Food crisis adds to Pakistan-Afghanistan tensions

June 5, 2008

April photo of man at Kabul flour marketIt would be hard to think of a more complex web of problems.  Pakistan and Afghanistan face, in very different ways, severe domestic political crises which are being exacerbated by soaring prices and food shortages. Both blame each other for failing to crack down on the Taliban and al Qaeda. And now tensions are rising over attempts by Pakistan, the traditional supplier of food to Afghanistan, to curb its wheat exports to make sure it can feed its own hungry population.

For an idea of how significant this is in Afghanistan, it’s worth reading this piece in the Chicago Tribune. “Western officials – including officers with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force – say the food crisis is potentially more destabilizing to the U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai than the insurgency itself,” it says.

The website Registan.net followed this up by saying that the food crisis will drive more people into the arms of the Taliban. “Hungry, disenfranchised people are angry people,” it says. ”… every time someone can’t afford to buy bread for his family, he’ll have one more reason to … blow up some Humvees.

The World Food Programme says that emergency food aid meant to help 2.55 million Afghans affected by soaring food prices has reached only about 38 percent of the targeted population, according to IRIN, largely due to curbs on Pakistani food exports.

“One of the main reasons why food aid has not yet reached even half the targeted communities is procurement and logistical hurdles,” IRIN reports. “Initially it was decided that wheat and other food items would be procured from markets in neighbouring countries, especially Pakistan, which traditionally supplies Afghan food markets. However, rising prices have prompted Pakistani authorities to impose a strict ban on food exports, hitting WFP’s operation in Afghanistan.” 

Yet look at it from Pakistan’s point of view. It has a shaky coalition government which will become all the more vulnerable if it doesn’t make sure its people have enough food to eat. For all its interference in Afghanistan, it has also felt the burden of supporting three million Afghan refugees. 

File photo of girl in Lahore/Jerry Lampen“The priority must be on feeding the people of Pakistan, not excluding the three million Afghan refugees who still enjoy our hospitality, Hamid Karzai and company’s ingratitude notwithstanding,” wrote Ikram Seghal in The News last month. “Find me another nation in the world having so many refugees.”

Can someone see a way out of this morass? Or are Pakistan and Afghanistan condemned to stumble from crisis to crisis until historians write, with 20/20 hindsight, that whatever happens next was inevitable?  

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