Closed Borders, Attacks Hinder Food Supplies

By Mike Wendling | July 7, 2008 | 8:10 PM EDT

London ( - As increased aid to Afghan refugees began to flow into the country via land and air Wednesday, international relief agencies called on Afghanistan's neighbors to open their borders to let rations in and refugees out of the embattled central Asian country.

A spokeswoman for Oxford, England-based Oxfam said that ground-based food aid is slowly getting through, supplemented by rations dropped from the air by alliance military planes.

"We're trying to make the point that ground-based transport is the best way of getting aid through," the spokeswoman said. "We're appealing to neighboring countries to open their borders to refugees, as they're required to do under the Geneva Convention."

Oxfam said that food shipments are slowly picking up and a convoy carrying 1,000 tons of food left Peshawar, Pakistan for Kabul on Wednesday. Around 8,000 tons of food aid are already in the country, and several convoys scheduled for Thursday should bring an additional 1,600 tons into the country.

The U.N. estimates that 55,000 tons of food per month will have to enter Afghanistan to prevent severe food shortages. Up to 7 million Afghans have been displaced by an ongoing drought, the primitive economic policies of the ruling Taliban and the threat of military action against major towns.

The challenges presented by Afghanistan's poor infrastructure have been exacerbated by security and logistics problems inherent in working in a war zone.

A convoy from the United Nations World Food Program, which left before Oct. 7, is still believed to be en route to settlements within Afghanistan. In a statement from Geneva, the International Red Cross said that the security situation is relatively more stable in the Northern Alliance-held parts of the country.

The IRC is looking into establishing supply routes through the northern part of Afghanistan, rather than through Pakistan to the south.

There has been "little to no contact" with the 120 Afghan employees of Oxfam still in the country, the spokeswoman said, but the organization has calculated that reserve food supplies are running low.

The Paris-based Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) expressed dismay at the limited ability of aid agencies to work while air strikes continue.

"The confusion between military and humanitarian missions creates an additional danger for humanitarian action which is already extremely difficult ... and risks limiting (relief workers') chances of acting," the organization said in a statement.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has admitted that air drops are not as effective as shipping food via truck convoys. Some British politicians have called for food aid to be stepped up.

"I am deeply concerned that the current humanitarian response to the crisis in Afghanistan is not enough," said Glenys Kinnock, a Labour Party official and member of the European parliament. "The very act of dropping these packages from high altitude is problematic.

"You can have only so much control as to where they will land and no control on who will end up with them. It is far more appropriate to deliver food and supplies to the people and the quantity must be massively scaled up," Kinnock said.