The Washington Post Column

The Forgotten Famine

Three guesses which country the United Nations now reckons to contain the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. No, not Somalia; not Rwanda; not Mozambique. In fact, because of war, displacement, and two decades of chaos, the poverty of Afghanistan is so difficult to measure that the Afghan GNP frequently appears on lists as “not available.” The World Bank has no operations there; the U.N. High Commission for Refugees considers Afghans to be the largest group of refugees in the world—for the 19th year running. It counts 1.2 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, 1.3 million in Iran, and many thousands more around the world, (including, oddly, Washington D.C., where large numbers of sad-eyed Afghans drive taxis out to Dulles Airport). More refugees, perhaps another half-million, are pouring into new camps within the country: One U.N. camp near Herat is said to be receiving 1,500 people every day. Having abandoned their farms, eaten what remained of their resources, and watched their sheep and cattle die for lack of water, they have nothing to return to either.

War and politics have compounded a natural crisis: Afghanistan is now experiencing a second year of drought and may be on the brink of a terrible famine. The World Food Program thinks the drought has severely hit 4 million people in the country: Kenzo Oshima, the U.N. undersecretary-general in charge of humanitarian affairs, has said that 1 million are at risk. The numbers vary widely because no one actually knows what is happening in the interior of the country, where refugees report that they were surviving on boiled grass.
Now, it is not quite fair to say that this crisis has gone unreported: Yesterday, as the new U.N. commissioner for refugees began his first visit there, the story appeared, among other places, on the BBC world news Web site. Both the Washington Post and the New York Times have written recently about aspects of the crisis, including the state of the infamous Jalozai refugee camp, where 80,000 Afghans, many opponents of the fundamentalist Taliban, are crammed into a dried-out Pakistani riverbed without much food or sympathy from the Pakistani government.

And yet—articles appearing in the press are not always a good measure of public knowledge and interest. On the contrary, I have a sneaking suspicion that the world’s attention was far more riveted by the Taliban’s recent decision to destroy a group of famous Buddhist statues. I also have a sneaking suspicion that this is because, among other things, the destruction of the Buddhist statues—while undoubtedly a shocking thing to do—also made for more interesting television than yet more pictures of human misery. Thanks to 24-hour international TV, we all have crisis fatigue. In a world where so many seem to be suffering on the evening news, the fate of a group of statues can suddenly seem novel and arresting.

Worse, there is an alternative and, although it isn’t a secret either, it barely figures in the collective consciousness. Ahmed Shah Masoud continues to command the Northern Alliance, the moderate Islamic group that is still fighting against the Taliban in the north of the country. Masoud, who is far better known in Europe than in the United States, was recently in Paris, where his presence attracted 250 journalists, as well as in Strasbourg and Brussels. He was accompanied by Dr. Abdullah, the alliance’s foreign minister, who then went on to Vienna and Warsaw, where I happened to meet him and was struck by the modesty of his requests. The Northern Alliance is not so hubristic as to request Western military support, which, given the general distaste for fueling further fighting in the region, would probably not be forthcoming anyway. They would like, simply, more humanitarian aid—and for the general policy of Western (and particularly American) “neutrality” to shift in their favor. They are confident that even small shows of support would be enough to swing the country behind them and against the Taliban whom, they claim, are increasingly hated.

It isn’t much to ask, given that, if the Afghan famine is the world’s most invisible disaster, the U.S. government’s activities in Afghanistan over the past decade probably represent the world’s most invisible policy failure. In the wake of the Soviet withdrawal from the country, the United States almost immediately lost interest in Afghanistan, relying for the most part on its Pakistani allies to decide which of the many warring factions deserved outside support. For reasons of their own, the Pakistanis chose the Taliban (or probably, though they deny it, created the Taliban), who now control 90 percent of the country. Under their regime, not only have Buddhist statues been destroyed and, almost as infamously, women been forbidden to uncover their faces in public, but international terrorists—Osama Bin Laden, for example—have found refuge, and the economy has ground to a halt.

Reportedly, the Bush administration is considering changing this policy, but, needless to say, Afghanistan isn’t a top foreign policy priority. Here are the actions taken so far: Last February, the American government demanded that the Taliban close its representative office in New York. The Taliban responded by closing a U.N. office in Kabul. That’s all. If we are serious about fighting international terrorism, which we claim to be—and if we can still be bothered to remember who it was, really, that helped us win the Cold War—we should have the courage to do more.