Last winter killed between 1,300 and 1,700 Afghans through hunger and exposure. Similar conditions, combined with a dry summer, failing crops and increases in international food prices, are setting the stage for a similar or worse disaster this winter, warns a British defense think tank.
In addition to the risk of an acute famine, perhaps a third of the Afghani population is facing food insecurity. While isolated regions of the country are closed off from road traffic by weather, snow and attacks by criminals and insurgents, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) reminds us of the massive Berlin Airlift sixty years ago, which also brought food to millions and had strategic results in addition to humanitarian ones. This year, the think tank suggests, could offer a similar opportunity for a much smaller cost.
The target: changing the Afghan view on air power and the use of military force. The suggested tool: the transport and distribution of 25,000 metric ton of foodstuffs into Afghanistan. Such a humanitarian airlift operation would also allow countries that so far have not committed troops to Afghanistan to participate through donations or transport assistance.
In another arena, the home front, RUSI sees the possibility of affecting the way the general public perceives the engagement in Afghanistan, especially in countries participating in the ISAF engagement. Showing how troops deployed in Afghanistan are aiding people could make it easier for governments to explain their continued commitment to ISAF and Operation "Enduring Freedom."
Of course there are other areas of the world that face famine and that should be aided as well. RUSI also acknowledges the need for long-term support to Afghan farmers, many of whom ironically have been hit especially hard by crop failure as a result of shifting away from growing opium poppy. However, the current Afghan government, facing presidential elections in September 2009, could become exceedingly vulnerable if it is seen as having failed to manage a predictable humanitarian catastrophe. Along with the government, the UN/ISAF missions will suffer a blow to their credibility if starvation hits Afghanistan.
There is, as of now, no signs of correlation between areas with starvation and with insurgency in Afghanistan. But as a spokesperson for the UN's Assistance Mission in Afghanistan stated in an interview with NATO Review, high food prices may end up making it more likely for young men to join anti-government groups such as the Taliban. This problem is compounded by the obvious fact that increased rebel activity makes the delivery of aid increasingly difficult.
Hence the proposed air bridge operation. The one who, during a possible winter famine, controls food supplies may well be the one who commands political trust and allegiance in the future. To win that for the Afghan government, a small version of the Candy Bomber operation on West Berlin seems to be affordable. And the consequences of not feeding the starving people are, according to RUSI, a greater threat to Afghan stability than even the insurgency.