Short accuses US of hampering Afghan relief effort

War on Terrorism: Aid
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Indy Politics

The growing rift between Britain and America over Afghanistan became public yesterday when Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, accused Washington of neglecting the country's humanitarian needs.

Ms Short said the United States lacked the experience to deal with the scale of the aid operation and that relief work would be hampered until a large-scale peace-keeping force was deployed on the ground.

Her remarks came as up to 6,000 British troops remained on stand-by for deployment and 120 Royal Marines of the Special Boat Service spent their sixth night at Bagram air base without the reinforcements they had been led to expect.

Senior members of the Bush administration are said to be opposed to the large-scale presence of Western forces in Afghanistan, and the British deployment is unlikely to go ahead without the approval of Washington. American officials are said to be irritated that Britain should want to be the first country to install a large ground force when American air power brought down the Taliban. There were even some reports last night that the Bagram troops might be pulled out.

Meanwhile, the United Nations said it could not help thousands of Taliban fighters trapped in Kunduz who want to surrender but face slaughter by the opposition. The UN did, however, persuade the Northern Alliance to attend a conference next week in Berlin on the political future of Afghanistan.

Ms Short's criticism of America is seen as significant because she is a member of the war cabinet and has strongly endorsed the military campaign. Mr Blair has stated publicly that a multinational stabilisation force is needed to ensure that aid gets through and that Afghanistan does not slide back into civil conflict.

Washington's aims, however, appear to end with the capture or killing of Osama bin Laden and the removal of the Taliban, diplomatic sources say. The US had sent 1,600 marines to Afghanistan, but they would be used to hunt Mr bin Laden and al-Qa'ida, the Pentagon said.

Ms Short, giving evidence to the Select Committee on International Development, suggested America should take lessons from Britain's experience in Kosovo and Sierra Leone. She said civil and military liaison between aid agencies and the American headquarters was "not working particularly well at all", and was causing problems for aid workers on the ground. "The communications are there, but they are not being taken seriously enough at a high level," she said. "I don't think the US military is quite as informed, because it has not had the same experience. It is not a disaster, don't mistake me, but it could be done better."

Ms Short also said ground troops were needed to protect aid workers. "We don't need the military to do the humanitarian job, but to do what they do best, which is to provide security."

And she questioned America's commitment to the alleviation of poverty, saying it gave only 0.1 per cent of national income to international aid, compared with Britain's 0.3 per cent. "The only great power in the world almost turns its back on the rest of the world."