Food crisis competes for Afghan "hearts and minds"

Sun Sep 28, 2008 8:59pm EDT
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By Alistair Scrutton

KABUL (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.   Continued...