SCMP Saturday, September 29, 2001

A new crisis unfolds

What the United Nations has described as the world's worst humanitarian crisis is brewing in Afghanistan. Nearly 1.5 million Afghans are on the move, trying to get out of their country into Pakistan, Iran and neighbouring central Asian countries. Pakistan has already sealed its border with Afghanistan, and other neighbours are likely to do the same under the pressure of increasing numbers of refugees.
Those who do not get out of Afghanistan face a long winter of starvation. Aid agencies estimate that up to eight million people will require food aid this winter if they are not to starve. There are reports of starving people arriving at refugee camps.
The war against the Taleban has not caused this crisis - several decades of war and a prolonged drought had already pushed the country to the brink of disaster. But the prospect of a US-led attack has aggravated the disaster.
The United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, has launched an appeal for a US$584 million fund to provide emergency aid for refugees as well as food for those who remain trapped in Afghanistan. It is hoped that the countries who have lined up in the coalition to fight terrorism will be equally enthusiastic about donating funds to avert mass starvation in Afghanistan.
Britain's Tony Blair has struck the right note by calling for a "humanitarian coalition" to aid the Afghan people. Such a coalition bringing together aid agencies, governments and the United Nations will be required to rebuild Afghanistan.
This international effort will have to go on for much longer than the effort to capture Osama bin Laden. The danger is that if and when bin Laden is captured, the world will forget Afghanistan. This is precisely what has happened earlier. When Afghanistan had a Soviet-backed government during the Cold War, there was no shortage of Western resources to fight the regime. But once the pro-Soviet government was toppled, America and the West walked away from a war-ravaged nation.
This time around, the same thing cannot be allowed to happen again. The attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon were tragic events. But an even greater tragedy will unfold if the world walks away from Afghanistan.