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The Domino Effects of Need

July 18, 2002

Wars uproot families, villages, even cities, spilling their people across borders to live in crowded encampments threatened by epidemics and violence. For decades, hundreds of thousands of Afghans fleeing Soviet invaders and later the Taliban endured miserable conditions in Pakistan near the border of their homeland. Many more waited as unwelcome guests in Iran for the day they could go home. That day has come for far more refugees than expected.

Feeding and housing the returnees has overtaxed the new Afghan government. The countries that promised so much aid so many months ago need to pay up.

In the last four months, more than 1.2 million refugees have returned from neighboring countries to Afghanistan, nearly triple the number originally expected. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees calls it one of the largest and fastest voluntary migrations in history. Hundreds of thousands more are expected before the snow falls. Then there are the hundreds of thousands who found shelter elsewhere in the country but want to get home, moving from Kandahar to Mazar-i-Sharif or Spin Buldak to Jalalabad.

The influx has forced the U.N. refugee agency to cut back on provisions. A family of six entitled to 330 pounds of wheat a month ago now gets 220 pounds. Blankets and tarpaulins are gone, so families receive only plastic sheeting. Donors had promised the U.N. agency $271 million for refugee assistance. More than $50 million that was pledged has yet to arrive, and far more is needed for the unanticipated influx.

The government's reconstruction minister says that of the $1.8 billion in foreign aid pledged overall, Afghanistan has received only $300 million. The United States, Japan and Germany have provided the most, but the minister says even they have not delivered all they promised. So civil servants are paid late or not at all, irrigation systems are not installed and shelters are not built.

Governments that planned to spread out the aid over the year should see whether they can deliver it sooner. And Washington should start reminding other nations of their commitments and Afghanistan's need.

Washington also could entice donors by agreeing to expand the international peacekeeping force beyond Kabul, as is sought by Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Many private aid organizations say they can't provide security for their workers in territories still controlled by warlords. Until the workers and refugees feel safe, crops won't be planted and houses won't be built.

Nearly half the returned refugees have stayed in Kabul, straining the capital's thin resources, because there are no jobs in their villages.

Afghanistan's finance minister appealed this week for swift international help to cover a budget deficit of nearly $260 million. The country needs much more assistance. Above all, it needs not to be ignored, as it was in the international community after the Soviets were driven out more than a dozen years ago.

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