Our Man in Afghanistan

Andrew Natsios dutifully searched for a place behind the dais near his boss, Secretary of State Colin Powell. Powell was taking part in a Tokyo conference where representatives from more than 60 nations were about to pledge $4.5 billion toward the reconstruction of Afghanistan. And Natsios, the man in charge of United States foreign aid programs, would be responsible for the way much of that aid is handed out.

Natsios dwells in the upper atmosphere of world power, controlling a multibillion-dollar international aid budget that is the carrot in the carrot-and-stick of American foreign policy since September 11. But he strides through the clouds with relative anonymity. So when Powell sat down next to Hamid Karzai, the interim leader of Afghanistan, Natsios found himself a seat behind the two men, close enough to be at hand if needed, but not so prominent as to be noticed in spite of his distinctive bushy salt-and-pepper mustache, thick no-nonsense eyeglasses, and unruly fringe of hair around his bald pate.

He happened to be flanked by two members of Karzai's party, who were also sitting behind their boss. And when the conference ended, he was approached by people speaking to him in Dari and Pashtu, the principal languages of Afghanistan. They didn't know who he was, Natsios recounts with a bemused grin. “People thought I was Karzai's brother.”

From Karzai's perspective, Natsios might well be his American brother. This Massachusetts politician who got his start as a state representative and served as chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, may prefer to keep a low profile, but he is now the U.S. official most responsible for making a broken Afghanistan whole again. Months before the Tokyo conference, while bombs were still raining down on Afghanistan, he had traveled to Kabul in the back of a noisy, slow-moving C-130 military transport, the highest-ranking American civilian official to visit the country since the start of the war against terrorism. “The devastation I saw there is as bad as any I have seen in 13 years of humanitarian relief work,” he says. And as administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), he is supposed to make good the United States' promise to rebuild the war-torn nation.

Afghanistan is not his only challenge. Natsios deals with the aftermath of volcanic eruptions, droughts, bloody civil wars, and raging epidemics all over the world. When trouble hits the Third World, he is the man in the Bush administration who answers the 911 calls. His decisions on food, vaccines, and economic development grants make a life-or-death difference to millions of desperate people thousands of miles from the United States. He is Mr. Disaster. He has been held prisoner by soldiers on one African trip, and his plane was narrowly missed by a mortar explosion on another. His car came under gunfire in Sarajevo. One of his prized possessions is an evil-looking sword capable of cutting the head off a man. It was a gift from a sheik.

But there is another thing that Andrew Natsios is up against. He is a man who believes the United States has an obligation to help the world's poor — in an administration that is deeply skeptical about the long-term benefits of nation-building and combating poverty in the Third World. President George W. Bush went so far as to mock the idea during his presidential campaign. And while Bush and those who control the nation's foreign policy now largely recognize the benefits of international relief in the war against terrorism, they do not necessarily share Natsios's sense of moral purpose.

Natsios, who is 52, has gone from being an apostle of conservatism in liberal Massachusetts to a man with an equally daunting mission: to do nothing less than eradicate global poverty. He was a fierce champion of famine relief for North Korea in the face of the indifference and even hostility of many of his fellow Republicans. He worked for five years for World Vision, an enormous Christian international relief organization. He is against abortion, yet just authorized the purchase of half a billion condoms to combat the spread of HIV in the Third World, particularly Africa. “I get away with it,” he says with a shrug, “because I am conservative.”

For Natsios, his job at the head of USAID is not merely a political appointment for a longtime loyal party man and Bush supporter, he says. “It's become a calling.”

Twenty years ago, Andrew Natsios traveled the back roads of Massachusetts for a different cause: as a missionary in the service of Reaganism. At the time, he was chairman of the Massachusetts Republican State Committee, a position former state Representative George Keverian of Everett once likened to being president of Common Cause in Sicily. Natsios was undeterred. “No meeting was too small or too far,” remembers Dan Eramian, a former GOP operative. “If there were a half-dozen people to convert, he would go. He has always operated with the idea he is on some sort of global mission, whether it be converting people in Attleboro to Reaganism or feeding people in Bangladesh.” Leon Lombardi, a Land Court judge in Boston who served in the legislature with Natsios, says, “He always believed very strongly and very emotionally in his issues and his causes.”

As a devout conservative in the 1970s and early 1980s, Natsios may have been a harbinger of things to come nationally, but he was an aberration in his home state, which was traditionally a national incubator for far more liberal politicians. His own Greek immigrant grandparents, mill workers in Lowell and Haverhill, never became citizens but believed in the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the architect of Social Security. Natsios's home-state senator when he was growing up in the placid white-bread western suburb of Holliston was John F. Kennedy, who called an entire generation to public service. Natsios's mother, Eta, who now lives in Westboro, was a Democrat.

Yet in the 1960s and 1970s — while many of his peers were getting high, dropping out, and demonstrating against the war in Vietnam — Natsios became an active young college Republican at Georgetown University, joined the Army ROTC, and was religious enough to consider becoming a Protestant minister. He insisted (and still insists) that he be called “Andrew,” never “Andy.” Natsios attributes his conservative bent to his late father, Basil, a civilian employee at the Army research labs in Natick, who he says was a “secret Republican.” He considers himself part of a wave of second-generation ethnic Republicans like Al D'Amato and Peter King in New York. Natsios and his fellow conservatives constantly hectored the liberals for profligacy and called for lower taxes and smaller government.

While in the State House, Natsios became one of the “four horsemen,” along with fellow Massachusetts legislators Leon Lombardi, Andrew Card, and Paul Cellucci, when the first George Bush sought the Republican nomination for president in 1980. Bush lost to Ronald Reagan but was chosen as Reagan's vice presidential running mate. In 1988, he was elected president. Card, then Bush's deputy chief of staff, wanted Natsios to become head of the Latin American section at USAID. Dictatorships were toppling all over Latin America at the time, and Card considered Natsios the ideal person to nurture the growth of democracy there. But the late Alan Woods, then administrator of USAID, insisted Natsios head up the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, the agency's quick-response division, which responded to natural and man-made disasters all over the world.

His first week on the job, in June of 1989, the Chinese government massacred students in Tiananmen Square, more than 800 people died in the worst train wreck in the history of the Soviet Union, and the commander of a rebel force in the Sudan made an impassioned and personal plea to Natsios for help for his country, where more than a quarter of a million people had already died of starvation. When he arrived in southern Sudan on a steamy day that August, Natsios was taken prisoner by machine gun-toting guards for 10 hours on the grounds that he did not have the proper documentation. The next year, his plane narrowly escaped a mortar explosion in Eritrea; the year after that, his car came under a barrage of gunfire in Sarajevo. He laughingly recalls thinking the car was being stoned until a British military commander shouted, “Andrew, get on the floor! They are shooting at us!”

Natsios says it was his background in Massachusetts politics, of all things, that prepared him for the worldwide succession of disasters he confronted. “In Massachusetts, you are not given a second chance,” he says. “You fall once, and the wolves are on you, and you're gone.”

After only his first week at USAID, he says, he was hooked.

Because Natsios was a political appointee, however, he was forced to leave his job when Democrat Bill Clinton took office. He became vice president of the nonprofit Christian antipoverty organization World Vision, where he made his reputation in the international humanitarian world by bucking the system to get food to North Korea. More than two million people, or 10 percent of the population, had starved to death in that country, but providing relief to one of the worst police states in the world was not popular — particularly with conservatives in his own party, who felt the communist nation deserved whatever misery came its way. Natsios says the only thing that mattered was that people were starving. He “is not what you expect in a Republican politician, but Andrew's commitment to politics is subservient to his commitment to service,” says Bruce Wilkinson, a senior vice president at World Vision.

Natsios returned to Massachusetts when his friend Paul Cellucci succeeded William Weld as governor and named him secretary of administration and finance, the top administrative job in state government. He went on to head the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority for a year after cost overruns on the Big Dig turned it into a national scandal.

But when George W. Bush became president last year, Card became the White House chief of staff and Natsios a shoo-in for the job as head of USAID. His friends say he wanted nothing else. “He personifies 'compassionate conservative,'” says Card. At his Senate confirmation hearing, Natsios described the principles underlying his world view this way: “I believe that we live in a fallen world inhabited by imperfect people who stubbornly resist other people's dreams of paradise.” He also said that the United States should never stray too far from its moral standards in its foreign policy, that incremental reforms can be effective, and that the foundations of any stable and prosperous society are work, family, community, religion, and the private sector.

But Natsios's single-mindedness, coupled with his unusual candor, can mean trouble in the ritualized Kabuki world of Washington, and not just over aid to North Korea. “He is outspoken,” says Catherine Bertini, executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme and a longtime friend of Natsios. “He always pushes the envelope.” Last year Congresswoman Maxine Waters, a Democrat from California, called for Natsios's resignation when he said Africans in rural areas could not properly administer the drugs for treating HIV, the virus that can lead to AIDS, because they didn't understand the concept of time. A Democratic friend counseled him to grovel to win back the favor of the black congressional caucus, a significant constituency for African aid programs, but Natsios still grumbles he was right.

Expressing disagreement with an administration that prizes discipline and loyalty is also risky; already, the Bush administration has forced out the head of the Army Corps of Engineers, a former Republican congressman who disagreed in public with the adminis- tration's proposed cuts to his agency's budget. Natsios is well aware of this. When pressed at a hearing by fellow Republicans to say how much money USAID needed to do its job, Natsios demurred. “I can't mention numbers,” he said, “if I want to keep my job.”

All of this would suddenly seem insignificant after the terrorist attacks on the United States.

There are few modes of transportation more uncomfortable than flying in the back of an Air Force C-130. The chill eats into the bones, the best seat is a sling suspended from the ceiling of the cargo bay, and the thunderous engine roar is deafening. But in early November, less than two months after the terrorist attacks, Andrew Natsios caught a flight on one to become the highest-ranking American civilian to set foot in Afghanistan in 20 years.

Six days after the attacks, Natsios had convened a task force on Central Asia. It would be three more weeks before the shooting began in Afghanistan, but all signs pointed to war in the country where Osama bin Laden enjoyed the protection of the Taliban regime. Bush was vowing to track down the terrorists; no one had to tell Natsios what that meant for a population already teetering on the edge of famine. He had made a vow to himself when he took over USAID, Natsios says: “No famines on my watch.”

Despite the noise of the C-130, Natsios kept nodding off as he headed into the heart of the war zone. He was exhausted. His trip had taken him to six countries in seven days. But he was jolted alert by the conditions in Afghanistan. During his years in foreign relief work, Natsios had personally witnessed the worst misery in the world, yet even he was stunned by what he saw. From the air, the countryside looked like a moonscape, the result of two decades of nonstop civil war. The view from the ground was equally alarming. Years of war had destroyed the roads, irrigation systems, hospitals, schools, and government buildings. The once-lush orchards and vineyards, which produced some of the most delectable raisins and apricots in the region, are now barren. Seven out of every ten Afghan citizens are malnourished. One out of every four children dies before reaching the age of five. Diseases almost unknown in the West, such as scurvy and tuberculosis, are epidemic. Malnourished children are so weak they routinely die from measles. The Taliban looted the central bank before losing power, so the government is broke. Thousands of civilians lose limbs to land mines each year. Two-thirds of the adults cannot read or write. “It's bad,” Natsios says tersely.

USAID will spend about $8 billion next year. That figure would represent a rounding error for the Department of Defense and is less than one-half of one percent of the federal budget. Yet the stakes for Natsios's corner of the bureaucracy have skyrocketed. During his presidential campaign, George W. Bush scoffed at the very notion of “nation-building.” He is not scoffing now.

“There is an understanding that a stable world order requires us to do something about the disparities between the prosperous and the poor world,” Natsios says. Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican and member of the Foreign Relations Committee, says the administration now recognizes that it has a vested interest in humanitarian relief for Afghanistan after spending $1 billion a month on the antiterrorism campaign.

Natsios is speeding development assistance to Afghanistan. His agency, he says, has never moved so much money in so short a period of time for reconstruction. Still, it is struggling with mere basics — giving people jobs rebuilding roads so they can buy food in the markets, and opening schools to safeguard children, particularly teenagers who are prime recruits for the militias. Some 48,000 tons of fast-growing, drought-resistant wheat seed, dyed hot pink to discourage the hungry from eating it, is being distributed, and the agency is using U.S. satellite photos to measure moisture in the ground and find the best growing areas. Ten million new textbooks are being printed and distributed, teachers are being retrained and paid by the U.S. government, and more than two million Afghan children are being vaccinated against measles.

Ongoing instability in Afghanistan is complicating Natsios's job. So is the fact that neoisolationist elements in his own party do not share his vision. This year, Natsios doubled the number of condoms to be distributed in the Third World — mostly Africa, where AIDS threatens to kill millions. An antiabortion conservative, he says the condom program is a sensible way to keep the 28 million infected people in sub-Saharan Africa, most of them heterosexuals, from spreading the disease and leaving behind 40 million orphans. An unexpected ally is Senator Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican who tried to abolish USAID during the Clinton years. Helms is leaving office this year and wants to greatly expand funding for AIDS programs overseas, an 11th-hour conversion attributed to the influence of Christian missionaries.

But Natsios is constantly being second-guessed by many other Republicans and Democrats about how he spends money. More money to fight tuberculosis means less for basic education. More money for agriculture could cut into the allotment for controlling HIV. Natsios also has his own ideas about how to allocate his agency's resources. He is increasing spending for agricultural development, for example. After all, is it practical to feed a child until age five, only to leave that child's future in question because his parents can't grow or buy food? This conviction grew in part out of his own family's experience. A great uncle died of starvation in Greece during World War II, one of half a million Greeks who perished when the Germans took their food to provision Erwin Rommel's army in North Africa. But even here, critics from within the international relief world complain that the emphasis on rural agriculture comes at the expense of yet another trend in developing states: urbanization, in which a flood of hungry people is abandoning the countryside for cities.

As in any risky situation, a lot of things are going wrong. The humanitarian aid packages dropped on Afghanistan by U.S. military planes were the same bright yellow color as unexploded bombs. It wasn't easy explaining that one on Capitol Hill. Moreover, the bean counters at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), an arm of the White House, are known to deal harshly with anyone who crosses them. After pressure from Natsios and others, Bush proposed doubling U.S. foreign aid funding over the next five years, but OMB knew nothing about it. In the bureaucratic turf wars over federal funds, payback very likely lies ahead.

At the moment, however, Natsios's goal and the U.S. government's are one and the same: to rebuild Afghanistan. He has powerful allies. Andy Card is the doorkeeper to the Oval Office. Secretary of State Powell, the son of Jamaican immigrants, and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice share his commitment to helping the developing world, particularly Africa. Natsios is “the right person for the right job at the right time,” says Adolfo Franco, Natsios's assistant for Latin America and the Caribbean. “Andrew is in a terrific position to be playing a significant role in the administration,” says Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry, a Democrat.

Natsios sees the moment as not ironic, but historic. “There have been only three points in American history since World War II where presidents made major initiatives in foreign aid,” he says, under “Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and George W. Bush.”

Natsios says he intends to leave his mark, too. “On any given day at AID, you save hundreds of thousands of people's lives,” he says. “It must be nice on your deathbed,” he adds after a moment, “to look back on your life and realize you did something.”