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"WW III? No thanks...!" On-Line Library

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

Folly of aid and bombs

George Monbiot
Tuesday October 9, 2001
The Guardian

Two weeks ago, Paul Wolfowitz, the US under secretary of defence, compared
Afghanistan to a swamp, which must be drained to catch the snakes that hide
there. His analogy may be rather more apt than he intended. Swamps, as 
everyone knows, are harder to get out of than they are to get into.

On Sunday night, the west took its first, irreversible step into the 
morass. It may well prove to be the only simple one on an ever more 
uncertain journey. But there is now no going back. Once you have initiated
military action, you are committed to it, and all further adventures in 
Afghanistan need be armed. It is not clear that either the British or the 
US governments has fully grasped the implications.

Yesterday morning, some 15 hours after the air strikes began, the United 
Nations announced that it had halted convoys of food to Afghanistan. From 
now on, and for as long as the conflict lasts, the humanitarian aid that 
both Blair and Bush promised would be an integral component of this 
campaign must be delivered primarily with the help of the armed forces. 
But they don't seem to have any idea what this responsibility entails.

The military answer to the country's crisis so far has taken the form of 
37,500 yellow ration packs, dropped from transport planes into regions in 
which hungry people are believed to live. Each pack contains around 2,200 
calories: roughly enough to sustain one person for one day.

If you believe, as some commentators do, that this is an impressive or 
even meaningful operation, I urge you to conduct a simple calculation. The
United Nations estimates that there are 7.5m hungry people in Afghanistan. 
If every ration pack reached a starving person, then one two hundredth of 
the vulnerable were fed by the humanitarian effort on Sunday. The US 
department of defence has announced that it possesses a further 2m of 
these packs, which it might be prepared to drop. If so, they could feed 
27% of the starving for one day.

Four weeks remain before winter envelops Afghanistan, during which enough 
food must be delivered to last until March. Yet the US is prepared to drop,
at its own best estimate, barely one quarter of one day's needs.

Some of these rations will, of course, be lost. Many, perhaps most, will 
be eaten by people who are not in immediate danger of starvation, as they 
are more mobile than the seriously hungry and better able to reach the 
packs. Some will remain untouched. One of the warring factions may 
discover that an effective means of eliminating its enemies is to remove 
the contents of these packs and replace them with explosives. This is just
one of the problems associated with dispensing kindness at 20,000 feet: no 
one can be completely sure whose generosity they are about to enjoy. The 
usefulness of any feeding programme, moreover, is greatly diminished if it
is not carefully targeted. People in different stages of starvation require
different preparations.

Children, especially infants, are more vulnerable than any others. Yet all
the packs being dropped on Afghanistan are identical, and all are equipped 
only to feed adults. The packs contain medicine as well as food but, 
unlike aid workers on the ground, the pilots delivering them can offer no 
diagnosis. This blanket prescription is likely to be either useless or 

So western governments have terminated what may have been an effective 
humanitarian programme and replaced it with a futile gesture. The bombing 
raids, moreover, have persuaded thousands to flee from their homes. Yet 
Afghanistan's borders remain closed, while the camps the UN is building in
Pakistan will not be ready for another two weeks. The refugees have nowhere
to go. The military strikes, Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, 
announced, would "create conditions for sustained... humanitarian relief 
operations in Afghanistan". They have so far done precisely the opposite.

But the purpose of the food drops is not to feed the starving but to tell 
them they are being fed. President Bush explained on Sunday that by means 
of these packages, "the oppressed people of Afghanistan will know the 
generosity of America and our allies". They will know it, for they know 
that gestures will not feed them. Hunger brooks no tokenism. It demands 
food, not a semblance of food.

This show of generosity is, of course, designed to impress us as well as 
them. The yellow packages drifting on to the minefields of the Hindu Kush 
are likely to be the most, over the next few days, that we will see of the
humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. The hungry will die quietly on the 
forgotten trails through the mountains, huddled behind rocks, searching 
the streets of deserted cities, clawing for roots in the empty fields. The
satellites that can count the shells stacked behind a howitzer cannot peer 
into the faces of the starving.

And if, somehow, a sensible humanitarian mission resumed, the linkage 
established by both Bush and Blair between aid and ordnance, which sounds 
so bold and compassionate at home, could turn out to be disastrous in 
Afghanistan. If the humanitarian programme continues to be perceived as 
part of the military offensive, we could expect the dispersed guerrillas 
of a partly vanquished regime to slip into the feeding centres to lob a 
few grenades into the crowd.

While it is not hard to predict how the humanitarian operation might end, 
it is rather more difficult to see how the military mission could be 
concluded. The Taliban have vowed to fight to the last breath. While many 
of their conscripts will desert, the hard core are likely to do just this.
They dispersed some time before Sunday's attacks. Their anti-aircraft guns,
tanks and planes were peripheral to the operation of what has always, in 
effect, been a guerrilla force. In confronting them, as Russian veterans 
have warned, we will be pummelling thin air. Rumsfeld has defined victory 
as the Taliban's "collapse from within". But this is not victory, only the
beginning of the next phase of war.

If, as Bush and Blair maintain, they aim to leave Afghanistan better than 
it was when they found it, then the west is committed to defend it against
all oppressors, whoever they might be. This implies that if the Northern 
Alliance moves into the vacuum left by the nominal defeat of the Taliban, 
and establishes not the "broad-based" government of assorted extremists 
the west envisages but a narrow government of homogenous extremists, we 
must fight them too.

So at what point do we stop fighting? At what point does withdrawal become
either honourable or responsible? Having once engaged its forces, are we 
then obliged to reduce Afghanistan to a permanent protectorate? Or will we
jettison responsibility as soon as military power becomes impossible to 

The consequences of this endless war may be dangerous for the west. They 
could be deadly for Afghanistan.