May 1 2002

Afghan Famine On and Off the Screen

Aid workers mostly quoted when U.S. likes their message

During the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan, international aid workers were among the few non-governmental sources with access to real-time information about how the attacks were affecting the population. In their statements, they often painted a bleak view of civilian suffering. But their ability to garner coverage for their comments seemed to depend on how their message fit with the Bush administration’s propaganda efforts.

To keep a lid on dissent, Washington pressured U.N. agencies in the region to keep quiet about the impact of the bombing. “Whenever we spoke out–anytime we did comment on the way the war was impacting adversely on civilians–we tended to get into hot water,” says a senior U.N. official in Islamabad. “Like, ‘How did you know about this?’ Or sometimes Washington denied it or contradicted us.”

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added that it wasn’t only U.N. workers who were afraid to speak out. “Colleagues from other war zones have said that one of the more remarkable features of this crisis was the extent to which field staff–whether they were from NGOs [non-governmental organizations] or the U.N.–had arguments with and were in trouble with their headquarters. Because basically, the line was: The Taliban are bad, we’re getting rid of them. And any [information] which produced a different perspective was unacceptable.”

Yet on occasions when humanitarian officials did manage to defy Washington’s pressure to remain silent, the U.S. media tended to ignore what they had to say. One week into the bombing, the U.N.’s special rapporteur for food, Jean Ziegler, condemned “with the last ounce of energy” the Pentagon’s widely-criticized food drops (10/15/01). “It is totally catastrophic for humanitarian aid,” Ziegler said. These comments were largely ignored in U.S. news media; one of the few mentions of them was in a sarcastic Philadelphia Daily News item (10/16/01) headlined “The Pie Is Falling!”

Meanwhile on TV, the food drops won mostly rave reviews. CBS’s Tom Fenton reported on them (10/8/01) from a U.S. air base in Germany, where an enthusiastic serviceman told him: “Your adrenaline starts pumping, and you know you’re doing a good thing for your country–and you’re doing a good thing for the people down below you.” NBC‘s Kerry Sanders (10/13/01) was in Northern Afghanistan to witness a drop: “A welcome meal, says this man. And for this boy, the crackers much appreciated.” (ABC was alone among the networks in running a brief critical story on the drops–10/10/01.)

When Taliban soldiers seized a food warehouse in Kandahar, NBC’s Dana Lewis (9/25/01), reporting from Pakistan, announced that “food aid deliveries have been cut off by the Taliban. Now, sacks of wheat sent from America sit in a Pakistani warehouse while Afghan people go hungry.” In fact, the U.N. had halted deliveries from Pakistan two weeks earlier due to the threat of bombing.

A day after a carefully worded U.N. statement blamed drought, war, Taliban and Northern Alliance human rights abuses and “the present geopolitical crisis”–i.e., U.S. bombing threats–for leaving 5 million Afghan civilians with “a fragile grip on survival,” Lewis reported (9/25/01): “The U.N. is warning: The world will hold the Taliban responsible.”

On October 12, U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson urged Washington to halt the bombing to allow food aid into Afghanistan. With the exception of two passing mentions (e.g., San Francisco Chronicle, 10/18/01; New York Times, 10/16/01), her comments were ignored in the U.S. (When Robinson’s term as commissioner expired in March, it was reported that her decision not to run for a new term followed threats that Washington would block her renomination–Irish Times, 3/19/02).

But when the messages coming from U.N. officials were helpful to the public relations effort, they had little trouble getting heard. A few days after World Food Program chief Catherine Bertini declared last December that there was no longer a threat of famine in Afghanistan, the Washington Post (12/31/01) ran a front-page article–sourced mostly to World Food Program and USAID officials–headlined, “Massive Food Delivery Averts Afghan Famine.”

Other aid agencies were unwilling to go along with Bertini’s declaration of victory–and privately, some relief officials mutter pointedly that Bertini, a Republican, had been nominated to the U.N. post by Bush senior. Throughout the war, statements from her WFP headquarters had consistently been more sanguine about the humanitarian impact of the bombing than those from other agencies. And in a rare note of dissent, New York Times agriculture reporter Elizabeth Becker (1/4/02) observed that Bertini’s declaration happened to coincide with “a muscular propaganda campaign directed by the White House…focused on showing that the American air campaign has helped, not harmed, the Afghan people.” Nevertheless, most coverage echoed the Washington Post article: The Los Angeles Times editorial was “A Win Over Famine, Too” (1/6/02); the Houston Chronicle (1/7/02) had “New Year’s Good Message Is That Famine Averted.”

These declarations of victory arrived just in time for George Bush’s State of the Union address, whose opening passages declared that America had “saved a people from starvation” in Afghanistan Yet skeptical humanitarian experts viewed the “famine averted” stories as products of White House spin abetted by the WFP. Although the word is sometimes used loosely, for the WFP “famine” seemed to have a specific, rather limited meaning: “You don’t see Afghans in the major urban areas who are keeling over and dying,” explained Abby Spring, a WFP spokesperson (Montreal Gazette, 1/12/02).

Yet no one had been predicting such extreme conditions before September 11. The fear that hunger would spill over out of the countryside only arose with the threat of war. “It‘s not like there was a famine and we averted it,” says Roger Normand of the Center for Economic and Social Rights, who recently led a U.N.-sponsored humanitarian assessment in Afghanistan. “The only reason there was going to be a famine is if we were going to cause one. If the Taliban hadn‘t collapsed and if we had kept bombing and if the war went on through the winter, then there might have been a famine. But had we not bombed then there never would have been a famine in the first place.”

Thus the administration managed to present the military campaign as having reduced hunger in Afghanistan, when in reality the months of bombing–and, before that, threatened bombing–had severely hampered food deliveries. “There’s no question that the military campaign disrupted the food supply network,” Normand says. “During the bombing, they weren’t even able to get food into the country, let alone distribute it into other areas. Once the Taliban collapsed they were able to start shipping large amounts–tons and tons–into Kabul and Heart and so on. But it hasn’t gone out into the countryside. They don’t have the networks that they used to have, and a lot of those areas are now insecure. There’s much more looting and more problems with food supply than there were under the Taliban.”

It was only months later that private relief agencies began to reach isolated Afghan villages to assess the extent of the hunger. What they found ran counter to the prevailing news coverage–but attracted little attention. In April, humanitarian workers from Christian Aid reached the drought-stricken village of Khajagan in western Afghanistan, where they interviewed a woman whose three children were on the verge of dying from hunger (press release, 4/2/02). Her dwindling supply of “rice and split peas came from a Red Cross distribution in the days after September 11, as international aid workers prepared to leave the country. There has been nothing since,” the group reported.

“The interruption of the bulk of humanitarian aid during the fourth quarter of 2001 caused a serious shortage situation for the most fragile individuals,” according to the French aid group Solidarites. Doctors with the group Action Against Hunger reached Afghanistan’s western Ghor province in March and found 40 people had died in one small district over the previous two weeks, mostly from scurvy caused by a lack of vitamin C. Doctors Without Borders reported a doubling of the mortality rate in northern Faryab province. And in the northern district of Zareh, Action by Churches Together found half the children under 5 were malnourished. “It was a world away from official pronouncements about ‘famine averted’ in Afghanistan,” ACT reported.

“A merciful war”

In February, the administration’s humanitarian theme was taken up by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (2/1/02), in a column titled “A Merciful War.” Kristof argued that despite the war’s Afghan death toll–which the columnist estimated to be in the thousands–it would end up saving more lives than it cost. He pointed to UNICEF’s new measles immunization campaign in Afghanistan, which began six weeks after the Taliban’s fall, and was expected to save tens of thousands of lives. “There was no way to save those lives under the Taliban,” he wrote. “Indeed, international organizations were retreating from Afghanistan even before 9/11 because of the arrests of Christian aid workers. But now aid is pouring in and lives are being saved on an enormous scale.”

Kristof failed to mention that in November, at the height of the U.S. bombing, 5 million Afghan children had been immunized against polio by UNICEF. The Taliban and Northern Alliance observed a three-day cease-fire and the Taliban mobilized 32,000 Afghan volunteers to help, winning praise from UNICEF for “the continued commitment to polio eradication by Afghan health authorities and the Afghan people.” (Measles vaccines for measles had also been administered sporadically under the Taliban, but, due to a lack of funds, UNICEF had never been able to launch a nationwide campaign.)

The only party that declined to respect the November cease-fire was the United States, whose refusal to carry out a pause in the bombing reportedly led UNICEF to consider calling off the campaign. If Kristof was unaware of the polio campaign, perhaps it was because his paper never reported on it. With the exception of a few newspaper wire squibs and profiles of hometown UNICEF volunteers, the story was completely ignored in the U.S. press.

Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.