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Document Friday: Afghanistan, “Heading Towards a Catastrophe” before 9/11?

December 18, 2009

On April 27, 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell read a memo entitled “Preventing an Afghan Humanitarian Situation Crisis.” It warned that Afghanistan was “verge of a widespread and precipitous famine,” and estimated that 3.8 million Afghans—more than 6 percent of the population—would be affected by the food shortage. Powell initialed the memo and wrote, “Keep me informed.”


Kabul in 2006 by Sven Dirks

According to today’s “hot doc,” provided by Archive analyst Barbara Elias, the situation in Afghanistan was “heading towards a catastrophe” due to several factors, including:

  • “Afghanistan’s worst drought in history.”
  • Twenty years of civil war in Afghanistan—which was at that time intensifying.
  • The “administrative incompetence of the Taliban.”

The memo concluded by noting that the United States had already provided $75 million in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan—and that it planned to contribute more.  It also bemoaned that “the response from other countries is disappointing.” In May 2001, the US government contributed an additional $43 million dollars of emergency aid. Some alleged the aid was a reward for the Taliban’s ban on opium production; others decried that money was given to a repressive regime which was harboring Osama Bin Laden, and had recently blown up two UNESCO-designated, sixth-century Buddha statues.

After eight years of war in Afghanistan, and as President Obama begins increasing the US troop presence, this pre-9/11 document remains significant.  It reminds us that the government of Afghanistan was unable to independently provide for its citizens even before the NATO invasion. As this memo warned, “unless immediate action is taken, the situation may deteriorate into one that is irreversible.” US policymakers were not ignorant or blind to potential problems from Afghanistan.

It also shows that assertions that the US is mired in “what is, truly, a 35-year old [Afghan] civil war” are not new.  As early as April 2001, Bush administration officials believed there was an intensifying civil war in Afghanistan.

Finally, the US famine relief actions show that Colin Powell’s Department of State felt that a stable Afghanistan was in the United States’ strategic interest before the attacks of 9/11 were ordered from within its territory.

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