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Humanitarian Work Progressing in Afghanistan

By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 19, 2002 – When coalition forces ousted the Taliban from Afghanistan last year, U.S. officials estimated up to 8 million Afghans were in danger of starving or freezing to death.

"Thank goodness, very little of that happened," largely because of humanitarian efforts by the American and other governments and international aid organizations, a senior Defense Department official said in the Pentagon today.

Much of the immediate potential for humanitarian disaster has passed, and much of the country is more secure than it's been in decades. Now, the official said, the focus of coalition operations in Afghanistan is ready to shift from combat to what's being called "stability operations."

Joseph Collins, deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations, told reporters that at the end of the war with the Taliban one year ago, Afghanistan was "an exhausted nation on the brink of a humanitarian disaster."

He noted one in four Afghan children don't live to see their fifth birthday, and he compared being a mother in Afghanistan to "being a front-line soldier in severe combat -- so many of them die."

Still, Collins said, he doesn't think it's fair to compare Afghanistan to many other parts of the world. Instead, it's important to measure progress there against what the country was like before coalition forces liberated it.

He called the Taliban "one of the most ignorant, repressive and ineffective governments ever to rule a country on the Earth." Afghanistan was also a "wholly owned subsidiary of the al Qaeda terrorist movement."

"It was a quintessential failed state," he said. Today, Afghanistan has a democratically elected president, chosen through the traditional loya jirga, or tribal council, process.

President Hamid Karzai and his advisers are working, with international assistance, to change the currency, modernize the laws and reconstruct the country's infrastructure.

International aid, stymied at the outset, is now flowing into the country, Collins said. Early this year, 65 nations pledged $6.5 billion in aid, $2 billion of which was to be for use in 2002. Nearly all the $2 billion has been spent already or is on the way, earmarked for specific projects, he said.

The U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration have overseen some tremendous progress, Collins said. He noted they've been responsible for the construction or repair of 600 schools and the donation of 10 million textbooks, 7,000 metric tons of seed, and $200 million in aid to refugees.

Military civil affairs assets have had a hand in another 127 schools, 400 wells and 26 medical clinics. Collins said a top priority in the coming year will be constructing a series of maternal health clinics throughout the country.

He added that 150 international aid agencies and six separate U.N. organizations assisted in all these humanitarian efforts.

Of the 33 provinces in Afghanistan, 26 exhibit "moderate to good security," Collins said. However, "major problem areas" still exist in some east, southeast and urban areas.

Particularly vexing, the terrorists and anti-government forces aren't working in groups. They're "appearing in ones and twos to work their evil," he said.

Collins said U.S. and other coalition forces are coordinating closely with the International Security Assistance Force maintaining security in and around Kabul and working to train and equip a multiethnic Afghan national army.

In early 2003, as part of the transition to stability operations, the United States will be deploying eight to 10 joint regional teams throughout the country. The teams will be commanded by a field-grade officer and consist of about 60 people, including Special Forces, civil affairs, State Department and USAID representatives, and individuals from other coalition militaries, Collins explained.

He said U.S. officials hope these teams will help Karzai reach out to more of the country, increase stability and help target reconstruction funds.

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