghanistan, and that harms the delivery also. Third, our NGO partners have the same kind of communications problems and so without some improved communication we're, we are quite limited. NUTT: Eighty- five per cent of Afghans live in rural communities, often unconnected by roads or any, any form of communication. So it's very very difficult then to drive lorries at the best of times into the mountains on very, very sketchy mountain tracks when there, when there are bombs flying around, there's land mines around, planes flying overhead. DIGNAN: Time is running out says the World Food Programme because a hundred-thousand families living in remote mountainous areas of central and northern Afghanistan could be cut off when the snows come. The aid agencies say these highland regions need to stockpile thousands of sacks of food to see people through the winter. ALI: It must be utmost priority for us to ensure enough food stocks are sent in to take people through the winter months, because a lot of these areas will be cut off during the winter as a result of snow. NUTT: And from that moment on you can guess that there will be many villages where there's hunger. There will be starvation, there will be death and we might be looking at ghost villages come the spring. DIGNAN: The United States was much criticised for dropping food from aircraft. Yet the World Food Programme is now considering air drops. It's just about the most expensive way of providing aid - and there's no guarantee it will reach those who most need it. BERTINI: If I give you a bag of food I know it's getting to you but if I drop it from an airplane I, I do not know who is going to pick it up but I have to target the drops so that I'm reaching the areas where I know the people are most at risk. So it is not the first choice or even the third choice option. It's really the option when if nothing else works. DIGNAN: At Islamic Relief more piles of donated clothing are being sorted to raise money for Afghanistan. Some of these aid agencies are also pushing the demand for a let-up in the military campaign. Islamic Relief - and other charities active in Afghanistan like Oxfam and Christian Aid - want a pause in the bombing so that more food can be delivered. They believe public opinion is moving in their favour. Indeed, even amongst those in the Labour Party who support the war aims there are fears the bombing campaign is impeding the aid effort. KERRY POLLARD MP: I believe the bombing has to stop because we're coming up to Ramadan, we're coming up to the winter, there is not enough food in Afghanistan already and if the passes close down because of the winter, then no food can get in and people will starve. KINNOCK: If we don't provide some kind of period of safety then we won't get food to people and you will see, many people starving and, and facing enormous need in terrible circumstances in isolation and without any help from anyone. DIGNAN: But military experts believe the Taliban's fighting capability may have been badly hurt by the bombing campaign. So a pause might be to their advantage. AIR VICE-MARSHAL TONY MASON: A bombing pause would give the Taliban the opportunity to repair defences, to move reinforcements around, to re-supply, to repair air defences, perhaps to reconnect commander control communications, and it would also of course give the individuals or units of the Bin Laden organisation an opportunity to move around too, totally freely. Perhaps to escape, to go into different parts, to lose themselves in different parts of the country. DIGNAN: On Friday protestors gathered at the Department for International Development to plead with the Government to urge the United States to bring food, not bombs, to Afghanistan. The minister in charge here, Clare Short, says a pause in the bombing would be a grave error. Even though the UN now believes that the bombing is an impediment to supplying food, Clare Short insists the air campaign must continue. Indeed, she and others in the Labour Party argue that what the aid agencies, the NGOs, fail to recognise, is that defeating the Taliban is essential if the Afghan people are to have any hope for the future. JOYCE: The issue is whether or not the humanitarian aid in the medium to long-term would be aided and assisted by a cease to the bombing campaign. I don't believe it would be and I think the position of the, some of the NGOs is very short-sighted and may reflect their own interest rather than the humanitarian interest of the people of Afghanistan. DIGNAN: The World Food Programme has just announced another rise in the amount of aid delivered to Afghanistan. And despite the fears of charities in this country it remains doggedly optimistic. But another problem is looming - a lack of cash. BERTINI: The current situation is that the World Food Programme is about sixty per cent resourced for the food for the next six months and it is critical that we receive additional assistance so that we can move, not only move food into the region but purchase food in the region so that we can get it there even more quickly. DIGNAN: With millions of Afghans needing food, a human catastrophe is in the making. Our Government believes it's in the long-term interests of Afghanistan's people to continue the bombing to defeat the Taliban. But ministers know that the coalition may be blamed if the threat of starvation becomes a reality.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.