WASHINGTON - President Bush committed the United States yesterday to spending $320 million on food and medicine for impoverished civilians in Afghanistan, who are bracing for a harsh winter and possible military strikes in their country.
In his announcement, Bush sought to make clear that he is waging a campaign against terrorists and governments that harbor them, not against Muslims.
"This is our way of saying that, while we firmly and strongly oppose the Taliban regime," the president said, "we are friends of the Afghan people."
"To overcome evil, the great goodness of America must come forth and shine forth," Bush said, speaking to employees at the State Department. "One way to do so is to help the poor souls in Afghanistan. And we're going to do so."
Already, the United States provides more humanitarian aid than any other nation to the Afghan people. But the plight of the country's 23 million residents, who have suffered through 22 years of civil war and four years of drought, could worsen if the United States uses military force against the Taliban regime for harboring Osama bin Laden and other suspected terrorists.
U.S. officials signaled yesterday that the aid effort would be the first phase of a broad campaign to rebuild Afghanistan once the Taliban regime is no longer in power. While not making it an explicit goal, Bush and his advisers have said they want to see a different government in Afghanistan and have urged people there to turn against the Taliban.
Yesterday, some administration officials seemed to be looking ahead to a post-Taliban period of transition in which the United States would provide help.
"The people of Afghanistan deserve a better future than they have had past or present," Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said yesterday.
"And the United States, with its partners and with others around Afghanistan, is beginning to explore, also with international organizations like the U.N., how one might think about the reconstruction of Afghanistan in the future."
A senior U.S. diplomat, Richard Haass, met late yesterday in Rome with former Afghan King Mohammed Zahir Shah, who has emerged as a key player in planning a transitional government, if the Taliban are deposed. The visit with the 86-year-old king was a further sign that the Bush administration is talking with other nations about an alternative to the Taliban.
Andrew Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said yesterday that some of the food earmarked for Afghanistan would be delivered by international relief agencies as part of "food-for-work" programs. And civilians may be urged to take jobs rebuilding schools in villages, digging wells or otherwise contributing to a new infrastructure in the country.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the distribution of humanitarian aid in Afghanistan would also include military airdrops of supplies - a potentially dangerous mission given the risk of encountering anti-aircraft fire from Taliban militia.
Bush has said that if the Taliban refuse to hand over bin Laden and other terrorists, the regime will meet the same fate as the terrorists. But, in announcing the new aid yesterday, the president was clearly trying to underscore a message directed to moderate Islamic states thought to be crucial to the success of a U.S. military operation in Afghanistan. "This is not a war between Christianity or Judaism, and Islam," the president said. "The teachings of Islam make it clear that peace is important, that compassion is a part of life. This is not a war between our world and their world. It is a war to save the world."
The president had already released $25 million in emergency spending - money that is included in the package announced yesterday - to help international aid agencies deal with a possible refugee crisis. Thousands of Afghans, anticipating military strikes, have tried to leave their country. United Nations officials estimate that up to 1.5 million more could flee once military action begins - to Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
Some of the $320 million in Bush's package would go to help refugees once they arrive in those neighboring countries, marking the first time in recent years that the United States would provide aid within the borders of Iran.
Neighboring countries have been overwhelmed by Afghan refugees since the Taliban took power, and the Bush administration is trying to convince those nations that it will help them deal with any worsening crisis.
But U.S. officials also said yesterday that they hope to encourage civilians to remain in Afghanistan because during a famine there is a higher death rate among people who have tried to move.
"Fifty percent of the people who move in a famine, who are already weakened from hunger and severe malnutrition, will not survive," Natsios said. "They will die along the way."