A lack of security in Afghanistan is frustrating international relief efforts, prompting angry recrimination among those seeking to help vulnerable Afghans. Some humanitarian aid workers blame Uzbekistan for compounding aid distribution difficulties. The Uzbek government has been reluctant to open the Friendship Bridge, a crucial transit link between Central Asia and Afghanistan, without international guarantees that the span can be secured. At the same time, UN officials have complained about non-governmental organizations (NGOs) pushing ahead with hastily conceived aid efforts.
Northern Afghanistan remains a dangerous place for humanitarian aid workers to operate. Isolated bands of Taliban fighters remain active in the area, helping to fuel an atmosphere of lawlessness. Northern Alliance forces have thus far not been able to ensure security along roads, and they have blocked a UN plan to have British and French troops provide cover for relief convoys. US military officials say that the mission of American units in Northern Afghanistan, including the 10th Mountain Division, does not include providing security on roads, or along the country's northern border.
The inability to widely distribute humanitarian aid is fueling concern about large numbers of Afghans starving this winter. According to the UN World Food Program, many Afghans are at present unable to gain access to NGO aid distribution networks.
In early November, shortly after the Taliban consolidated their forces around their stronghold of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, international aid organizations touted the Uzbek city of Termez, on the Afghan border, as the hub for aid efforts in the north. But Tashkent has so far not permitted relief convoys to use the Friendship Bridge, the only span between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. If the brige were open, aid vehicles would be able to make the journey between Termez and Mazar-i-Sharif, northern Afghanistan's main city, in about two hours.
Uzbekistan does allow humanitarian supplies to be shipped by barge across the Amu-Darya River, a costly and time consuming process. These barges deliver up to 300 tons of humanitarian aid every day, which is merely a "symbolic" amount, according to Gil Gonzalez, a spokesman for the French aid group Action Contre La Fain (Action Against Hunger). Some estimates place the number of Afghans in northern regions who are dependent on aid at 3.4 million.
According to Uzbekistan's Ministry of Extraordinary Situations 2,000 tons of aid had been delivered to Afghanistan via Termez as of November 28. In contrast, five times that amount has been shipped to Afghanistan through Turkmenistan, a route that takes four days, and is complicated by Turkmen visa requirements. With the Friendship Bridge closed, Turkmenistan has emerged as a leading aid conduit for Afghan relief operations.
Some local observers say the Uzbek government's reluctance to open the bridge is in part connected to fears about a large influx of refugees into Uzbekistan. There is also reportedly concern that some Taliban fighters could slip into Uzbekistan posing as refugees and become a source of instability within Uzbekistan, which has sought to contain a three-year insurgency waged by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
Other observers, including some aid workers, say the authoritarian system established by President Islam Karimov slows the official decision-making process by discouraging local officials from taking the initiative. Low-level officials seem terrified of taking any responsibility for decisions, fearing that one wrong move could ruin their careers, observers say. Ultimately, no significant initiative can be adopted in the country without Karimov's approval, observers add.
Uzbek authorities insist that their decision to keep the bridge closed is based purely on security calculations. "As soon as stability is restored in northern Afghanistan, we will consider opening the bridge," said Uzbek Foreign Minister spokesman Bahomir Umarov.
While aid workers recognize that a variety of factors are responsible for aid distribution problems, they suggest Uzbekistan is erecting artificial barriers. "The fact that the Uzbeks are blocking this [aid] is definitely not a good thing," says Robert Templer, Asia program director for the International Crisis Group. "None of this surprises me, because Uzbekistan has been a very demanding and unreliable partner to every foreign interlocutor - whether it be aid organizations, or the IMIs [international monetary institutions] or foreign investors."
Some aid organizations are pulling up stakes in Termez and looking to reestablish their operations elsewhere. For example, the French aid group Médecins du Monde (Doctors of the World) pulled its crew out of Termez on November 21 with the intention of using the Turkmen aid route.
Given the sensitivity of operating in Uzbekistan, the US and UN officials refuse to criticize Karimov's authoritarian regime for its hesitation on opening the bridge. "We are very hopeful that in the near term, perhaps a few days, perhaps a week, we will be able to open the Friendship Bridge which will bring an increased amount of humanitarian assistance," General Tommy Franks, the commander of US operations in Afghanistan, cautiously declared during his recent visit to Tashkent.
Meanwhile, UN officials have strongly criticized non-governmental organizations for complaining about the closed border. These aid organizations "are turning up at the last minute trying to do something that others have spent months setting up," said Michael Huggins, a spokesman for the UN World Food Program.
Antoine Blua is a freelance writer who specializes on Central Asian affairs.