The Rains Fail
By Clint Douglas
Today's New York Times contains a particularly disturbing piece about the drought in Afghanistan and the looming certainty of widespread famine throughout the country this winter. Given the more attention grabbing and violent headlines coming out of Afghanistan and Pakistan, I doubt that this unwelcome news will receive the urgent attention that it deserves. However, if we fail to ensure that the Afghans don't starve this winter, then the resulting chaos will doom our efforts there.
I deployed in Afghanistan in the winter of 2003, when the country was still relatively quiet. The Taliban were licking their wounds and the overwhelming superiority of American arms was fresh in the collective memory of the population. My first two months were spent in Kabul and I was afforded the opportunity to talk to many Afghans from varying ethnic backgrounds. When prodded about what had turned out to be a surprisingly fragile Taliban rule, they would offer varying assessments about its weakness, but all of them, in one circuitous way or another, would mention the drought.
When the Taliban took control over most of Afghanistan in 1996, the rains stopped. They didn't return until the Americans came in 2001. The entire rule of the Taliban, while it initially brought a measure of security, was also marked by widespread famine. The Taliban loudly proclaimed that they were God's representatives on earth. Mullah Omar even went so far as to don a sacred cloak that was said to belong to Mohammed himself, and was subsequently named Commander of the Faithful. And yet, the rains failed to cooperate. As the barren months grew to years, many people began to believe that the drought was the fault of the Taliban. A perception grew in the countryside that the Taliban did not, in fact, enjoy God's favor, but that they were being punished by heaven, my Afghan friends told me. This, compounded by the Taliban's hypocrisy and their draconian and capricious use of power, all helped to hollow out their support even before we invaded. The rains followed close on our heels and this contributed in no small way to the Afghan's early indulgence of our presence in their country. Causality is not so simple in a country where illiteracy and subsistence farming are the norm. Drought, famine, and death are yearly possibilities and people will grasp at any straw that might keep starvation at bay, even if only for another year.
The Afghans are remarkable farmers and among the best anywhere. I've seen sophisticated terracing and irrigation projects hewn out of solid rock and done so with nothing more than spades and pickaxes. And no, they were not all given over to the exclusive cultivation of poppies. They know how to feed themselves, but they will desperately need our help to survive the winter.
The specter of famine presents the United States with an opportunity to regain some of the goodwill that we've squandered these last years. Only our military has the organizational and logistical wherewithal to thwart widespread starvation. Our helicopter fleet has the ability to reach the isolated valleys once the snows cut them off from the rest of the world. We should also have the available troops once the fighting season slows down over the winter. But, we will only be able to pull this off if we plan for it now. That means planning, stockpiling food, and shifting heavy-lift helicopter assets. Most importantly, the U.S. military and the Afghan government must take the lead on this and not pass the responsibility onto the various NGOs operating throughout the country. An effective effort might even have to rival the Berlin Airlift, but look at the enduring goodwill that it bought us in Germany. The airlift did at least as much to thwart the spread of communism in Europe as anything else. We might just enable a shift in Afghan attitudes toward our occupation of their country, a mindset of, "You can say what you want about the Americans and the Karzai government, but at least they didn't let my family starve." This could go a long way towards ensuring the success of our efforts in Afghanistan. But we must act now. There is no more time.
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