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What is an appropropriate response?
Political and philosophical considerations after the attack on the Word Trade Center

Genocide or peace

We can feed the starving Afghan millions or mount a military 
campaign. We can't do both

George Monbiot

October 2, 2001

Peace has been declared before the war has begun. Those who advocated 
the obliteration of Kabul and Baghdad have retreated in the face of 
insuperable complexity. Many of those who argued against aggression 
have relaxed as the threat of carpet bombing or nuclear strikes has 
lifted. Most people now appear to agree that attacking a few military 
targets and deploying special forces will do no great harm.

Our government, like many others, has promised humanitarian aid. The 
government of Pakistan has begun to withdraw support from the Taliban 
and to push forward other leaders in the hope of engineering a 
noiseless coup. Instead of the terrifying carnage promised by a 
wounded nation, the response to the attack on New York is beginning 
to look magnanimous. The needs of both the western nations seeking to 
control terrorism and the Afghan people seeking to escape starvation 
can, almost everyone believes, be met calmly and sequentially.

But the new consensus has missed something. It's a consideration that 
is well understood in peacetime, but often, and disastrously, ignored 
in war. It's the factor that helped defeat Napoleon and even Hitler. 
It's the item that brings all humanitarian operations to a halt. It 
is, of course, the winter. And the Afghan winter, like the Russian 
one, is absolute. Aid workers with long experience of Afghanistan 
report that after the first week of November, there is nothing you 
can do. This is the detail that changes everything, the "s" that 
makes the difference between laughter and slaughter.

One person requires 18kg of food per month to survive. If the UN's 
projections are correct, and some 1.5m manage to leave the country, 
around 6.1m starving people will be left behind. In five weeks, in 
other words, Afghanistan requires 580,000 tonnes of food to see its 
people through the winter, as well as tarpaulins, warm clothes, 
medicines and water supply and sanitation equipment. The food alone 
would fill 21,000 trucks or 19,000 Hercules transport planes. The 
convoy that reached Kabul to such acclaim yesterday has met barely a 
three-thousandth of the country's needs.

Even without the threat of war, an operation of this size presses at 
the margins of possibility. But as Afghanistan prepares for invasion, 
it is simply impossible. The 19-day suspension of aid that came to an 
end yesterday may have killed thousands already. Now the convoys' 
resumption is, the United Nations says, "experimental": if battle 
begins, the trucks will stop. Civilian aircraft, in the fog of war, 
are likely to be shot down. The aid agencies' hesitation, while 
understandable, is lethal to the Afghans. The waiting is killing them.

Distribution has now become just as difficult as supply. The UN 
predicts that some 2.2m will be displaced from their homes within 
Afghanistan, as they flee the cities for fear of the Taliban's press 
gangs and America's bombs, and flee the villages for fear of the 
escalating civil war. This scattering is doubly calamitous: not only 
are the people unreachable, but they are also unable to sow the 
winter wheat that would keep them alive next year.

For military reasons, the US appears to have told all Afghanistan's 
neighbours to shut their borders. Many of those who were not at 
imminent risk of starvation sold all their possessions to reach the 
frontier, only to be turned back by its illegal closure. Now they, 
too, are dying of hunger. If the US bombs Afghanistan's roads and 
airports to contain the Taliban, almost all distribution will grind 
to a halt.

It may be possible to mount a successful military campaign between 
now and November 7. It may be possible to mount a successful 
humanitarian campaign between now and November 7. It is simply 
impossible to do both. Unless the west withdraws its armies and 
announces an immediate cessation, we could be responsible for 
something approaching genocide in Afghanistan.

Last week on these pages, I suggested that the US could meet its 
strategic objectives in Afghanistan through peace, rather than war. 
The Taliban thrive on the fear of outsiders: they invoke a hostile 
world in the hope that people will cling to them for fear of 
something worse. A vast humanitarian operation could threaten their 
gainful isolationism and turn the population against its tormentors. 
The delightful messages I'd been receiving over the previous two 
weeks, comparing me to Hitler, Goebbels, Stalin, Chamberlain and 
Beelzebub, were immediately supplemented by a new acclamation: prince 
of darkness I might be, but I was also hopelessly naive and 
idealistic. Perhaps I should have taken a little more care to explain 

No strategy in Afghanistan is assured of success, but there is no 
notion as naive as that which supposes that you can destroy a tactic 
(such as terrorism) or an idea (such as fundamentalism) by means of 
bombs or missile strikes or special forces. Indeed, even the Pentagon 
now lists its military choices under the heading AOS: All Options 
Stink. If military intervention succeeded in delivering up Bin Laden 
and destroying the Taliban, it's hard to see how this could fail to 
encourage retaliatory strikes all over the world.

Nor is it entirely clear that attacking Afghanistan would bring down 
the berserkers who govern it. Britain and the US have been bombing 
Iraq for the past 10 years, only to strengthen Saddam's grip. There 
are many in Washington who privately acknowledge that Fidel Castro's 
tenure has been sustained by US hostilities and embargos. Had the US 
withdrawn its forces from Guantanamo Bay, opened its markets and 
invested in Cuba, it would have achieved with generosity what it has 
never achieved with antagonism. There is plenty of evidence to 
suggest that if Afghanistan is attacked, the Afghans will side with 
the lesser Satan at home against the Great Satan overseas.

Conversely, the Conservative government responded to the riots of the 
1980s by regenerating the estates they mauled, until other cities 
complained that only way to win money was to run amok. But the 
government understood that while rioters may be encouraged by the 
residents of depressed and decaying estates, they are fiercely 
resisted by people whose prospects are brightening.

Some might argue that showering Afghanistan with food rather than 
bombs would create an incentive for further acts of terror. But Osama 
bin Laden, if he was indeed linked to the attack on New York, has no 
interest in the welfare of the Afghan people. Like the Taliban, the 
social weapons he deploys are misery and insecurity. He seeks not 
peace, but war. While western aggression will drive Afghans into the 
arms of the Taliban and their guests, western aid will divide the 
people from the predators.

Pakistan can continue to withdraw support from the Afghan regime and 
seek to engineer a bloodless coup. The US can raise the bounty on Bin 
Laden's capture and surrender for trial at an international tribunal. 
But if we seek to bludgeon Afghanistan into submission, we will lose 
the war on terrorism, while inadvertently slaughtering some millions 
of its inhabitants. We can choose, in other words, between futile 
genocide and productive peace. It shouldn't be too hard a choice to