Food crisis competes for Afghan “hearts and minds”

r1.jpgKABUL (Reuters) – Muhammad Nabi reflects one of Afghanistan’s microcosms – a farmer once besieged by the Taliban, then by drought, who then fled to the city and now rails against food prices he blames on the very government he voted for.

His fight to feed his family is echoed across this country and may undermine the “hearts and minds” reconstruction campaign by the Western-backed government of President Hamid Karzai to win over Afghans as a battle against a Taliban insurgency rages.

“I don’t see any improvement since the Americans came,” said Nabi, who says he is around 35. He stood by his wheelbarrow that allows him to eke out a back-breaking living by ferrying goods around the old quarter of the capital.

“I voted for Karzai but it was a waste of time,” said Nabi, who is the main breadwinner earning around $2 a day to help support a family of nine. “I’m hungry now.”

Afghanistan is facing one of its worst food shortages in years as winter approaches, with prices of the staple wheat rising 60 percent in the first half of the year after Pakistan slapped export bans, a poor harvest and drought.

Rising prices are hitting what is already one of the poorest countries in the world, with more than half of the population living below the poverty line.

Households dependent on wage labor can afford to buy a quarter of the wheat they bought in 2007, according to the World Food Program. This in a country where the majority of household wages are spent on basic foods such as cereals.

The crisis has added to the woes of Karzai, already facing a strengthening Taliban insurgency in the south and east. His government is criticized in many parts for its reliance on corrupt officials to rule.

“You see that along the highway (linking Kabul with the south) kidnappings happen,” said Ahmad Wali Karzai, a brother of the president and head of the provincial council for Kandahar, the main city in southern Afghanistan.

“Attacks take place regularly. The reasons for all these are shortage of jobs, the bad economy and high food prices.”

Across the country, high food prices have proved just one more blow for Afghans, already frustrated by what they see as a slow rate of development since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban.

“People’s frustrations about the Karzai government are increasing,” said Maria Kuusisto of Eurasia risk consultancy group. “The Taliban are trying to tap into this frustration, especially in areas where they are not strong militarily.”

Dependent on food imports and aid, global food price rises have hit Afghanistan more than many other countries.

Export curbs by Pakistan, its main source of food imports, have pushed up prices despite some stability in the last two months.

“I have five people in my family, but we cannot afford to have a full meal even once a day,” said Mohammad Ghani, 33, in western Herat province, where he has been living for three years after returning from Iran as a refugee.

“I think for their survival, I would resort to anything, theft, abduction and even joining the Taliban.”

The WFP says a $400 million emergency appeal for food should allow most Afghans to survive the winter, when hundreds of villages can be cut off from the outside world.

But underlying high prices of basic goods will not go away.

“Unfortunately, expectations for the remainder of the year are not promising,” the WFP said in its semi-annual report.

“Food prices in Afghanistan are expected to remain at levels far higher than in past years, while the country is again facing a very poor cereals harvest.


In Kabul’s main wholesale market of Bagh-e-Qazi, traders blame corrupt police and officials for rising costs of transporting lorries from the south.

“Everyone extorts money,” said Mohammad Hassan, a wholesaler. “There is just no security.”

The insurgency has already sparked fears that much of the south and east of the country could become ungovernable.

And while most villagers will not die from famine thanks to food aid, hardships may push them toward government opposition.

In the southern city of Kandahar, the Taliban are using food prices and lack of jobs, along with coalition bombings, to persuade people to join their movement, inhabitants say.

“The Taliban will take advantage of food shortages,” said Professor Wadir Safi, a politics professor at Kabul University and former cabinet minister.

“They look at us, analyze us, look at ways to take advantage of our problems. If the winter sets in with food shortages, they will find it much easier to recruit people.”

Karzai himself expressed his worries at a South Asian summit two months ago that high food prices were a key problem.

“High food prices are putting reforms, growth strategies, and most importantly, lives, at risk,” Karzai said.

Even in middle class districts of Kabul, anger at food prices are heard. Some people express nostalgia for life after the 1979 Soviet invasion, despite despising the occupation itself.

“American soldiers are here but there is no food or peace,” said Jan Agha, an attendant at a Russian-built swimming pool still operating. “When the Russians were here, food was cheaper.”

Other Afghans worry how much they can take.

“It is really getting tougher and tougher as the day goes. People are hungry and angry and hungry people can do anything,” said shopkeeper Abdul Mateen in the northeastern province of Badakhshan.

“People are losing hope in the government and foreigners. I do not know what will happen, but it does not look good.”

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