The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, November 30, 2001


Oxfam's Offenheiser looks at U.S. strategies in Afghanistan

Oxfam America president Ray Offenheiser gave fellow Carlisleans a wide-ranging overview of the challenges facing humanitarian organizations like his own in Afghanistan as well as the dilemmas that confront those responsible for American foreign policy post-September 11.

From chaos to Taliban rule

Speaking at the First Religious Society on November 18, he recounted the steps that led to the present chaos in that ravaged country, starting with the Russian incursions in the 1980s. Those invaders were eventually defeated by non-Communist Afghan fighters backed by US-recruited, -armed and -financed Mujahadin from Arab countries.

With the Russian withdrawal and the end of the Cold War, the US lost interest in the country, while many Arab mercenaries remained to fight for local warlords and ethnic militia, and to engage in the drug trade. The resulting political vacuum was finally filled in the early 90s when the fundamentalist Taliban gained the upper hand over their opponents, including the so-called Northern Alliance, and were welcomed in Kabul as harbingers of law and order. By the time the populace awakened to the real nature of the regime, it was too late. The Taliban was in control, infiltrated by Arab Mujahadin and financed by fundamentalist sources from outside - in other words, fertile ground for Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Then in 1998 came the three year drought that left three-and-a-half million Afghans facing starvation.

Aid groups expelled

Rising to the challenge, the United Nations (UN) set up eight food hubs, and an Oxfam staff of 160 organized and managed truck convoys taking provisions to 750,000 people in rural areas and to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in many corners of the country, in addition to delivering and distributing food to refugee camps in Pakistan. Until September 11, they and the other humanitarian groups working in the country were able to do their work unhindered by the Taliban, but once the bombing started, Offenheiser said they were ordered to leave the country. This happened just as the number of needy persons, including both refugees and internally displaced persons swelled to seven-and-a-half million, many remaining inside Afghanistan itself. The existence of the latter group complicated the situation, he explained, because internally displaced people have no rights under international law or United Nations rules, and the neighboring countries of Pakistan, Iran and the Central Asian Republics had closed their borders and even pushed refugees back inside their own country.

War and winter

With the approach of winter, there was growing pressure in the US and other countries to do something fast, before roads in the northern part of the country became impassable. Offenheiser noted that under the Geneva Convention humanitarian organizations are supposed to stay out of communication with the military, but in this complex situation, the interface has of necessity closed somewhat. Since the NGOs reported that the most urgent problems lay in the northern tier of provinces, U.S. Assistance for International Development (AID) head Andrew Natzios agreed to try to convince the U.S. military to help get food through from the Central Asian Republics. The strategy was to drive the Taliban out of the northern tier before the snow fell, and Offenheiser observed, "The military has worked that strategy very well."

Unfortunately, success in clearing main supply routes has solved only half the problem. According to Offenheiser, bulk shipments to the cities are proceeding at last, but Pakistani and other truckers do not dare go into the southern countryside because of bandits and rogue military units. Therefore, humanitarian groups including Oxfam are urging that large scale U.N. or military air drops be organized to reach isolated communities.

Foreign policy dilemmas

Turning from immediate humanitarian imperatives, Offenheiser cited two formidable foreign policy dilemmas, namely, how to fight an implacable terrorist opponent non-militarily, and how to fashion a democratic regime for Afghanistan in concert with internal war lords and regional "allies" whose goals may not coincide with our own. In the past, when threatened, the U.S. confronted a great power adversary; this time, he said, we find ourselves vulnerable, but to a challenge that is not coming from a national adversary. Not only is an effective military strategy hard to craft, but even the traditional foreign policy tools don't work. We can't 'negotiate' with a network of elusive fanatics.

Citing another example of the conundrum the alliance faces, Offenheiser asks, "How could a U.N. force take over Kabul with the Northern Alliance already in there?" He pointed out that the U.N. forces are not heavily armed and mustering them takes too much time. Hence the thinking at the U.N. as of two weeks ago was to put "national contingents" in, a la the Australians in East Timor. However, in a follow-up telephone interview on November 25, Offenheiser reported that the British had offered to send in troops to stage for an eventual U.N. force, but the U.S. was opposed, presumably because they want to get Bin Laden and the Al Qaeda leaders first, unencumbered.

The absence of a cohesive, clearly-articulated U.S. strategy has presented its own tensions. Offenheiser has found that even our closest friends in Europe fear the U.S. may go into Iraq and destabilize the entire Middle East.

New focus needed

Fearing that "our leaders have little more idea than we do" of the best plan for our future national security needs, Offenheiser believes that America needs to think collectively about that future, turning our backs on the old cold war shibboleths. For example, he termed our pre-September 11 foreign policy concern with missile shields "ridiculous" under the present circumstances and called for some more appropriate approaches, such as a rapid defusing of excess Russian nuclear weaponry and insufficiently protected atomic wastes, which constitute an irresistible temptation to global terrorists.

Offenheiser also pointed to the fact that recent U.S. policy has seemed too "disengaged" from the rest of the world, witnessing our withdrawal from the Kyoto accord, our refusal to sign the anti-landmine treaty and failure to pay our U.N. dues. He noted that, while a recent Newsweek poll of Americans showed they believed the U.S. percentage of aid to foreign countries to be about 15 percent of Gross National Product (GNP), the fact is that only one tenth of one percent of GNP goes for nonmilitary aid, as against one seventh of one percent for the rest of the industrialized world, putting us in 25

The Oxfam head also recommended that the U.S. reframe its "ambivalent" attitude toward the United Nations, support a stronger role for that world body and agree to help fund it. "If globalization is a good thing, as we say it is, then we should support internationalization where it can really do some serious good," he commented.

An ignorance of Islam

Above all Offenheiser urged all Americans to learn more about the Islamic world and the wide differences that prevail within it. Afghanistan and Pakistan are mostly Sunni Moslem; Iran is predominantly Shia, while the Central Asian Republics are mixed. He described the South Asian Moslems as tending toward a relaxed, more spiritual Sufi approach to their faith, while the reigning Sunnis of Saudi Arabia espouse a harsh, puritanical Wahabi doctrine. In any event, he said the Islamic fundamentalists, even in Pakistan, draw only about eight percent of the vote, with the militant extremists a tiny minority of those.

Offenheiser observed that the American media have presented an overly harsh picture of Islamic fundamentalists. Asserting that the majority are not in sympathy with terrorism, he likened them to our own Christian right, which would like to see more religious precepts infused into both government and education. To illustrate, he quoted a visiting Moslem cleric from Bangladesh as representing the vast majority of his Islamic co-religionists when he declared, "No religion in the civilized world can countenance what happened September 11."

2001 The Carlisle Mosquito