The United Nations made its first airlift of food into Afghanistan on Friday, taking 17 tons of wheat flour from Tajikistan to the northern city of Feyzabad amid increasing concerns that delivering essential supplies of food, clothing and medicine before the onset of winter will be difficult.
The airlift, arranged by the UN's World Food Programme, came after days of frustration caused by the continuing military instability in northern Afghanistan and the lack of a reliable overland route into the country from either Tajikistan or Uzbekistan.
Burkhard Oberle, the head of the WFP's Afghan operations, said in a statement: "Time is ticking, winter has started, and we need to get this food as quickly as possible into the less accessible regions of north-eastern Afghanistan."
The optimism among humanitarian relief workers that came with the rapid collapse of the Taliban across much of Afghanistan in the past week and a half has not yet translated into effective aid deliveries.
Because of uncertainty over security in Mazar-i-Sharif, the largest city in the north, and the continuing siege of Kunduz – the key crossing from Afghanistan into central Asia – by Northern Alliance forces, the Friendship Bridge linking Afghanistan and Uzbekistan has remained closed.
Meanwhile, temperatures are already plummeting in the north-east. The intense cold will rapidly spread across the country's mountainous regions before it eventually reaches the plains. With as many as six million Afghans facing the risk of starvation this winter, half of them in the north, the aid agencies have been reduced to slipping in what they can, where they can.
Barges packed with food, blankets and other essentials have been sent by river from Termiz, in Uzbekistan, to Hairaton, Afghanistan, over the past week.
Yesterday, the Iranian Red Crescent began distributing 125 tons of food and other supplies to more than 1,000 families living in two overcrowded refugee camps outside Herat in western Afghanistan.
A 30-truck convoy of winter clothing, blankets, cooking sets, hurricane lamps and books has arrived at the Turkmenistan border. Officials from the International Organisation for Migration in Geneva said they hoped that the trucks would be able to cross into Afghanistan this weekend. The organisation also hopes to begin airlifts from Pakistan next week.
Negotiations are under way with General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Northern Alliance commander, to guarantee the safety of convoys arriving in the area overland, and officials are hoping for a breakthrough that will enable the flow of aid to accelerate rapidly.
Meanwhile, essential supplies, including milk for malnourished children, are simply sitting in locked warehouses in border towns such as Termiz – frustratingly close to the areas where they are desperately needed.
The United States has come in for criticism from some quarters for failing to make the humanitarian operation enough of a priority while it continues to focus its efforts on its military campaign and the hunt for Osama bin Laden and his al-Qa'ida lieutenants.
The drop of hundreds of thousands of emergency rations packets from warplanes has been widely dismissed as a propaganda operation that has failed to meet the real needs on the ground.
Moreover, the rations packets are yellow – the same colour as the American air force's cluster bomb casings – which has meant many Afghans are too terrified to approach them.Reuse content