Bombs and bread

IT WOULD seem a difficult policy to object to. President George Bush has made it plain that America's quarrel is not with the Afghan people, but with the Taliban regime and Osama bin Laden. As proof of American intentions, American planes have not only been dropping bombs on carefully selected targets, but also dropping food and medicine. But is this such a wise move? Not everyone thinks so. Charities such as Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF), Oxfam and Christian Aid have criticised the "bombs and bread" strategy because they argue that it will make aid seem like a weapon, and fatally compromise the independence and credibility of aid organisations. Dr Jean-Herve Bradol, a spokesman for MSF in Pakistan, described the "humanitarian" part of the American campaign as "purely a propaganda tool". Delivering aid in its wake will be more difficult. Moreover, the amount of food being parachuted into Afghanistan from American warplanes is tiny, relative to the scale of the looming famine. So far 75,000 ration-bags have been dropped. Each contained enough food for one person for one day. Given that there are at least 5m Afghans needing food aid, this is not much. What is more, food dropped in the dark from several thousand feet is quite likely to fall on an empty mountainside far from where the people who need it actually are. Afghanistan is so rugged and roadless that even if its hungry citizens knew exactly where the food parcels had landed, the long walk to pick them up could burn up more calories than the parcels contain. Meanwhile, the air strikes forced aid agencies to stop delivering much larger quantities of food. Donor countries pledged $737m in aid to Afghans, substantially more than the $584m that Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, had appealed for. But the money has not all reached UN accounts, and delivering aid in Afghanistan is for now extremely tricky. The World Food Programme re-started sending food-truck convoys to Kabul on October 9th, but it is not clear how the supplies will be distributed around the countryside. Afghanistan was among the world's most miserable countries even before the missiles began to explode. Now it faces a calamity of unknown but certainly vast proportions. Thousands have fled the cities where American bombs have landed. Those who stayed behind did so largely because they had decided that there was nowhere better to go. After three years of drought, the Afghan countryside is barren and food is scarce. The roads to the country's borders, and relative safety, are rugged, uneven and blocked by armed bandits or Taliban checkpoints, which are difficult to tell apart. The American bombing campaign did not create the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, although it is exacerbating it. Before the American attacks, neighbouring countries feared an influx of 1.5m refugees, and the number of Afghans needing aid to survive was expected to increase from 5m to 7.5m. Afghans who make it across the closed borders to refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran will be fed and sheltered, although perhaps not adequately. Those who remain in Afghanistan will be hard to reach for some time. Relief work has long been dangerous in areas controlled by the Taliban: eight foreign aid workers were arrested in August on charges of preaching Christianity, an offence which could carry the death penalty. The Bush administration is not relying solely on drops of food and medicine -which it may itself see primarily as a propaganda gesture. USAID, the American government-backed aid organisation, has suggested tie-ups with Islamic and other charities, and the supplying of local merchants with large quantities of bread and milk. Driven by the desire to make money, merchants should be able to deliver food further, faster and into more dangerous areas than bureaucratic aid agencies. Even before it incurred the wrath of the world's only superpower, Afghanistan regularly came at or near the bottom of the UN's "human development index" -a measure of how well-fed, well-educated, healthy, wealthy and unbattered by bombs and bullets the world's nations are. Some of Afghanistan's woes have natural causes: the recent drought wiped out two-thirds of the wheat crop in the north of the country and three-quarters of the livestock, causing 500,000 people to abandon their homes in search of food. This natural calamity would have been less lethal, however, if Afghanistan had been peaceful and well governed. Unfortunately, it is neither. With occasional lulls, the country has been embroiled in various civil wars for longer than most of its 23m people can remember. Since 1973, 1m Afghans have died violently, some while fighting invaders from the Soviet Union, some while fighting other Afghans, the remainder during massacres of civilians. Perhaps 6m landmines lurk beneath Afghan soil. In the past decade, roughly 70,000 people have stepped on them while herding goats or fleeing to neighbouring countries, mainly Pakistan and Iran, where 3.5m Afghans had sought refuge before the current crisis. Afghanistan was badly and brutally governed by Soviet puppets in the 1980s and early 1990s. Since 1996, when the Taliban completed their seizure of power, life for most Afghans has grown worse. Many welcomed the Taliban (literally: "religious students") when they marched on the capital, Kabul, promising to restore order to a land wracked by banditry. But the Taliban's idea of order involved agonising penalties for anything they saw as un-Islamic. Men who shave are whipped. Women who fail to cover every inch of flesh are beaten. Thieves have their hands or feet cut off. Fornicators are stoned to death. Taliban theorists have debated whether the proper punishment for homosexuals is to bulldoze a wall over them or to bury them alive. Non-Muslims must wear yellow patches to help the faithful avoid them. Muslims who fail to attend mosque regularly risk arrest. At least, this was how the Taliban behaved when not under any immediate threat of being toppled. Now that the danger is obvious, they may grow even more brutal. Even before the Americans attacked, the Taliban were breaking down doors, hauling young men out from under their beds at gunpoint in the middle of the night and forcing them to join their rag-tag army. Those who refuse to join the jihad can expect to be killed, as has happened in the past. Ethnic Uzbeks in Samangan province have been slaughtered for refusing to be conscripted. Ethnic Tajiks living north of Kabul have had their homes and crops burned on the assumption that they probably support the Northern Alliance, a largely Tajik group of rebels. The events of September 11th have already hurt far more people than the 6,000 or so who died in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. The World Bank predicted that the terrorist attacks on America would slow economic growth in developing countries and so condemn an extra 10m people to live in poverty next year. The consequences for Afghanistan of hosting the man behind the attack on America are harder to predict. The Taliban's ouster would remove a ghastly burden from Afghan shoulders, especially if a quick American victory were followed by a much larger inflow of aid. So far, the Americans have met negligible resistance, but this is perhaps not surprising given that they have attacked only from the air. When and if ground troops are deployed, the going could get tougher. If the battle drags on into the winter, hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of Afghans may starve. Shortly after the first missiles hit their targets, Mr Bush promised, in a televised address from the White House, that "the oppressed people of Afghanistan will know the generosity of America and our allies." With television banned and electricity rare and fitful, not many Afghans heard him. But in any case, they, like the rest of the world, will judge Mr Bush by his actions, not his words.