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This War is not a Moral Enterprise
19 October 2001
Why has the plea from Christian Aid and Oxfam for a pause in the bombardment of Afghanistan not been taken more seriously? For many of us, the arguments of agencies that have worked for years in the area, helping desperate people to survive, carry quite as much weight as the words of the politicians who now go flying in and out of Pakistan.
Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, brushed off the demands of the aid agencies by saying that it was not the air strikes alone that were interrupting deliveries of food and that, anyway, food was still getting over the border. Both statements seemed curiously obtuse. Obviously it's not the air strikes alone that are, say, causing the Taliban to loot what stores of food still exist in Afghanistan. But if the aid agencies tell us that if it were not for the air strikes they would find it easier to distribute food where it is needed, well, who knows better than they do?
And yes, Ms Short, we understand that food is getting across the border but if, as the aid agencies say, they have lost control over where it ends up, it may be as useful to starving refugees as the packets of peanut butter that the airplanes are dropping into minefields.
But we are told by politicians and commentators that we must stop our ears and hearts to the UN statement that two million people in Afghanistan do not have the food to last the winter. We are told that we must steel ourselves against the children who are starving in refugee camps, the women walking through the mountains in desperation to find something other than poisonous roots to feed their families. After all, with this war we'll be saving future children, generations as yet unborn who will thank the bombers, so we must show the moral courage to let those kids die now. But sacrificing the scrawny innocents in the refugee camps when future developments are so uncertain and other avenues have not been fully explored does not seem like a great example of moral courage. At least, it doesn't to me, or, presumably, to the 16 per cent of this country who, according to one recent poll, oppose the bombing, or the 37 per cent who said that more should have been done to find a diplomatic solution.
Above all, we should ask why the very idea of waging a campaign against terror by means other than bombs is now seen as a wimps' game. Those who shrink from the idea of million-dollar missiles crashing into rubble-strewn villages are constantly told that we are appeasers, that we would let the terrorists "get away with it". But it's not the terrorists who are suffering now. If our governments are serious about collapsing the terrorists' power, they must not forget that our argument is not with the Afghan people (not even primarily with the Taliban regime), but with the non-Afghan people based in the country who carry out attacks beyond its borders.
The aim of the campaign, which was to deliver Osama bin Laden to justice, seems to be in danger of being pushed to one side in favor of the flashes and bangs that the American government prefers. When the Taliban's Deputy Prime Minister last week proposed discussing the possibility of delivering Mr bin Laden to a neutral country, why was it that President George Bush replied, "When I said no negotiations I meant no negotiations"? If negotiating might get you what you want without killing thousands of children, why not try it?
Those who oppose the bombing do not advocate inaction. Sometimes they argue for more action, but less spectacular and more discriminate action. It is telling that certain aspects of the terrorists' support are not being discussed at all by American or British politicians. Consider the fact that more than half of the 19 men who took part in the attacks on 11 September are believed to be from Saudi Arabia. A striking analysis of the situation in Saudi Arabia by the redoubtable journalist Seymour Hersh appears today in The New Yorker. It lays bare the reality that although the Saudi royal family has channeled millions of dollars into fundamentalist groups including al-Qa'ida, the American and British governments continue to support the Saudi leadership. But if the aim is really to pull the rug from under al-Qa'ida and their ilk, why are we ignoring the protection they get from sources far richer and more powerful than the Taliban?
Giving diplomacy another chance might not work immediately, but bombing is not working immediately. Yes, this campaign will topple the Taliban, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the networks of terrorists will be destroyed, and it does mean that thousands of children may die painful deaths this winter. We are asked to believe this war is a moral enterprise, but I'm suspicious of any so-called moral enterprise whose means are so cruel and whose ends so uncertain.