Democracy’s Vital Ingredient — Food

It was George Marshall, architect of the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt Europe after World War II, who observed that "democratic principles do not flourish on empty stomachs." Marshall's words ring true today as a lesson for the fledgling democracy of Afghanistan, where over eight million people are at risk from hunger and malnutrition.

The Bush administration would be wise to heed Marshall's warning and rally the international community to increase food aid to the Afghan government.

Following World War II, food shipments were an integral aspect of the Marshall Plan. By helping Europe get back on its feet, the United States was strengthening an area of strategic interest during the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union.

Today, Afghanistan is the center of the global struggle against terrorism. Osama Bin Laden and remnants of Al-Qaida are likely hiding in Afghanistan or across the border in Pakistan. Members of the former Taliban regime, which supported Al-Qaida, are still offering resistance to the new government. But insurgent forces are not the only challenge threatening democracy in Afghanistan.

A severe drought has placed millions of Afghans in danger of hunger. In July, the United Nations and the Afghan government made a drought appeal for international food donations. To date, this appeal has not been fully answered by the international community.

Another tragedy is unfolding in the isolated mountainous regions of Afghanistan, where people are in need of food stocks to make it through the winter. The strategic placement of food supplies has to occur before the annual massive snowfalls, when it becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible, to reach these remote communities. In 2006, a shortfall in donations to the United Nations World Food Programme has put this life-saving program in jeopardy.

The United Nations warns of the dire consequences of food shortages in Afghanistan. Taliban and other resistance forces will benefit from any failure of the Afghan government to provide for its people. More Afghans will turn to cultivating narcotics for their livelihood. With the opium drug trade booming in Afghanistan, this regression is already occurring at a startling rate. Opium money ends up in the Taliban's hands and supports the insurgency.

There is also the challenge of heading off future humanitarian emergencies by establishing food reserves within Afghanistan. This is a strategy which the Bush administration has failed to promote aggressively despite rich examples from prior administrations. A case in point is a historic food aid agreement with India forged during the Eisenhower presidency.

In 1960, the United States agreed to send India wheat and rice under a Food for Peace program. A portion of this shipment was dedicated to building a food reserve within India to cope with future emergencies. The Indian minister of agriculture stated that such a reserve was of "paramount importance," given India's massive population and frequent food shortages.

Presently, the building of a strategic grain reserve is a goal of the Afghan government. A grain reserve would offer Afghanistan some protection against future food shortages brought on by its age-old enemy of drought. With food security from a strategic reserve, Afghanistan can focus more energy on developing stronger institutions and infrastructure. But none of this will happen without robust U.S. and international aid.

It may be difficult for the United States and others to increase aid to Afghanistan in light of other ongoing humanitarian catastrophes and wars. But consider the alternative. Hunger and malnutrition put democracy at risk in a nation at the front line of fighting terrorism. It would be wise to plant the seeds today for an investment which will provide major yields in the 21st century struggle against terrorism.

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).