Mercy Corps Founder: There is no victory while millions suffer

Afghanistan, January 14, 2002

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    Mercy Corps Founder Dan O'Neill. Photo: Scott Heidler/ Mercy Corps Photo:

Taliban and al-Qaida forces in Afghanistan appear, in large part, to be defeated. Their corpses litter the desolate landscape; their survivors are fleeing to their dark hideouts or are in detention.

Aid convoys are rushing relief supplies around the clock to cold and hungry multitudes. The U.S. government has declared that famine has been averted. And sufficient food stocks are in country or positioned nearby to temporarily feed the Afghan people — thanks in large measure to U.S. leadership.

But can any real victory be declared? The sobering answer is, no.

One million Afghan people are internally displaced. More than 3.6 million Afghans are refugees outside of their country, unable to return to their homes. Seventy percent of the population is malnourished, and 7.5 million are currently at risk of hunger and exposure as Afghanistan's harsh winter descends with merciless, bitter wind and cold. Insecurity and lawlessness exist in the countryside.

The United Nations is not yet meaningfully deployed in this war-torn country. Warlords jockey for position in the regional power vacuum. Taliban and al-Qaida resisters have yet to be disarmed in outlying areas. Bandits rob commercial and aid convoys. Mines and unexploded ordnance lie strewn and sown to a frightening degree, ensuring that a steady stream of news stories will report mayhem and dismemberment for years to come.

Victory? Not yet. We have a very long way to go.

Where should we shore up our gains? Invest in the people of Afghanistan. Afghans are hardworking, warm-hearted, hospitable and hopeful. They just need a jump-start — and America can make that happen. Then, long-term recovery, development and peace-building is a marathon we must run with tenacious commitment.

Declaring quick victory and going home is no longer an option. When we did so after the Soviets caved in 1989, Afghanistan sank into a sea of violence, anarchy, civil war, religious extremism and terror-training camps.

The U.S. and its coalition partners must help Afghanistan face hugely daunting diplomatic problems, infrastructure rehabilitation, social issues around refugee repatriation and internally displaced persons, decades of de-mining, and overwhelming food-security and economic-development challenges.

It has been said that a country takes about as long to recover as it was in crisis. In Afghanistan, it has been 22 years of agony. We must brace for the long haul and not yield to the temptation to declare victory and head home. The stakes in a fragile Afghanistan and bordering Central Asian states are far too high. It will be long. It will be hard. And it will be expensive. But the alternative is sure disaster.

Critically important at this time is the humanitarian mandate to avert widespread death and disease among the many displaced by war and a four-year killer drought. Relief and development agencies that are assisting Afghans must incorporate the development of a strong civil society in all recovery programs. Citizens must be encouraged and allowed to participate in charting their political future. Governing authorities must become far more accountable. The rule of law and human rights must be promoted.

And the Bush administration's good intentions of aid for Afghanistan must be fulfilled with real investment. An investment that doesn't at the same time strip resources from other regions of the world where we also have important commitments to help avert poverty and despair.

Afghanistan, over time and with the help of the world community, will rise from the ashes of decades of tortured conflict. Then we can talk about victory.