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These Refugees Are Our Responsibility

22 November 2001

There was a time when everyone agreed that it was harrowing just to watch the news. When everyone talked about how they cried when they saw the pictures, how they were having nightmares, how they couldn't stand to think about the grief of the people they saw on television.

It was, indeed, a traumatic time, and the grief then was genuine. But now it's not so fashionable to say how disturbing you find the news, even if you have rarely seen anything so tragic as, for instance, that man on television last night holding two starving babies for whom their mother had no milk, or the little girl walking barefoot in the dust of a refugee camp that holds tens of thousands of desperate people. Why aren't we talking about how we cry when we see these people? Why don't we say that they haunt our dreams?

They are far away from us, it's true, but their grief still rises from television screens and news reports. And this time around, we are implicated. These people are suffering from terror visited on them from the West. Yes, I know they have also suffered over the years from the evils of their fundamentalist rulers but we now share the blame for their plight. If it were not for the missiles the West has sent into Kandahar and Kunduz, these children whose faces we now see in our newspapers would not have had to take to the roads, desperately trudging the hills and deserts and sitting in tents on a bare plain.

And don't think that just because they have suffered so much during the last generation that their grief is any the less now. Or because they don't get obituaries in The New York Times that each of the civilian lives lost in Afghanistan isn't as precious to their loved ones as the people who died in the Twin Towers.

Frankly, that's the way that terrorists think, that some civilian lives matter less than others, and that some - or even hundreds, or even thousands - of innocent people can be expended in the pursuit of the "greater good".

If the West can claim responsibility for the joy of the citizens liberated from the Taliban in Kabul, then it must also admit responsibility for the misery of the civilians fleeing the bombs into dismal refugee camps in southern Afghanistan. Let's hope that Tony Blair's rhetoric is for real, and that we won't walk away from them.

But despite his insistent words, it looks very possible that the United States might soon start to turn away from the wider problems of aid and nation building in Afghanistan. Certainly the American media, so tortured by suffering within its borders, has been curiously unmoved by the human suffering in Afghanistan. And if it doesn't keep up the pressure, not just in the short term but down through the years to come; well, do you expect that George Bush will go it alone?

One American government adviser, Richard Perle, said yesterday, "I don't think any outside power has a responsibility in Afghanistan. People have to take responsibility for their own destiny" - as though the women whose neighborhoods have been flattened should have known better, anyway, than to live in downtown Kandahar. I mean, why didn't they choose Massachusetts, especially in the fall? Dumb or what?

And look at what Clare Short said earlier this week to the International Development Select Committee. "The civil-military liaison is not working particularly well at all," she said of the aid operation in Afghanistan. "The communications are there, but they are not being taken seriously enough at a high level." Ms Short has been a supporter of the bombing campaign; there is no reason at all for her to speak against the American administration unless she had seen evidence that compelled her to criticize it.

Aid agencies are saying the same thing. Some of them have said that ground troops are now essential to restore the order that the bombs have destroyed. A spokesperson from Oxfam in Islamabad was heard on the BBC yesterday arguing that multinational forces were needed immediately, to secure the passage of thousands of tons of food into the central highlands of Afghanistan - food that must be brought through in the next two weeks.

Why would anyone be surprised if the American government is reluctant to facilitate such an operation? The American government has always been clear that it has one target in this war: destroying al-Qai'da. And it hopes to keep its hands clean, no matter how many people suffer, by using the Northern Alliance and other factional leaders as its ground troops. They will carry out the punishments, the massacres and the beatings while the Americans watch through their fancy reconnaissance hardware.

Let's hope the worst predictions of chaos in Afghanistan never come to pass. Last week those of us who didn't support the bombing campaign got much stick from the pro-war writers. What do you have to say now, they asked us? Well, although I don't support the war I would be completely delighted if Afghanistan was left in a better state after the war than it was before. It would be wonderful if America began to silence the missiles and to engage in a reconstruction program and diplomacy. If the refugees could go home and be fed, I would be thrilled.

But even if all that were to happen - not such a small if, after all - that doesn't mean that those of us who opposed the bombing campaign were wrong. Many of us were arguing, as I said early on, not for inaction, but for more targeted and less spectacular action. For negotiation, diplomatic pressure, bribery, blackmail, intelligence work, sanctions, education, aid, even (some of us) for small-scale special forces operations. If these means had been tried and seen to fail, then we would have been wrong. But they were never given a chance.

There were always alternatives to war. The only support that the Taliban ever received came from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. As we see now, the Taliban's support within Afghanistan was shaky and the foreign members of al-Qai'da were even more isolated. Once the West had got Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to dissociate themselves from the Taliban and al-Qai'da, it's possible to imagine that the terrorists could have found themselves out in the cold sooner rather than later, and wide open to arrest or assassination operations. The Times yesterday quoted a former Afghan foreign minister saying that such a strategy would have taken just a couple of months to work. Of course, this could be complete nonsense. Or it could be bang on. We'll never know now.

We'll also never know now if a strategy to attack the root causes of Islamic terrorism - causes such as the American military presence in Saudi Arabia or the poverty and chaos of a nation like Afghanistan - would have worked better without any bombs to help it along. Because all the early talk of diplomacy, negotiation and intelligence were quickly overshadowed by the dust raised by daisy-cutters and B52s. The Americans - and our government, as its cheerleader - chose this war in the face of real alternatives.

That's why we should be disturbed when we hear the tales of the victims of the war and why we shouldn't forget their desperate faces.

Natasha Walter.
Published in the Independent.
2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd.

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