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Briefing: Humanitarian Assistance for Afghanistan

Briefing on Humanitarian Assistance for Afghanistan

NEWS TRANSCRIPT from the United States Department of Defense

DoD News Briefing Joseph J. Collins, DASD for Peacekeeping and Humanitarian Affairs Thursday, November 15, 2001 - 2:30 p.m. EST

(Special briefing on the role of the Department of Defense in providing humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan. Handouts for this briefing are on the web at http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Nov2001/d20011115brut.pdf and http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Nov2001/d20011115human.pdf)

Staff: We'd like to get started here soon, if those of you whose are interested in humanitarian affairs could have a seat and those of you who aren't could find the nearest door.

I'd like to introduce Joseph J. Collins, who is deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Peacekeeping and Humanitarian Affairs. He'll be here with us for a few minutes to talk about DOD's role in providing humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan. Mr. Collins?

Collins: Thank you, Captain.

Good afternoon. Two subjects today. The first is the role that DOD has played to date in humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people and others in the region, and the second a less well-known story, and that's how the Taliban have obstructed humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan.

There's a few handouts here. I'm not sure where they've put them. I guess they're over -- back there on the table. They add some key details to some of this, as well as some sourcing.

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Let me start by saying that this was a unique conflict for many reasons. The one that concerns me the most is that never before has the United States engaged in a war in a country that was already in the middle of a full-blown humanitarian crisis, a crisis brought about by a generation of war, four years of drought, and a century of underdevelopment. This has made humanitarian assistance to distressed populations an integral part of our overall policy. It has also made very close coordination and cooperation among federal agencies, international organizations, nongovernmental organizations -- the NGOs that we hear about so much -- it's made that cooperation mandatory.

This close cooperation has enabled the war and a major humanitarian operation to go on at the same time. In fact, in the first week of November, before the apparent collapse of the Taliban, U.N. World Food Program deliveries doubled the pace of their October deliveries, and their October deliveries had been a record for the past few years. The reality is clear; our military actions have not slowed humanitarian assistance but rather, care in the field and coordination among the various agencies involved, has made it possible to both fight successfully and to accelerate humanitarian assistance at the same time.

Inside the U.S. government, humanitarian assistance is a team sport, but the Department of Defense is not the captain of that team. Most humanitarian assistance is provided directly by the U.N. and the NGOs. The United States supports those efforts materially and financially.

As you might have heard, even before October of this year, the United States was the largest aid donor to Afghanistan. The total value of U.S. assistance from all sources -- Department of Defense, Department of State, U.S. AID -- in the last two fiscal years is well over $400 million.

The U.S. lead on all of this is the State Department, and the State Department's point people, here and in the field, are in U.S. AID, and that's the U.S. Agency for International Development, whom we rely on heavily for advice on humanitarian assistance.

The DOD role in all of this is to support State and AID, when that makes sense, and to provide unique capabilities where there are special needs. And that brings me to the first major subject -- what DOD has done in Afghanistan.

So far, we -- and the "we" here in this case includes OSD, the Joint Staff, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, DSCA, and most especially, our men and women in CENTCOM, TRANSCOM, and in European Command -- have had three great successes.

The first success was in dropping the HDRs. You have a handout in the back on the HDRs. And by now, I'm sure you all know that it's a safe, vegetarian, non-culturally sensitive meal that has everything you need -- unless you need taste. (Laughter.) To date, we've dropped, either by flutter method or in containers, about 1.5 million daily rations, each of which is enough to sustain a person with a day's worth of calories. Recently, we have been dropping about 35,000 a day. At the high, that number was about 70,000 per day.

Now that aid-providers will soon have better access to Kabul, Herat, and Mazar-e Sharif, aid-providers will be able to access the country more easily with traditional foodstuffs delivered by more traditional means.

The second success we've had here, which has really enabled the first, is in -- I'm sorry. The second success we've had here is in providing critical airlift support to U.S. AID on what people refer to as the wholesale level. At AID's request, we have lifted into Pakistan and Turkmenistan 40,000 blankets, 200 metric tons of high-energy biscuits, a ton of sugar, and 100 rolls of plastic sheeting for shelters. More of these missions are currently in the planning stage.

Our third success has been in planning and coordination. And this is the success really that has enabled the other two. We have coordination centers in Islamabad and Tampa that enable the U.N., selected nongovernmental organizations, the coalition partners, and CENTCOM to talk directly to each other.

This is paying off on the ground with increased shipments of food aid, as I mentioned, and also, during the fighting, we were able to accomplish -- the U.N. was -- able to accomplish a major UNICEF polio vaccination project.

Planning efforts for the future are also in high gear. Coalition partners in NATO are stepping up allied support for the humanitarian effort. DOD is working hard with the coalition partners, State, U.N. agencies and the NGOs in New York and Tampa and in Islamabad on plans for improving our humanitarian work over the winter and our efforts at reconstruction. These tasks will be much easier now, now that we have friendly forces in Kabul, Herat and Mazar-e Sharif.

Second major topic today is the people who have done their best to tear down Afghanistan, and that is the Taliban leadership and the foreign terrorists who support them. What is not well known about the Taliban is that they have been the single greatest obstacle to providing humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people. Some of their crimes: They've taxed U.N. World Food Program deliveries. They've seized U.N. and ICRC vehicles and warehouses in Mazar-e Sharif. They've taken over most U.N. vehicles and facilities in Kandahar. They've stolen aid trucks, beaten drivers, and persecuted Afghan aid workers. They've transported troops in vehicles with U.S. -- U.N. markings, and they have systematically prevented food distribution into areas not under Taliban control.

They are, as General Myers showed here the other day, hiding their military assets in amongst the population, near mosques and in other civilian areas. We even know that the Taliban has discussed ways to poison food aid being provided by the United States. Amidst all of this, some of the aid organizations have been very reluctant to publicize these crimes against them and their employees out of what must be a justifiable fear of Taliban retribution.

In this litany of sins, I would be remiss if I did not mention the Taliban and the drug trade. Osama bin Laden and the Taliban leadership have been closely associated with major narcotics traffickers since 1996. Afghanistan accounted, in the year 2000, for 70 percent of the world's illicit opium supply. Bowing to international pressure, they curtailed most cultivation in 2001, but continue to profit. With overseas donations, kickbacks from al Qaeda, and a huge drug business, the Taliban has not lacked for financing. Of course, none of this has found its way to the people of Afghanistan.

In spite of the Taliban's best efforts, however, the U.N., the NGOs, State Department, AID, and Department of Defense have made a dedicated effort to make sure that humanitarian assistance got through, and to date I think we've been successful, and we are continuing to step up our efforts for the winter ahead and also on the issue of reconstruction of Afghanistan.

And I'll stop here and take your questions.

Q: Can you tell us anything about progress on reopening the Friendship Bridge -- how long that would take, what's holding it up, and what kind of commitment Uzbekistan has given us?

Collins: My last update on that was yesterday, and it appeared that we were on the verge of it. The long-awaited barge shipments have already crossed the Amudar'ya and are -- have been unloaded on the other side. But beyond that I can't say.

Q: Joe, there's been a lot of discussion of the potential of a land corridor and of airfields within the country, but -- and the aid agencies say this is urgent -- but a missing component is security for the land corridor and the airfields. European nations are offering thousands of troops. What is going to be the DOD contribution to a security element so that these corridors and airfields can be opened, and what is the status of an international security force so that the aid can flow more quickly?

Collins: The DOD contribution is under discussion right now. It's not clear, and I'm not sure that I have the freshest information on that, either. Internationally, two ideas have dominated. The first was an all-Afghan peacekeeping force, and the second was a smaller security force made up of Muslim nations. All of these things are under discussion right now and this action is probably more correctly centered in the U.N. than in the Pentagon at this particular moment. And so, you know, this is all in a tremendous state of flux, and I know that's an unsatisfactory answer, but it's part of this very confusing week.

Q: Then what about the resolution last night authorizing nations to take steps to provide security --

Collins: Yeah.

Q: So the question is, when is this going to happen?

Collins: My guess is relatively soon. In the meantime, I would not discount the possibility that most of the security work will be done and continue to be done by the Afghans themselves.

Q: Sir? The food that's actually crossed the river -- where is it now? Is it getting anywhere inside Afghanistan, and if so, how?

Collins: I'm sure the food that I saw being unloaded is still en route to Mazar as we speak. Interestingly enough, after the great battlefield successes and improvement overall in the security situation, there has been some pause in some parts of the economic aid -- the humanitarian aid, rather, going into the country. For example, trucks stopped crossing over from Pakistan temporarily until the security situation clears up.

Q: Joe, with your peacekeeping hat, have you been in on discussions about a possible peacekeeping force in Kabul itself to maintain that city as sort of a neutral area?

Collins: Right. It's difficult to say where this will actually be resolved, except to say that it will be at the highest levels. And I can only repeat what I said before, that there are two main ideas being kicked around, one of which is an all-Afghan force, and the other of which is a smaller force made up of members from Muslim nations.

Q: But in terms of security for the food, is the security for the food operation issue and the peacekeeping force for Kabul itself, are they one and the same or are they two separate issues?

Collins: The food transportation has been -- is not really a question of security. Most of that has been going on during the heaviest fighting between the U.S. and the Taliban at some great levels. And the coordination between the various agencies has made that sort of better. So I do think the peacekeeping force is really a separate issue from that one.


Q: Joe, what's the estimate, your estimate, at least, of when the security situation in Mazar will allow relief to be started there?

Collins: I think it's really started, because the stuff has crossed the river and is beginning to flow downward. But beyond that, you know -- I've been away from my television set for a few hours, so I don't know what's going on.

Q: There's a report by the U.N. that things -- that the situation was dicey enough within Mazar itself that many of the agencies decided to suspend any kind of deliveries at that point.

Collins: I hadn't heard that.

Q: The secretary also mentioned repairing airfields in Mazar, and possibly in Kabul, for humanitarian air flights. What's the status of that?

Collins: Again, another thing under discussion, but something that's clearly going to have to be done, and in the long run not likely something that we can leave to the Afghans. It's going to be something that's going to require some engineering help. And there have been, as Michael Gordon mentioned before, various offers from people in Europe, back and forth. But all of this is under discussion at the highest levels right now.

Q: Can you confirm or do you have any information on the trucks -- I believe they belong to the Red Cross -- that were stolen, allegedly by the Northern Alliance around Mazar-e Sharif, that they took over two trucks and some of the drivers and they have not been heard from since?

Collins: I saw a spot report but didn't see anything following up.

Q: Does that concern you, if the Northern Alliance is supposed to be on our side, yet they're taking aid trucks?

Collins: Yeah. Absolutely. And in general I have to say most of the reports that I've read have been that their behavior has been okay. And this was sort of a strange fly in that particular ointment. But yes, those things are matters of concern, and I'm sure there's lots of discussion going on, you know, between our government and the Northern Alliance on that.


Q: Is there any assessment at this point as to how much of the 1-1/2 million packages you've dropped actually got to people who were in need of them, as opposed to being lost or hoarded by the Taliban?

Collins: Yeah. We've checked up on that, and -- as much as we were able to -- the areas we dropped the vast majority of these in, there was no Taliban in the areas where we dropped them.

The drops are relatively reliable, but the footprint of the drop is quite large. It's about two miles long by about one mile wide. And that, again, is useful, in a way, because it prevents one or two people from somehow gathering up all the food and then turning it to their own uses.

We've had all kinds of various reports on this, and for the most part they've turned out to have been quite positive.

Q: Just to follow up on that, given that you weren't dropping in areas that were controlled by the Taliban, what was the thinking about why you didn't -- since there were areas controlled by friendly forces even before the last week or so, why you didn't heavy-lift helicopters in, drop -- you know, come down, set up temporary feeding stations, and distribute the food in a more orderly or traditional way?

Collins: Yeah, that would have been fine if we had the assets to do that and we were sort of poised to do it. But we have used the HDRs in any number of other scenarios, and it's a relatively efficient and safe way of doing business.

I'm sure the Afghans would have preferred more traditional kinds of food, but -- and that's true of just about everybody we've dropped HDRs on. But it's -- you know, it's sort of the ease and the packaging of it all, and it also can be done relatively safely from high altitudes. Most of our flights came out of Europe, and so it didn't require local bases or whatever.

Now that the situation is changing, I think that you're going to find that the military aspects of aid probably are going to be less than they were, and what we're going to find is that the civilian aid agencies will resort to much more familiar tactics -- trucking food in, setting up feeding stations, and all of that. And I think all of that's begun. The U.N. was poised to exploit a change on the ground in the North, and the World Food Program has stockpiles all around Afghanistan just waiting for this battlefield situation to clear up.

Q: Was there a large-scale drop near Bamian yesterday of containers of wheat and blankets?

Collins: I can't say what happened yesterday near Bamian because I don't know. And I'm not being coy; I just don't know. We have dropped HDRs and other things. We've dropped HDRs either by flutter drop or by container. We've also dropped other things by container and by pallet. But the more industrial the operation, the more likely it is that you have people on the ground who are working with you and that you have very good communications with.

So that's another reason why we dropped them using the flutter method, because we can -- we could get the locations for the populations and then, without people on the ground or whatever, we could just sort of get -- we could sort of put the food down and, hoping, of course, that, you know, as the situation developed, we would be able to do a better job once we got people on the ground.

Q: How much does the onset of winter affect the distribution of food by civilian groups or military groups, and to the extent that it does, do you have enough time, considering the date, mid November, to get it done before winter?

Collins: Yeah. I think that there certainly is enough time if the situation continues to improve and the flow of food matches the pace that it's been at for the first two weeks of November. The winter problem, I think, has been exaggerated in some cases. There were a number of people who were talking as if all of Afghanistan from the 30th of October on is covered with snow that gets to be nine feet deep. There is a real problem with the central part of the country, during the winter, where the passes are closed and also in some areas of the Northeast. But most of the areas are passable during the winter. And the U.N. World Food Program said the other day they no longer are thinking about the necessity to airdrop food using commercial resources during the winter, because now they think that they're going to be able to move most of this on the ground.

Q: I want to ask you a question about the aid workers that were released. The International Red Cross said they had been negotiating with the Taliban for their release. And I was wondering if you, in your role, can shed any light on what those negotiations --

Collins: No, we have no part in it. And I only know what I've seen in the media on that.

Q: DOD had no role in any of those negotiations?

Collins: I can't say that -- I can say that my office had none -- unless there's a memo I haven't read laying around back there.

Q: Was there ever any actual evidence that the Taliban had poisoned any of the food?

Collins: No evidence to that effect has ever been found.

Q: So do you believe that that was just, you know, what? -- rumor or --

Collins: No, it was -- it certainly was a lot more than rumor. And beyond that, I can't say, because the methods and whatever that were involved in that particular thing. But it wasn't just sort of, you know, a rumor that somebody heard in the bazaar or any thing like that.

Q: Will the military continue air dropping the HDRs, or will you taper off?

Collins: I think in the short run we'll continue to drop the HDRs, and what you're likely to see from the DOD humanitarian efforts is a gradual shift from dropping HDRs into more wholesale support for U.S. AID and U.N. agencies, and also the provision or at least the management of certain services that will be needed to get the country back up and running. One mentioned here already today was the engineering business of fixing the airfields and any problems that exist with roads and culverts, bridges, that sort of thing.

Q: What's the water situation like? Is there any thought about needing to provide ROWPU units or large-scale purified water?

Collins: Not that's been brought to my attention.

Q: Will the U.S. actually be in the business of rebuilding roads and that sort of thing, or is this going to be carried out by allies or somebody else?

Collins: Not decided, that I know of, at this point in time. And that's why I said, you know, we'll either be in that business or we'll be in the business of managing that. And of course, you know, the -- I'm sure the pointy end of the spear is still focused where it was in the beginning, and that is on the pursuit of the -- you know, the al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. And so that of course is the first priority.

Q: You mentioned earlier that you thought the Northern Alliance or indigenous forces could provide a lot of the security, that aid was still continuing to flow. Is it the DOD view that the security situation in northern Afghanistan is not that dangerous, so that thousands of forces are required? The British and French are offering thousands of forces --

Collins: Thousands of forces, yes, I've read that.

Q: -- and you seem to be in a situation which, in your view, is not that --

Collins: First off, in the north -- in the north there are significant pockets of resistance right now still in the north, and also south of Kabul and around Kandahar. So, you know, those areas clearly are not clear. So, you know, all of that's going to have to be dealt with.

Q: But your answer is not a need for thousands of forces, as far as the security is concerned.

Collins: You know, that's sort of being worked out right now. It depends really on what sort of tasks and services can be provided by indigenous Afghan forces. And I, right now, wouldn't want to say that, you know, we have to have a multinational peacekeeping force. I'm not sure that that's going to happen that way.

If we listen to Mr. Brahimi at the U.N., his idea essentially is to convene a tribal council and then to get an interim government which will in turn work on longer-term, permanent arrangements for the government. And he wants to do that very quickly, and that, I think, is going to unfold very fast.

And to the extent that that happens quickly, I think that will be a real boon to the security situation.

Q: The food that you said is moving over by barge, who is providing security now to get that down to Mazar-e Sharif?

Collins: The food that I know right now -- that there's no -- there are certainly no organized troops units that I know of providing security for that food. That food is moving on its own. Most of the food that's entered Afghanistan during the war has been in the custody of the truck drivers who are driving it, and there hasn't been a lot of convoy escorting or any of that going on during the war.

The lady in the middle. Sorry.

Q: How unusual was this whole arrangement with the DOD doing the drops and the State Department in charge, and so forth, in relationship to other humanitarian efforts in the past? And when were these arrangements worked out?

Collins: This is sort of normal -- standard operating procedures; that, you know, the essential outline of these things exists all the time. You know, in war, the Department of Defense leads with the diplomats behind them, and behind them the international organizations and the NGOs. In humanitarian affairs, the pyramid is turned upside down, and it's -- you know, the people who are on point are the NGOs and the United Nations, with the State Department behind them. So --

Q: You had a blueprint already, based on other --

Collins: Absolutely. Absolutely. This blueprint was not entirely created for this.

One of things that was unique to this particular situation were the coordinating centers that were set up in Islamabad and in Tampa. And that, I think, is really one of the keys as to how all this was done as effectively as it was.

Q: Jim, just to follow up on something Michael asked, you mentioned that most of the food that entered Afghanistan during the war did not require, did not have any troop escort. Is that to suggest, in your view at least, the aid that would come in from Uzbekistan, other places, would also not need the kind of large security force that people are now talking about?

Collins: That would be my opinion right now. Now, that's assuming the conflict with the Taliban up there is cleared up and the pockets of resistance vanish. I don't see any reason why food moving from Uzbekistan to Mazar would need any more security than food that during the war moved from, you know, Pakistan all the way to the Kabul area.

Staff: Last question, the gentlemen here.

Q: Can you give us an assessment of public health situation inside Afghanistan now? Early in the conflict there was talk about dropping medical supplies. I don't know that that ever happened. But is there any thought of that now, or airlifting in military medical teams to deal with public health problems?

Collins: The state of public health is not good. It hasn't been good, really, since the war with the Soviets. And so that situation remains. It was worsened recently by the Taliban's expulsion of expatriate workers. So a lot of medics, a lot of doctors, a lot of aid people were asked to leave the country. When those folks get back in, things will be on a more even footing.

All that said, a cadre of Afghan doctors, medics, and aid workers has been performing valiantly throughout all of this, and I think they deserve a lot of credit for what they did.

Staff: Thank you.

Collins: Okay.


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