November 6, 2001

November 6, 2001 | Commentary on

Afghanistan's Worst Enemy

Some humanitarian groups and leaders, including U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, are criticizing America's military strikes on the Taliban for hindering the delivery of humanitarian aid to the Afghan people.

But the biggest obstacle to helping the Afghans isn't the U.S. government. It's the Afghan government itself, the Taliban.

Critics of the military strikes may believe they have the best interests of the Afghan people in mind, but undermining the U.S. war effort won't help. Even Doctors Without Borders, a New York-based non-profit group that hardly can be described as pro-war, has pointed out that Afghans were suffering long before America began its war on Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda terrorist network and its biggest supporter, the Taliban.

In fact, even before Sept. 11, Afghans comprised the world's largest refugee population, with an estimated 4 million refugees abroad and hundreds of thousands of displaced people within Afghanistan's borders.

Blame for this lies squarely at the feet of the Taliban, not the United States. Prior to Sept. 11, America was the leading donor of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, giving some $174 million a year. (And on Oct. 4, we added another $320 million.)

This largesse might not have been necessary if the Taliban, when it took power in 1996, had managed to revive an economy marred by decades of communist rule. But it didn't. Worse, it backed repressive policies toward women and ethnic minorities that have isolated the country further.

Sadly, humanitarian aid alone can't solve the crisis in Afghanistan. It's a country (one roughly the size of Texas) that has been at war, in varying degrees, since 1978. Constant conflict, combined with a lack of stability, has wrecked its economy and infrastructure. Utilities are in ruins, leaving large parts of the country without electricity, potable water and telephone service. Manufacturing facilities and banks are virtually nonexistent.

Other indicators show just how miserable Afghanistan really is:

  • Annual per capita income fell 65 percent in less than 10 years -- from $200 in 1988 to $70 in 1997.
  • Afghanistan's estimated gross domestic product -- $1.55 billion in 1997 -- is smaller than that of Harris County, Texas (even though Afghanistan is home to at least five times as many people).
  • Exports fell more than 50 percent between 1990 and 1998, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, a London-based economic research group.

Despite all this, the Taliban intentionally blocks international aid efforts and harasses foreign relief workers. According to the Afghanistan Support Group, an organization of 14 European states as well as several large charities, the Taliban's religious police had created intolerable conditions for foreign humanitarian missions even before Sept. 11. There are numerous cases in which foreign members of such missions and their Afghan employees were intimidated and arrested. More recently, Taliban soldiers stole more than half the food intended for distribution to starving Afghans by the World Food Program.

Such conditions show why it is necessary for the United States to do more than simply distribute humanitarian aid. We must oust the Taliban as soon as possible -- and that means waging the war as vigorously as possible. A pause to deliver humanitarian aid may seem humane, but it actually would add to the misery already heaped on the Afghan people by the Taliban -- precisely because it would prolong that government's stay in power.

In the long run, replacing the Taliban regime with a government that respects human freedom is the most important humanitarian aid the United States and its allies can provide the Afghan people. Until then, the Afghan people's worst enemy is their government.

Brett D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham fellow in international regulatory affairs at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Brett D. Schaefer Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

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