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Briefing on U.S. Assistance to Afghanistan

On-The-Record Briefing on U.S. Assistance to Afghanistan


U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE Office of the Spokesman For Immediate Release December 10, 2001

On-The-Record Briefing

Administrator Of The Agency For International Development Andrew Natsios And Michael Mckinley, Deputy Assistant Secretary Of State For Population, Refugees And Migration On U.S. Assistance To Afghanistan

December 10, 2001 Washington, D.C.

1:20 p.m. EST

MR. REEKER: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome back to the State Department. As you know, we have been very involved in our humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan, and today we are pleased to have with us the Administrator of the US Agency for International Development, Andrew Natsios, as well as our Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, Michael McKinley, to discuss with you latest developments in that humanitarian effort, bring you up to date and take your questions.

So we will go directly to start with Andrew. Mr. Natsios.

MR. NATSIOS: Thank you very much. As you know, we are racing against time in getting food in because the winter months are upon us. In particular, we want to make sure the goals are reached by the end of December, which is just three weeks away, for the tonnages to be delivered to the Hazarajat, which is the central Alpine plain which -- and which there's about a million people who are seriously at risk. By the end of December, these areas will be -- likely, should the snow follow previous years -- will be inaccessible by ground. There will be the possibility, in fact the likelihood, of air drops in certain areas that are remote and inaccessible even now.

But it appears we are meeting those objectives. The objective is to get around 30,000 tons of food in, and WFP has now either got that much in-country, or the ship, the trucks are on the way, loaded with food, to achieve that 30,000 ton objective. So I think we are going to meet the Hazarajat goal of 30,000 tons.

Secondly, as I think I have shown before -- or maybe I've never shown this before; let me show it to you now -- we have been keeping, since the end of September, charts on food distribution. They look like this. There are two of them. One is cross-border, and the other is the secondary and tertiary distribution.

This is the movement by WFP of food from ports in Iran or Pakistan across the border into warehouses within Afghanistan. That is this first chart. You can see -- this period right here is during the height of the military offensive, where the Taliban was collapsing. So that two-week period here, you can see there was an interruption in the cross-border movement.

But then it picked way back up again. This line, this red line or pink line across here, represents the goal of WFP daily to get in about 1,800 tons of food. And you can see that we have been substantially exceeding that almost every day since the 27th of November, which is a very good sign. Almost 18,000 tons have been moved across the border this month into Afghanistan. So December is well on track. We did deliver the amount of food we had intended to deliver in November.

And the second is more -- is the concern many NGOs have had and UN agencies have had and the news media has been focused on is, yes, you have been getting the food inside, but you can't deliver it to people. That simply is not the case. There was again a disruption by the conflict, but beginning on the first of December, we began exceeding the daily requirement, in fact, in some cases doubling the daily requirement of secondary and tertiary distribution.

What does that mean? It means that the food is taken from the warehouses in the larger cities like Kabul and Jalalabad and Herat, less so Kandahar, because of the conflict there now. And then that food is moved from those regional warehouses to secondary warehouses in the highlands, and then from those warehouses, the tertiary distribution is done by the NGOs into people's homes in the villages and city neighborhoods.

What this shows is, since the 1st of December, we have been distributing the targeted amount of food to the villages, to people's homes. And so now all of the three links of the food aid distribution system is exceeding the goals we have set for it -- very ambitious goals, I might add. I didn't think we could do it, but we have done it -- the international community, the NGOs, WFP, the donors working together. So I am more optimistic now than any time during even November because we were not meeting our objectives during much of November in terms of the internal distribution of food.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. NATSIOS: I beg your pardon?

QUESTION: The objective was daily --

MR. NATSIOS: The objective is 55,000 tons a month, or 1,800 tons a day. I hope that adds up to 55,000 tons. It's supposed to.

And finally, I am sure you all know that on Sunday the first shipment of relief commodities moved across the rail bridge at Termez, a bridge I visited when I was there nearly a month ago. Colin Powell was the one who negotiated the final decision to open the bridge.

Another delivery was supposed to be made yesterday across the bridge and they found some areas that needed to be repaired on the rail and on the trucking route, because the bridge is both trucks and rails. And those are being repaired today and we hope tomorrow a second shipment will go across the bridge. The second shipment is already ready to go, and it's trucks, cars and jeeps, basically, that are needed on the other side of the river. The barge is continuing to move commodities across, so that has not stopped in spite of the fact that the bridge is open.

There are areas that are less well served. Obviously there is Kandahar, but Kandahar is not in the highland area. It is in the south. There are large stocks of food in Quetta in Pakistan, which is not too far from Kandahar. As soon as security will allow, that food will be moved in.

And a general distribution to nearly half of the population of Kabul began on Saturday and should be completed in the next three or four days. That will provide enough food aid for people to live for a month.

Food aid is getting up into the northeast and northwestern regions. There is some insecurity still in Mazar, which we continue to be concerned about, but food is beginning to move, along with relief commodities.

MR. McKINLEY: If I could just underscore what Andrew said about secondary distribution inside the country, if you look at some areas which were of concern just a few weeks ago, particularly northeastern Afghanistan, there is substantial improvement in relief prospects there, both in terms of the amount of goods coming in, but as you look there and elsewhere inside the country, the growing number of international NGOs and expatriates of the UN system were returning to work inside the country and reactivate the delivery systems that they had in place before they were thrown out. This is a very encouraging development. UNHCR, for example, is looking at opening in the five major cities of the country, as well as opening up to 22 field offices, and many other NGOs are looking at doing the same, if on a more modest scale.

In terms of a more general international approach to the relief and humanitarian operation, there continues to be a concerted effort to deal with both the humanitarian and reconstruction aspects of what is required. And last week we had a meeting in Berlin of the Afghan Support Group, which included the major donors, the Europeans, the Canadians, the Australians, the Japanese, the United States, and they met in the context of what was happening in Bonn on the political front, were obviously buoyed by what was emerging from that meeting. But they also recognized the continuing challenges that exist in terms of access, in terms of improving security, to ensure that the humanitarian effort does not lag and that the needs of the Afghan people are met through what will still be a very difficult winter. They also focused on the need to establish a seamless link between immediate humanitarian relief needs and reconstruction/rehabilitation needs further down the road.

In terms of refugee populations, UNHCR just over the weekend revised its figures on refugees who have left Afghanistan, for mostly neighboring Pakistan, to about 160,000. But again, in the last couple of weeks HCR has been successful in negotiating new campsites, beginning to set up the facilities to take care of these populations. And just over the weekend, I think up in northwest frontier province, 8,000 refugees were relocated, and near Quetta about 20,000 were relocated to better facilities. And obviously the opening of Termez bridge has significant implications for reaching something in the region of three million people who are at risk in northeastern and north Afghanistan. And I'll leave it at that, and open it up to questions.

QUESTION: We were told weeks ago that the bridge would be opened soon. The Administrator made reference to Powell negotiating the final details. I'm trying to find a polite way to ask this question.

MR. NATSIOS: Don't be polite.

QUESTION: All right. I'm not usually very polite. Do you mind a note of skepticism? This is an incredibly -- though you have a humanitarian need here, was the bridge -- let me ask it directly -- was the bridge opening delayed until the Secretary could be there, and then you have a bing-bang announcement?

MR. NATSIOS: Oh, no. We would never do that. And the Secretary would never do that.

QUESTION: I would hope not.

MR. NATSIOS: What the Uzbek Government -- the decision-making process is a mystery to all of us.

QUESTION: But four weeks ago, from that podium, we were told "soon."

MR. NATSIOS: But I think the biggest problem genuinely was, on their part, that the Kunduz battle was still going on. And as you know, after the fall of Kunduz and the collapse of Taliban and al-Qaida, troops did escape, and they were attacking relief convoys that were coming down from the barges, south from the bridge and the barge area down into Mazar. And so the government of Uzbekistan legitimately said, well, wait a second, they are attacking your convoys; they are going to get across the bridge if we open it up.

So it has not been until really basically last Thursday that things calmed down enough that they were secure about -- that those troops and the security situation along that road. So they did not -- they would not do it -- Colin Powell would never agree to that, and neither would I.

QUESTION: All right. Well, I'm afraid it was just the question that came to mind, because we have been waiting for months, and bang, he's there and it opens. Remarkable coincidence.

MR. NATSIOS: Well, I think he put a lot of pressure.

QUESTION: All right, well, that's -- that would -- that's good.

MR. NATSIOS: Yes.

QUESTION: There was reference to some problems, but you hope there will be a second shipment, vehicles. Is it a shortage of vehicles, or again is it a security issue?

MR. NATSIOS: Oh, there is a shortage -- well, there were a lot -- there were 300 vehicles the Taliban took during the conflict.

QUESTION: No, I mean, the reference just a few minutes ago, "we would like to see the second shipment across the bridge."

MR. NATSIOS: Right.

QUESTION: And there was some reference of needing vehicles.

MR. NATSIOS: Vehicles, that's correct.

QUESTION: Literally shortage of vehicles, or security?

MR. NATSIOS: Yes, there was a shortage of vehicles inside Afghanistan. Not security.

QUESTION: Okay. Thanks.

QUESTION: On the question of the safety of these convoys, for weeks now the NGOs, various NGOs have been urgently appealing to both the US Government and to the rest of the world, or the rest of the coalition, for there to be -- for the very fast -- the immediate deployment of a multinational force. I believe the last of these appeals came on Friday, in a letter that was probably sent to you, as well as others.

MR. NATSIOS: Yes.

QUESTION: Where -- I realize this is a political decision, and that's not really your purview, but what does AID think? Does AID agree with these NGOs?

MR. NATSIOS: We agree -- I don't think there is much dispute that there is a security problem -- increasingly less of a security problem in certain areas, or we wouldn't have been able to distribute the food that we have inside the country. So there is a security issue, and there is an active discussion going on within the interagency process that we are involved in -- State is involved, obviously other agencies -- on what form that should take. And I think a decision will be made very shortly.

So that is under active discussion now.

QUESTION: But AID agrees with the basic premise of the --

MR. NATSIOS: That there is a security issue.

QUESTION: No, no, no. That a multinational force is needed.

MR. NATSIOS: Oh, no. That's --

QUESTION: You do not?

MR. NATSIOS: That's what -- that issue is under discussion. What the -- this conclusion -- there are lots of options. I don't want to sit here and tell you what all the options are. I don't think it's appropriate. I'll look like I'm trying to --

QUESTION: Well, I'm not asking you what the options are.

MR. NATSIOS: -- presuppose decisions.

QUESTION: I'm asking you if AID -- I mean, you have been -- people are asking you to support this, and they have asked you directly. And I realize that you are not the one who is going to make the decision in the end.

MR. NATSIOS: Right.

QUESTION: But you are going to contribute to making the decision, one would hope, at least, since you're the Agency that is actually distributing the food.

MR. NATSIOS: Right. I never disclose what AID's position is in any discussions in the interagency process because it compromises our ability to get our point forward. If it looks like I'm announcing to all of you what we want the interagency process to do, what do you think the people in the interagency process will do?

QUESTION: Well, that's exactly why I'm asking the question.

MR. NATSIOS: They would kind of be annoyed with me. But I'm not going to tell you, because --

QUESTION: Well, that's fine. That's fine.

MR. McKINLEY: And perhaps I could just add, if we do look at the Bonn conference, I mean, there was a recognition by the Afghan parties for the need for a security presence, and this is obviously something that is under discussion.

QUESTION: Yes, well, then not to elaborate -- I mean, not to belabor this, though, but that -- what came out of Bonn was simply a force for Kabul, with this idea that then maybe in the future there could be something else for the rest of the country. I don't think it's an unfair question to ask you guys whether you think --

MR. NATSIOS: Well, no, it's not an unfair question.

QUESTION: I mean, you're not just going to answer it. Fair enough.

MR. NATSIOS: But the discussion --

QUESTION: I'm sure all these NGOs are (inaudible) --

MR. NATSIOS: What I think is appropriate -- I'm telling them things privately, though, as to what is going on. But I don't want to make it look like we're manipulating the process, because we're not. We have our own point of view. You can surmise what that might be. But the reality is that it's under active discussion right now, and I think it's a very constructive discussion we are having.

QUESTION: Given the amount of food that is being distributed now, are you saying that the chances of there being a widespread kind of starvation or food crisis this winter are much lower?

MR. NATSIOS: It is diminishing. I think, first, let me just say, when 25 percent of the kids die before they are five, there's a crisis that has been in existence for several years now. And for me to stand here and say, you know, that we have taken care of that and there is no one dying would suggest that we have lowered the child mortality rate. We certainly have not succeeded in doing that.

Have we succeeded in avoiding a dramatic increase in those rates? I think the measures are in place to avoid a dramatic increase, but clearly, when 25 percent of the kids die before they are five, there's a problem. And that is going to take a sustained effort over several years to get those rates down to a normal level, like the rest of the world.

But in terms of the famine, which is I think what you're asking me, I think we have caught it in time, and I think we're getting the mortality rates down to a lower level, which is what our objective is, as I've been saying that for three months now, or two and a half months, I think regularly.

Does that mean there aren't people dying? No, there are people dying. Our objective is to get the mortality rates down.

QUESTION: And this chart, are these numbers from the entire UN NGO international community?

MR. NATSIOS: That is correct.

QUESTION: This is everything?

MR. NATSIOS: The cross-border is only WFP. That is the other chart. The chart you have in your right hand is primarily NGO distributions into the villages.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) the source of the information altogether?

MR. NATSIOS: Is the WFP and NGOs. We get a daily report now. We were not getting as accurate a report from the NGOs earlier as we are now. I was a little nervous about it because it looked like very little was getting distributed. In fact, some was getting distributed. But I think the system for collecting that data is now up to the level of efficiency where we can make some predictions on how much food is getting into the villages, which is what counts.

QUESTION: Do these numbers reflect the fact that they weren't being counted as well before, or are these apples and apples?

MR. NATSIOS: That does reflect the fact that the reporting was not as good as it should have been. So some of that red area is a function of bad reporting; we just don't know because the NGOs were not keeping a very accurate record. But they were doing some distributions.

For example, WFP now has 14 expatriates inside the country and more are coming in each day. All the NGOs -- there are 30 -- when I was there three weeks ago, there were 30 NGO expatriate staff in the northeastern region. So since the basically -- basically the collapse of Taliban, the fall of Kunduz, expatriate workers have been moving back in. There are a number of areas which are quite stable. A lot of food is going across the Turkmenistan border right now, for example, and a lot of food is moving up. Each day a couple thousand tons are being dispatched by truck and rail from two Iranian ports up into Turkmenistan, into Uzbekistan. So that's in progress.

QUESTION: Do you know when the UN (inaudible) is supposed to resume to Mazar-e-Sharif? And when you talked about that the threat of famine is receding right now. What would you cite as the single most important reason for that?

MR. NATSIOS: The fact that WFP has mobilized a couple of thousand trucks and the NGOs have gotten their staff in during an unstable period, and the people are doing their jobs at some risk to themselves. It is not a particularly stable situation, as I think all of you know.

In terms of Mazar-e-Sharif -- do you know that, Mike? I don't know.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) daily flights in and out?

MR. NATSIOS: There is a daily flight in and out to Mazar-e-Sharif -- UN flight.

QUESTION: These figures still look fairly alarming. I don't know what the date for these is. It's not quite clear from this.

MR. NATSIOS: What? The map?

QUESTION: Yes.

MR. NATSIOS: The map -- that was done during the summertime, and that's the tonnage that is required to -- that is now much food people were getting before we did the distributions. That's called the vulnerability assessment map, and it's used to target food aid. That's why we gave it to you. That's what our targeting is doing.

QUESTION: Has anybody that you know of done any nutritional surveys in the last few weeks, and what results have they come up with?

MR. NATSIOS: If they've done them, I would be astonished under these circumstances. To answer your question, I'm not aware of one.

QUESTION: There's a press release here. You know, we can -- we keep hearing of new money which turns out to be the same -- part of that same --

MR. NATSIOS: No, no, we only announced --

QUESTION: Is this not the above and beyond --

MR. NATSIOS: This is part of the 195 million.

QUESTION: Oh, it's part of it?

MR. NATSIOS: It's part of that, but as we spend it we're announcing the grants being made and the obligation and the money being transferred to the NGOs or the UN. And as those decisions are made, we make an announcement of it.

QUESTION: You said 119?

QUESTION: I thought it was 195.

MR. NATSIOS: $195 million of the 320 went to AID. The other 125 million went to the refugee program office, Mike's office. So I'm just reporting to you on how much we have obligated. And every couple of weeks as we approve more grants, we announce it so you know what we're doing with the money.

I think we've spent, obligated, around 110 million, 105 million -- 140. That's obligated and committed both. Obligated means the money is in the account; committed means we have put the money aside but it isn't in the account yet. So 140 of the 195 has been either committed or obligated up to this point.

QUESTION: In terms of potential food deficiencies again, you had said that in the Hazarajat that things seem to be improving.

MR. NATSIOS: That's the area I was most worried about.

QUESTION: Are there any other sections of the country that are still --

MR. NATSIOS: Yes, Mazar is a concern. The International Rescue Committee is supposed to start doing a distribution, I think tomorrow, to about 15,000 families that are internally displaced within Mazar or the immediate surrounding area. That should get some food out because people are not in good shape. And some of the camps that are west of the city, we're getting reports on that.

And there are some people north of Herat who are not in good shape either, and there are some Iranian Red Crescent Society shipments that are going into those camps north of Herat. The people north of Herat are not people moved because of security but because almost exclusively because of the famine, which is a greater concern because they are probably in more debilitated condition than people moved as a result of insecurity.

QUESTION: How would you -- when you talk about relief going into Afghanistan, how would you compare the crisis there to past humanitarian crises?

MR. NATSIOS: Well, I have been doing this work for 10, 12 years now, and I have never seen WFP -- I should say this carefully -- as well organized or as with such an aggressive handle on things than they have in other emergencies, nor have I ever seen them mobilize something, a fleet of 2,000 trucks. I've never seen them do that before. In fact, I think this may be precedent-setting in terms of the magnitude of the logistical operation they are running, and I have to compliment them. I am critical of the UN in writing and in speeches and in talks over the last decade, and I want to say in this particular case I think WFP has done a remarkable job.

QUESTION: How dire the crisis is, though, inside Afghanistan?

MR. NATSIOS: Well, it was quite dire before but, as I said before, since the end of November they have proved that they can, in fact, distribute -- they can move across the border and then move from the warehouses within the country to the villages the amount of food necessary to drive the death rates down and stabilize the situation, which is what I think is going on now. And so long as we get security in those couple of last remaining areas that are -- you know, Kandahar is one of them, Mazar is another -- I think we can get a hold of the situation.

The areas that are the most insecure now are also not highland areas. They are not going to have ten feet of snow in them. And so if we don't get them by the end of December, they will still be accessible. Kandahar is, in fact, a warmer area compared to the Hazarajat, which gets 18 to 30 feet of snow, 40 degrees below zero. And if we don't get to that by the end of December, then we have problems. But as I said before, the trucks are already on the way to meet the objective of 30,000 tons in Hazarajat.

QUESTION: You have that graphic figure on children mortality. Can you give us some overall notion of, you know, for all people the problem, the extent of the problem, the extent of --

MR. NATSIOS: Well, I can tell you the number of people.

QUESTION: How many people are there?

MR. NATSIOS: There are 12 million people who have been affected by either the conflict or the drought. There are another 7 million people who we're feeding who are severely affected. And then there's a third category. We normally categorize these in level of severity. There is a 1.5 million people who were really on the edge of starvation prior to September 11th that we were concerned would not make it through the winter. So there are three levels: the 12 million, the 7 million and the 1.5 million.

QUESTION: The 12 million being?

MR. NATSIOS: People who were affected by either the conflict or the drought.

QUESTION: Are these numbers contained within each other?

MR. NATSIOS: Yes, they're not additive.

QUESTION: So the 7 million is part of the 12 million?

MR. NATSIOS: That's correct. And the 1.5 million is part of the 7 million.

QUESTION: The 7 million were --

MR. NATSIOS: The 7 million are people who we're now feeding. We are feeding 7 million people in Afghanistan who are severely affected by -- mostly by the drought, to some degree who are internally displaced. I think there is a million internally displaced within the country, but the rest are affected primarily by the drought.

QUESTION: The 1.5 million were on the edge of starvation before the conflict?

MR. NATSIOS: And they are the ones all along we have been most worried about. They are in the red areas there on that map.

QUESTION: Is there any comparable number you can give now? I mean, do you still believe that there are large numbers in --

MR. NATSIOS: Well, they are at risk because -- well, people are at risk not just because they haven't got the last food shipment, because you can go a long time without eating. But the problem is what condition they were in before. They were in debilitated condition before because people are in the situation because they've sold their animals or their animals have died.

It usually is the case that the men have gone off to find work in other countries, so you will find whole villages where there are no men left, not because they have died but because they are in Iran or Central Asia trying to find daily bread, which is a pre-famine indicator. When the men leave to find work because of hunger from a drought, it usually means a famine is coming very shortly thereafter.

And so when we started seeing last summer the movement of males out of the villages, we got very alarmed. And in many of these villages there are no animals left at all, and that is a coping mechanism people use. They store their wealth in their animal herds. And so if they eat their animals or their animals die or they sell their animals, that means their principal coping mechanism is gone.

Many people are also selling their homes for the timber. They're breaking the homes down, moving in with relatives or moving into the cities. You know, these people have moved into these camps north of Herat. Most of them sold their homes and took the timber and sold the timber off before they left.

Some people are doing something I have very seldom seen in a famine, which is the most severe coping mechanism, and that is selling your land. And there are instances in the red areas, and it's the biggest red area there in the north central area that families, whole villages, are selling off their land. That is very unusual to see that, because once you sell off your land, your principal source of income, you're completely destitute. Your principal source of income is gone. And people only do that when they are very, very desperate, and people are doing that in that area.

So it means all their coping mechanisms, all their assets, all their ways of surviving, are now completely gone. That's the 1.5 million people. And that is why we think they are severely at risk. They have reached the end of their tether.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:50 p.m. EST.)

# # #


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