International aid agencies are warning that more than a million destitute Afghans are beyond their reach and face death from starvation and disease. Conditions are worst not in regions still being fought over, but in areas firmly under Northern Alliance control.
"Unless the security conditions in the north and west improve quickly, we must expect large-scale population movements, suffering and many deaths in the coming weeks," said Kenzo Oshima, the United Nations' chief co-ordinator of humanitarian help, at last week's conference of donors in Berlin. Aid organisations and their German hosts identified the post-war anarchy as the single biggest killer in Afghanistan. "In many regions chaos, fear and violence still reign," said Joschka Fischer, the German Foreign Minister.
More than seven million people out of an estimated population of 22 million are classified by aid organisations as being at "very high risk". Most eke out a living in areas captured by the Northern Alliance in the first days of its offensive. By contrast, although Kandahar province has been cut off by intense fighting since the fall of Kabul, the region is in no immediate danger of famine.
The areas that should be easiest to reach are often the ones out of bounds, such as Mazar-i-Sharif, the first Taliban domino to tumble as the West's allies swept south. Nigel Fisher, Unicef's special envoy to Afghanistan, returned from Afghanistan on Monday to report joyful scenes in Kabul but also worrying developments in the north. "Three weeks ago we had international staff in Mazar," Mr Fisher said. "But they are not there any more because of the security situation."
Mazar is in the hands of Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek warlord who has rejected the peace deal signed in Germany last week. Aid convoys enter the swath of land stretching from Mazar to Kunduz at their peril.
Mr Fisher says only about 3.5 to four million out of the five million or so people needing urgent help in the northern belt "are accessible at the moment". Overall, he reckons that between a third and half the country is out of reach at any one time. Geography presents its own problems. The World Food Programme (WFP), which uses six supply routes from neighbouring countries, fears for the estimated 2.3 million people in mountainous areas that will soon be cut off by snow. The WFP is waiting for security clearance for three camps to feed the most remote settlements in the central highlands, the Panjshir Valley and parts of Badakshan.
The organisation plans to bring in snowploughs and bulldozers to keep the passes open to its convoys for as long as possible – if local gunmen will allow. The UN agency also reports a "rising threat of ambushes from armed groups". To keep one step ahead of them, the agency has switched some of its supplies from road to river barges, and opened a tortuous new route through Turkmenistan.
Outside Kabul anarchy is widespread, and despite Western governments' efforts to blame renegade Taliban fighters, much of the violence comes from the West's friends. The winners are settling scores amongst themselves. According to Norah Niland of the UN co-ordinating office in Afghanistan, "continuing volatility and insecurity have drastically curtailed aid agency plans to redeploy international staff and scale up outreach programmes before winter generates its own set of problems."
Ms Niland reports "dissension between different military and political groups, as well as factionalism within warring parties, lawlessness and general mayhem".
For many of Afghanistan's long-suffering people,the new freedom will be hard to endure.Reuse content