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Where Are You? Millions Face Death This Winter in Afghanistan and We Can Prevent it
6 November 2001
Does anybody understand what the United States is on the verge of doing?
Experienced, respected food aid organizations warn that even before the bombing of Afghanistan began on October 7, some 7,500,000 Afghans were -- through a gut-wrenching combination of poverty, drought, war, dislocation, and repression -- at risk of starving to death this winter. When the bombing began, almost all delivery of food from the outside world stopped. Now, roads and bridges are destroyed, millions more people are dislocated, and the snow is steadily approaching from higher elevations and from the north.
For weeks, aid organizations, along with voices from throughout the region, have been begging the United States to call off its bombing campaign, at least for long enough so that aid agencies can conduct the massive transfer of food into and throughout Afghanistan that is necessary to prevent death on a scale the world has not seen in a long, long time.
Seven and a half million people at risk of dying in a matter of months. That's three times the number of people Pol Pot took years to kill. Thirty-five times the number that died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, combined. If 5,000 died on September 11, we're talking the equivalent number of deaths to ten World Trade Centers, every day, for 150 days. Slow, painful deaths. Entirely avoidable deaths. Deaths whose sole cause is not the United States, but most of which can still be prevented -- except that the United States is refusing to allow them to be prevented.
It repulses me to say this, but I suspect a lot of Americans don't care. They'd rather see the United States "get" Osama bin Laden (though there's no actual evidence that we're any closer to that today than we were two months ago, and probably the task is harder as he becomes more popular and protected).
An apocalypse of this scale is simply unimaginable to most of us: no food, in a country with no roads left, no vehicles, displaced people, lost relatives, where the winters are too cold to walk or ride a donkey even to an adjoining village where there might be food. It's a long way from driving to the nearest Safeway or drive-thru lane when you're hungry. But a lot of people in this country do not care that a staggering number of innocent people are on the verge of being condemned to death, or that most of the world will blame the United States, correctly.
We should care. If the object of this war was to thwart terrorism -- to bring existing terrorists to justice, and to isolate them politically and culturally so that others won't throw in their lot -- in less than a month, the United States already has perpetrated one of the most abject failures in military history.
It still does not know where any of Al-Qaeda's leadership even is. It is on the verge of succeeding in its goal of creating a unified Afghanistan government -- unfortunately, Afghans are uniting behind the Taliban, as warlord after warlord sets aside long-standing differences to stand shoulder to shoulder to fight the American invaders. Tens of thousands more young Muslim men are lining up to cross the borders into Afghanistan to join them. The ones that survive the experience will carry a lifetime of hate: living, breathing proof that within a month, America bombed a country but lost its war in spectacular fashion.
That's today. What will happen if millions of Afghans die this winter? How much future terrorism will the dunderheads of the Bush Administration have inspired then? If several million Islamic sisters and brothers starve to death, innocent civilians trapped between winter and the rage of America, how many of Islam's 1.2 billion adherents -- or the five billion other people on earth -- are going to take George Bush's proclamations about eradicating "terrorists" and "evildoers" to heart, and label him, and us, as the prime examples?
In less than two months, the United States government has gone from the moral high ground of being victimized by one of the most heinous crimes in world history, to being within a week or two of quite visibly committing a crime so much larger as to obliterate the world's memory of September 11.
Remarkably, almost nobody in the United States seems to have either noticed, understood, or cared. While even progressives wring their hands over the ambiguity of a war fought under the auspices of America's legitimate right to defend itself, a situation is unfolding in which there is absolutely no moral ambiguity at all, and for which many people will want to hold each of us as accountable as the world held post-war Germans. Where were you? What did you say? How could you allow this to happen? Or, a more likely reaction in the Islamic world: Why should millions of you not die as well? America will have set out to isolate one man, and instead killed millions and isolated itself. And much of the world will not rest until we are brought to our knees.
Seven and a half million people. The snowline is creeping down the mountainsides. The food is almost gone. The infrastructure is in shambles. There will be no "independent verification" of the body count. There wasn't in the Holocaust or Rwanda or Cambodia, either. The judgment of the world did not need one. The clock is ticking. Where were you?