by William Lambers on Jun 6, 2009
Defeating the Taliban and al-Qaida is only one part of the struggle to build peace in Pakistan. Humanitarian aid for over two million people who have been displaced by the fighting is equally critical to building stability in the troubled country.
Pakistan’s prime minister says the militants will be defeated, but public support will be lost if the refugees suffer. What’s at stake is not just a battle for territory, but an effort to win Pakistanis over to the side of the United States and away from the Taliban and al-Qaida. Aiding the refugees is clearly in the national interest of the United States.
The United States has long been aware of the importance of meeting humanitarian crises, such as the many encountered during World War II. In 1945, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower warned of the consequences of food shortages in Belgium and Holland, noting “the result will be increasing unrest, civil disturbances and disorders.” The United States and its allies provided food for the hungry even during the push to finish off the German army.
Near the end of World War II, millions of people were starving in the Nazi-occupied part of the Netherlands. U.S. and British planes airlifted food, and days later Canadian truck convoys helped bring more supplies to those in need. This food for the Dutch did not materialize out of thin air, although maybe it looked so from those on the ground.
It was no easy task to stockpile and preposition food for this emergency, all the while combating the Nazi war machine. None of the allies’ heroics in the Netherlands could have occurred without planning ahead.
Today, the United States and the international community share the responsibility to feed displaced Pakistanis or risk the consequences — chaos and unrest. No one wants to see instability in Pakistan where the Taliban, al- Qaida and nuclear weapons are all too close for comfort.
The U.N.’s World Food Programme is distributing food to refugees at a number of distribution hubs it has set up. Josette Sheeran, its director, states, “Food is a basic building block for life, and in Pakistan, it goes beyond immediate nourishment by providing peace and stability to the human tide of people uprooted by conflict.”
But this food supply will not last forever. It has to be replenished. The number of people in Pakistan depending on food aid is steadily growing as the conflict continues.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, says a tragedy is unfolding. He called for other nations to help — if not for pure humanitarian reasons, then in their “enlightened self interest.”
It was this enlightened self-interest that characterized the U.S. response to fighting hunger in the aftermath of World War II. Food aid to Europe strengthened those nations that were threatened with political instability. These same countries would ultimately be key allies in the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union. As Secretary of State George C. Marshall said in 1947, “We can act for our own good by acting for the world’s good.” Marshall’s words helped propel an interim aid program to help feed Austria, Italy and France. This act preceded the even larger Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe.
Failure to feed the Pakistani refugees will increase resentment against both the Pakistani government and the United States. This would strengthen the militant forces seeking to undermine the Pakistani government. The resulting chaos could lead to the ultimate horror, nuclear weapons falling into terrorist hands.
Unrest in Pakistan also impacts efforts to secure peace and democracy in neighboring Afghanistan. It is from Pakistan that the Taliban and al-Qaida have launched attacks against Afghanistan.
As long as desperation and poverty exist in Pakistan, so will forces like the Taliban and al-Qaida. Peace in Pakistan will not be won by weapons alone. It will also take the basics of food, medicine and shelter. The Pakistani refugees may have escaped the war zones, but they are still facing the most relentless of all foes — hunger.
William Lambers is an author and historian who partnered with the World Food Programme on the book “Ending World Hunger: School Lunches for Kids Around the World” (2009).