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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Major Crisis Set to Only Get Worse

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- Before it became notorious as a sanctuary for terrorism, Afghanistan was already home to what may be the world's biggest humanitarian crisis.

Four years of ruthless drought had forced nearly a million people to abandon their homes in search of food, while countless others have stayed behind to live off unsavory meals of animal fodder and boiled grass.

One night last winter, a hasty settlement of tents was hit by a freak storm of heavy snow and subfreezing cold. In the morning, more than 150 people -- mostly children -- were found dead of exposure, leaving many to wonder what worse horrors could befall the Afghan people.

Now, it seems, they will find out.

With a U.S. attack expected, hundreds of thousands of Afghans are suddenly on the move, heading for the presumed safety of ancestral villages or crossing the border into Pakistan and Iran. Their flight follows the prudent departure of virtually all foreign relief workers, the linchpins of a charitable distribution system that was expected to be feeding 5.5 million Afghans -- about a quarter of the population -- by mid-fall.

The delivery of foodstuffs within Afghanistan is now nearly at a halt. Making matters worse, the Taliban has issued a new decree threatening death to any relief worker caught using a satellite telephone, an essential means of communication.

"A major crisis had already existed, and now there's a potential crisis even bigger," said Andrew Wilder, in charge of field operations in Afghanistan for the American branch of Save the Children.

"The World Food Program is not sending in any food, and we're worried that time may be running out," he said. "We need to get food in there. This is the time of year we all gear up for winter, and now there is not only winter to worry about but the aftermath of an attack."

For nearly a year, huge migrations of Afghans have made their way to refugee camps of one kind or another. These people, oddly enough, are often considered the better off. They at least could afford transportation in their escape from hunger. Left behind are those less fortunate, with no water, no seeds, no food and no savings.

Relief agencies had been trying to keep people on their land -- bringing food into remote areas through the mammoth, winding mountain passes. But on Sept. 12, the day after the attacks against the United States, the UN World Food Program -- the primary source of nourishment for nearly 4 million Afghans -- stopped transporting wheat into Afghanistan.

There were two reasons, said Khaled Mansour, spokesman for the program.

One, it became impossible to hire local trucks to deliver the grain to outlying regions; drivers were using their vehicles for the more lucrative work of carrying people who were fleeing. Two, with the foreign aid workers gone, there was no longer adequate oversight.

"We can't allow food to be diverted," said Mansour. "We have to be assured that the people who deserve the food will get it."

About 15,000 tons of food are stockpiled in Afghanistan, enough for about two weeks, he added. What follows is just another of that nation's coming cataclysms.