On-The-Record Briefing Regarding AfghanistanBear McConnell, Director of the Central Asia Task Force for the US Agency for International Development
October 26, 2001
MR. REEKER: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome back to the State Department. As you know, for a long time now, Afghanistan has been facing a serious humanitarian crisis, 22 years of civil war, at least three years of serious drought in the region, and some five years of Taliban misrule. The United States has been the largest donor of humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people, providing food, shelter, and other things.
We are pleased today to have with us Bear McConnell, the Director of the Central Asia Task Force for the US Agency for International Development. He recently returned from a trip last week to Pakistan and can provide us an update on the US humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan under the programs that President Bush has highlighted.
So I will turn it directly over to Mr. McConnell, and let him deliver a few remarks and take your questions. And we welcome you to that.
MR. McCONNELL: Well, good morning. With apologies to those who may have heard some of this already. Actually, it wasn't last week, it was this week that Susan and I were in Pakistan. We arrived back here at 8 o'clock last night, after a journey that actually took longer than we were there.
But I'd really like to talk first about how we got there, and how we got there was on a US Air Force C-17. That's significant to me for a variety of reasons. Because it demonstrates the fact that this is a government commitment here. The Department of Defense is kindly offering some use of US military aircraft at no cost to the Agency for International Development. Our part of the deal is, we provide the humanitarian goods, and they provide the transportation.
This particular mission was also interesting in that this was responding to a UNHCR request. And a UNHCR request that ultimately will ease some of the burden on the Government of Pakistan, which as you all know has been extremely generous over a whole lot of years in hosting some days 3 million, some days more than that million, Afghan refugees. We just really need to recall the gracious generosity of Pakistan in that regard.
So what did we do? We landed and provided what ultimately became 35,000 as opposed to 30,000 blankets from US stocks in Italy. These are US-made blankets, but they are from our warehouse in Italy. That the day we arrived, which was Tuesday, on that very day they were received immediately by the UN and dispatched to two refugee camps inside of Pakistan. So that was my first visit there, and I think that was sort of a great way of going to Pakistan for the first time.
I was also able to announce $26.5 million of additional grants to nine NGO PVO UN recipients, individual grants that will provide some local food, but will work on such things as winterization, health care. And I believe that's detailed in your press kits.
Last, I was able to announce the arrival, starting that day, incrementally through commercial means, of five World Health Organization medical kits. Each of these kits service a population of about 30,000 people -- I'm sorry, 10,000 people for three months. Too many numbers here. And that those were gratefully received as well.
All of this was how we got there, and what we did while we were there was have a series of meetings with NGOs, PVOs and the UN, as well of course the hospitality of Ambassador Chamberlain there, better able to understand how requirements were generated, and how we might best meet those requirements.
As you all know, on the 4th of October, President Bush announced a $320 million initiative to help the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. This is a lot of money relative to what we had been providing. As was already noted, we have been, for some time, the largest donor there. But this was a considerable increase over the something under $200 million that we did last year.
So although we have a significant amount of resources, we also have a significant amount of concern about how we can expend those resources. And to understand precisely how much should go to food, how much to winterization, how much to medical, that's really what we were up to, is learning from the World Food Program as our primary UN partner in all of this, and particularly from the NGOs and the PVOs, which despite all of the obstacles of operating in Afghanistan, and despite the fact that there are no expatriate staff inside Afghanistan, through relying on the Afghan staff of these NGOs and PVOs, some incredible work is being done inside that country.
The overall President Bush plan for this subject is interpreted in USAID as having sort of five tracks here, and I'll just tell you what those are, and then start a conversation. The first track -- I guess track is a good word there -- but the first track is to reduce the death rates. I'd like to say the word "reduce" yet again. People are going to die in Afghanistan this winter. As has already been noted, Taliban rule in our fourth year of drought -- severe drought -- and a couple of decades of civil war, have created circumstances where that is inevitable. Our objective, our first track, is to do what we can do to reduce that rate of death. And that's what our first priority is.
Second track, which relates to that, is to reduce population movement. People tend to move when there's a famine kind of situation; when they run out of other ideas, when they have consumed all of their resources and they just don't think they're going to make it where they are, then they tend to move. And history says, when that happens, they tend to die at increased rates. The death rate, on the move, is significantly worse than it is where they were.
So our objective is to get the food to where the people are, as an inducement really not to chance the movement equation. We want to intervene in markets in Afghanistan. There are still markets there. They're having trouble overcoming the fact that very few people have resources to buy things. The Afghan people have been selling their assets for some time and they are running out. Many have run out. So even if there is food there in a market, if you have no wherewithal to purchase the food, that doesn't do you much good.
So we have a team in Afghanistan right now, a team of specialists in this technique, which is frankly more sophisticated than I am. But they will be reporting to us soon on a way to sell food in the region, not necessarily in the country but in the region, to generate cash, sell food at reasonable prices which will quickly be bought. That generates cash that you inject through your NGOs and PVOs into an area of need. And the fact that there's cash there draws food there and draws -- you know, we start the market process again. That is a little more sophisticated than I am able to understand but, in fact, we have done this in Sudan, Somalia, Sri Lanka. So we will hear from that team very soon.
We want to maintain the next track, which is the integrity of the program. What that means is to ensure that the food gets to the people who need the food. Here, above all, we again rely on that Afghan staff that I was mentioning of the PVOs and the NGOs. Those people -- I mean, some of these organizations have been in Afghanistan for decades. The staffs that remain, the dedicated individuals that are trying to make this stuff go, know who the needed recipients are, and are just superb in getting the food to those people.
The last track of five is development, reconstruction. Lowercase development, lowercase reconstruction. We're talking about village projects that, through food for work or cash for work programs, some of the small projects in individual areas can be done.
I'll stop there, short of just saying what you have heard from President Bush and others over and over again, there is no quarrel with these people. The United States does not quarrel with the people of Afghanistan. We quarrel with terrorists and those who harbor them. Our job is to attempt to assist these people through a very difficult time.
QUESTION: Could I ask you a couple of just mechanical things? You know how we jump on figures, and that's why I think the government throws money figures at us. But I harbor the suspicion we're hearing the same numbers all over again, not just here, but it's been going on for weeks. New money and new money, and it's the same money, but it's new money. Is this 26-whatever beyond the 320? And secondly, you were in Pakistan -- I could look it up, of course, but you could save us a little time -- was all this announced already on your trip in Pakistan, all the things you're telling us about health kits and blankets? Or is this new information?
MR. McCONNELL: I announced those things on Wednesday morning.
QUESTION: You did all this?
MR. McCONNELL: Tuesday morning, in Pakistan.
QUESTION: In Islamabad, I guess.
MR. McCONNELL: Yes.
QUESTION: Okay. Now, is the $26.5 million part of the 320?
MR. McCONNELL: Yes and no.
MR. McCONNELL: And I'm not trying to be cute there.
QUESTION: No, I know.
MR. McCONNELL: But the problem is, new money -- the fact that the President has announced new money -- we have an incremental system. You know, we're going to get those monies in pieces. And what we're doing is extending -- some of that, maybe roughly half of that, is normal '02 budget money, which we'll get some reimbursed from the new money, some not. So what I'm saying is that it's all -- the $26.5 million is all existing money, but some of it will be replenished out of the new money, once we get those increments.
Is that as clear as mud?
QUESTION: I don't have to touch it, I don't think. I just -- if you said it was all old money, then -- all previous announced money, then I would shy away from the figure personally.
This death rate, can you provide any more information on that? I mean, I suppose you have experts in the gruesome business of calculating survival possibilities. Do you have any notion how many people's lives will be lost over the winter? No matter how hard you try to give them a blanket and a piece of bread?
MR. McCONNELL: That would be speculation on my part. I'd rather find one of those experts that you mentioned and come back to you.
QUESTION: Okay. But you figure there will be -- why does movement increase death rate? Because there's less ready access to the depots or to the distribution points?
MR. McCONNELL: Historically, again, by the time people start moving in time of famine, they are already so debilitated that they are in trouble. So --
QUESTION: The exertion of moving?
MR. McCONNELL: Yes. Will increase the death rate.
QUESTION: I have two questions. One is, you mentioned this team of people who are going to the marketplace. Are they US -- is this a US team, are these US people who are -- or are they Afghan?
MR. McCONNELL: They're US people.
QUESTION: Where -- can you just --
MR. McCONNELL: No, they are operating in Pakistan. They are not operating in Afghanistan.
QUESTION: I'm not too -- I just don't quite understand exactly what they're doing there. Can you kind of walk me through what these folks are doing?
MR. McCONNELL: They are going to the markets in Pakistan, they are looking at pricing and how things work there. They are talking to the marketers in Pakistan, who are conducting business in Afghanistan. It's important, I guess, from a layman's point of view, for them to understand the technical processes of the marketplace in that region in order to be able to design a program which applies this technique of market intervention, buying food with the objective of lowering prices and providing money so that those lower prices can be useful to the needy.
QUESTION: They're studying Pakistani food markets in order to have good models for eventually Afghani food markets?
MR. McCONNELL: Yes.
MR. McCONNELL: Well, Pakistan food markets is a major source of food into Afghanistan.
QUESTION: Right, of course. My second question is, the last time we were briefed by Mr. Natsios, or actually before the bombing started, he mentioned there would be a food for work program that USAID would be doing as well. Can you give us any kind of update on what's happening with the food for work program?
MR. McCONNELL: There have been food for work programs in Afghanistan for some time. And the question is, the balance between how much of that you can do, which is of course a desirable approach -- I mean, put people to do productive things, and that employs lots of people, and you pay them for their labor. World Food Program in the past has focused very heavily on food for work as the best way to not only distribute food, but also to stimulate the local economy.
You've got to balance that against the deteriorating conditions. You can provide more food more cheaply with a -- or more easily, probably better than more cheaply -- if you just give food to people, as opposed to have the overhead of administering a food for work program.
So, as the weather gets worse, the pressure is to just give food in order to get more food out there will grow. It's important to continue to maintain -- and certainly since my boss said it, I would have to support that -- that we will continue to operate a --
QUESTION: Do we have one? Do we have a new program? Is there anything new about the food for work right now?
MR. McCONNELL: New in terms of perhaps emphasis. But there are programs throughout Afghanistan administered by the NGOs and the PVOs that have food for work.
QUESTION: But this new initiative is not going towards this?
MR. McCONNELL: Again, we are going to have to wait for this team to get back and say, okay, they went there, they've got the theory. But they have to be there to figure out the practice and how to apply that theory.
QUESTION: Yes, sir. You've put the emphasis on the peoples moving to these refugee camps due to drought and other conditions, civil war. You didn't mention the ongoing bombing campaign. How much more difficult is your job being made by that campaign?
MR. McCONNELL: Well, just to clarify, I was talking -- USAID worries more about the internally displaced than we do worrying about people moving to refugee camps. We think it is better for people to be retained, just as a technical fix there. As far as the military involvement in what's going on, obviously that terrifies people under airplanes.
Now, I think we have heard a number of reports from PVOs and NGOs that say people have come to realize that this is a very focused military action, which it is intended to be. And the realization is, I think, growing on the ground that the focus is on the military targets. And we hear -- and this is anecdotal -- people say things like the people on the ground have sort of gone back to more normal after the initial shock of a bombing campaign. They have started to see that, okay, they're bombing airfields, so we will not go to airfields, or something like that.
The other thing I would say about military involvement and how it relates to what I worry about is the air drops that have been criticized in a number of ways. We, USAID, worked with the Central Command and provided them a list of locations where we suggested they conduct these air drops. And then this list was based on the inaccessibility and the need. And I think if you -- I have this excellent laser thing, which I will attempt to steal from the State Department when I leave -- this, you know, you can almost divide this country in half. And the area of need is in the north. We're talking generalizations here.
And why is that? Well, that is because the drought that has been going on for over three years now is focused in the north. And it goes up into Tajikistan. So what this map attempts to show you, the darker the color, the greater the need. And that's a function of drought, and it's a function of geography. This is what is called the Central Highlands. This is where we see things like 20 to 30 feet of snow in the passes in the winter.
So if the military focuses its efforts on those areas, then that is a second kind of focus and we think that's a good focus too. And then the other good news, I guess, is much of that area is relatively Taliban-free, reducing the idea of diversion.
QUESTION: What do you make of Afghans who are taking the food that has arrived, either by air drops or otherwise, and selling it?
MR. McCONNELL: That is a market force. That's all right.
QUESTION: Is that helpful to you, or is that not?
MR. McCONNELL: I think it is helpful to them to have markets that work. And if we are able to provide things that, you know, find its way into a very staggering kind of market system and maybe add a little life to that system, I have no problem with that.
QUESTION: Some of those dark areas in the north correspond directly with the Northern Alliance locations. Is it not possible to get any Americans in on the ground safely, essentially behind the lines of the Northern Alliance, as it were? Is there anybody contemplating doing that?
MR. McCONNELL: Sure, we want to. Expatriates getting into -- and not just Americans but expatriates in general will help the distribution of food.
The neighborhood is an interesting neighborhood in terms of this whole situation. I mean, traditionally much if not most of the food has come in through Pakistan. But we're finding excellent cooperation -- I'm talking humanitarian now -- with Iran. So, you know, food can start moving up this way on the west side and in, or up this way and up to the north. We're working closely with the governments of the "Stans".
Uzbekistan in particular has announced their interest in opening this so-called "Friendship Bridge" at Termiz, which people tell -- some numbers I've heard, and I think this is a good number, that you can almost put through 40 percent of the need of what you need to feed the people in most need through this bridge, the Friendship Bridge at Termiz. Uzbekistan has announced its willingness to open it. It has been reluctant to open the bridge in the past because of the fear of both the flood of refugees, and there is a terrorist organization whose objective is the overthrow of the Government of Uzbekistan, that they feel the opening of that bridge would facilitate their arrival as well. But they have said they are willing to do it. Security considerations solved.
So we see, obviously, the future of this problem is through supply from the north, and that is where our focus is. Tomorrow, I think, we're sending a new DART, disaster assistance response team, to Uzbekistan. We have a team, a team that we are growing in Islamabad. And I think as the situation evolves, we will have teams in other rim countries, sort of coordinated from Islamabad.
QUESTION: Why -- I don't quite understand this business of this market situation. Why not just inject money -- skip a step, just inject the money, rather than try to sell food in Pakistan at lower than market prices, which it would seem to me would enrage the Pakistanis, the people who run the markets, you know, undersell them to create money to -- why not just send the money in direct?
MR. McCONNELL: Well, another part of what this team is looking at -- and it is tough to do it from Pakistan, but they can't get into Afghanistan. This is not a government team; these are specialists -- civilian, private specialists. They are not just looking at doing it in Pakistan. That is called third country market intervention. They are also trying to evaluate how injecting money through the marketplace inside of Afghanistan would work.
You are at about my level of depth in this particular technique, and we are going to have to wait until this team comes back and tells us exactly how to apply this theory will be applied.
QUESTION: I have one more follow-up, if I could. There has been some comment to the effect that there has been bureaucratic problems in getting that 320 million released, getting it going. Are you seeing that at your end? Are you seeing difficulty with OMB or other aspects in getting that money to where it needs to be?
MR. McCONNELL: Gasp. You would think that I would discuss -- no. We have a bureaucratic process. It is an incremental process. There is $320 million out there, but OMB is charged with making sure that we spend it wisely, so there is a lot of interaction with them.
The key thing that we are interested in is having the flexibility to do what we need to do. And if that flexibility requires that we purchase grain locally, locally in the region as opposed to US grain, then our view would be that we need that flexibility. We're getting there.
QUESTION: I'm sorry if you went over this before I came in. But in Taliban-controlled areas where there are vulnerable populations, are they giving you a hard time in terms of delivering the food? And there have been some reports that the Taliban is planning to poison food in order to make it look like the US did it. Could you talk about what precautions are being done to ensure that that doesn't happen to your particular shipments?
MR. McCONNELL: Well, again, inside of Afghanistan, we are relying on Afghan workers, Afghan staffs of these NGOs and PVOs. It's not like -- about all we could do to prevent it -- I don't know what we could do to prevent such things. We would hope for those people to be able to let us know if it happens.
There is, as far as harassment in general, I think everyone is familiar with the NGOs that are undergoing trial there. The harassment in general is what resulted in the fact that there are no expatriates inside Afghanistan. Everybody was pulled out because of Taliban harassment. The Taliban, if you remember, a couple of weeks ago took two WFP warehouses. Between the two of them, half the country's supply or half WFP's supply of food was taken over by the Taliban through those two warehouses.
Now, they gave the one in Kabul back immediately, for a variety of reasons. And then the one in Kandahar took a while. But I can't say enough positive about the local Afghan staff there. I mean, these people are working -- and they have for years -- under intense pressures. I think they are doing an extraordinary job under extraordinary circumstances.
QUESTION: If I could follow up, if you are relying on the Afghans as far as this potential poisoning of food -- I don't want to make too much out of it, but it does seem like a pretty serious risk. Are you going to provide the local workers with testing materials or anything to test the food before it's delivered?
MR. McCONNELL: We first heard these reports at the same time you first heard these reports. And, you know, the what-can-we-do part is under discussion. We haven't figured out what we can do yet, other than to rely, again, on these incredible people.
QUESTION: Red Cross warehouses have just been hit again for the second time inside Afghanistan by the US-led air strikes. Have these misguided bombs, whatever they are, affected your program at all? Have any supplies that you may have built up inside the country been destroyed? Any other problems?
MR. McCONNELL: You know, the military part of that question, I must ask you to ask the Pentagon. But as far as our relationship with ICRC, it continues unabated.
QUESTION: That is not what I'm asking. Some Red Cross materials have been destroyed due to the air strikes. Has anything affected any supplies you may have or AID has inside the country or distribution efforts, anything like that due to the air strikes?
MR. McCONNELL: No, first of all, we give the food -- there is no USAID-owned material. What we do is give it to the UN, right? So once it goes into the country, it is the property of the UN and then given to the NGOs and PVOs. But one concept we have is we don't stockpile much inside the country. And the reason we don't is the obvious reason, that that becomes more and more attractive to the Taliban to interfere.
So, in fact, when the two warehouses were taken over by Taliban, the World Food Program immediately initiated a program of sort of bypassing warehouses and going straight to the recipients. And I think you will see, more and more, a focus on direct delivery than before.
QUESTION: Can you say more about Iran? Is this excellent cooperation you are having directly with the government, or is it with NGOs or other organizations?
MR. McCONNELL: WFP. We go to WFP, WFP goes to Tehran.
QUESTION: So why are they helping, because they don't like Taliban or because they're good-hearted people, or --
MR. McCONNELL: I would like to say both. But they don't like Taliban, as you know. Why are they helping? They have, I am sure, their own very intricate motivations. We would rather just accept their helpfulness and move on. I think perhaps the State Department could better answer the motivation part.
MR. McCONNELL: Please call collect.
QUESTION: How many refugees are you expecting along that Pakistan/Afghan border in the next two or three months?
MR. McCONNELL: The projection --
QUESTION: How many are there now and how much more do you expect that group to grow?
MR. McCONNELL: There are about 3 million inside Pakistan right now. The projections, and this is sort of what you base your worst case plan on, is a million-and-a-half additional refugees, a million of which would go to Pakistan. I think it's something like 400,000 to Iran and the rest sort of up north there.
QUESTION: I'm sorry, how many to Pakistan?
MR. McCONNELL: The projection is a million to Pakistan. Of the total guesstimate of a million-and-a-half, a million would go to Pakistan, which would bump them to around 4 million.
QUESTION: Are there going to be American AID personnel in Iran, or are there any already?
MR. McCONNELL: There are not now. Speaking purely from our point of view, we would like them to be. But again, I would have to refer you to the Department of State beyond that.
QUESTION: Following up on Iran, we were told that there was going to be some coordination on absorbing those 400,000 refugees with the Iranians and also, obviously, the Pakistanis. Can you update us on those talks?
MR. McCONNELL: No, I can't. And the reason is very simple. The Refugee Bureau in this Department would be involved in that.
QUESTION: You mentioned earlier the fact that there seemed to be this anecdotal evidence of fewer people being on the move. And, in fact, the expected influx of refugees to Iran has not happened.
Would you say that this anecdotal evidence amounts to a sign that these projections for refugee moves may turn out to be entirely wrong?
MR. McCONNELL: Well, the anecdotal reports had to do with, you know, people reacting to the air strikes. The numbers of refugees have not met the projections. That's not anecdotal; that's true, in either Iran or Pakistan. That could change tomorrow. But so far, we have not seen the numbers of refugees that we feared we might.
QUESTION: Thank you very much.