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A Veil on the Truth

9 December 2001

A few privileged Afghan women have been caught smiling for AP cameras, but many Afghan women, men and children are silently dying behind the burqa of U.S. deceit.

The facts are simple. Massive food distribution programs put in place prior to 9-11 in response to widespread famine were derailed by the anticipation of and then the actual U.S. bombing campaign, and have been even further set back by the Taliban's retreat. According to the New York Times (11/30/01), "In the past two weeks, the tonnage [of aid] delivered dropped to a pace less than half of what it had been in the previous two weeks." The problem is that the "towns and cities are so chaotic that relief agencies cannot safely operate. Many roads are off limits because of lawlessness and banditry."

Those of us who opposed the U.S. war in Afghanistan nevertheless saw its apparent rapid resolution as an opportunity to at least get much needed supplies into the country. Having routed the enemy, perhaps the United States would stop the bombing, allowing food trucks to move in from across the border. But, instead, the opposite is true. As of this writing (December 5), the bombing continues, civilian populations are left at the mercy of marauding gangs, and food aid dwindles.

There are a few simple things we could do that would immediately turn down the torture in Afghanistan.

First, the U.S. should stop bombing. There is no real accounting yet of the civilian casualty rate, but reports in the last few days claim that U.S. bombs hit four villages near Tora Bora, possibly killing hundreds (NYT 12/3/01). This is an unethical and illegal use of U.S. firepower. If it's Osama bin Laden who we are still after, it is never too late to apprehend him in a manner that accords with international law -- present proper evidence and allow the UN to mount a prudent, ground-based multilateral campaign to capture him. In any case, since there is no Afghan enemy mounting any kind of defense or engaging in battle, there is no excuse for large-scale bombings -- whether directed by the U.S. or the UN.

Second, the bridge to Uzbekistan, which is a key passage for aid trucks, should be secured.

And we should meet Uzbekistan's demand that an international force provide security at their Afghan border. Instead American military officials are saying that although they "recognize the urgency of opening the bridge from Uzbekistan, [U.S.] troops will not be protecting the border."

There is callous disregard for human life in this casual acknowledgement of the urgency.

American officials understand the consequences of their inactivity, but are blithely sitting back and saying they want Afghan forces -- not foreign troops -- to police the roadways, when the only Afghan forces that exist in the country are "lawless bandits," and it is American officials themselves that installed them. Having destabilized the country to the point where it is not even safe for aid trucks to travel, it seems the U.S. is washing its hands of the disaster.

If only that were the case.

Instead, the U.S. is actually blocking efforts to bring in the very peacekeepers that might secure the roads and borders, and facilitate the transport of life-saving aid. Buried in an article about how the Northern Alliance, during negotiations in Bonn, finally relented on allowing foreign peacekeepers into the country, the Boston Globe (11/30/01) reported that some U.S. officials believe peacekeepers will be a nuisance to their unilateral conduct of the war. "Citing Bush Administration officials, the Washington Post reported that `the U.S. Central Command, which oversees the war in Afghanistan, is opposing the imminent deployment of peacekeepers in areas freed from Taliban control out of concern this could encumber U.S. military operations.'"

In a New York Times article (12/3/01) about the Bonn negotiations, a brief aside mentions the "Pentagon's unwillingness to take part in any peacekeeping force or to favor placing peacekeepers anywhere where they could get in the way of the war against Al Qaeda."

Specifically, since November 12 when the Northern Alliance took Kabul, the Pentagon has blocked proposals by France and Britain to send thousands of troops to secure Kabul, the northern half of the country, and aid routes. On December 4, the Pentagon said it would "not object to peacekeepers confined to Kabul and its immediate vicinity" -- a concession that is mostly symbolic (only 200 peacekeepers will be admitted) and is nonetheless entirely irrelevant to ensuring open channels for aid (NYT 12/5/01).

Third, the U.S. should reconsider food airdrops. Dropping "Humanitarian Daily Rations" -- bright yellow packages, decorated with the American flag and containing 2200 calories worth of peanut butter, shortbread, and fruit pastries -- is counterproductive. Airdrops undermine the work of neutral aid organizations by turning humanitarian assistance into an attempt to win "hearts and minds." They ignore the special needs of malnourished children who require a specific diet. "If you would give peanut butter to a severely malnourished child, you are likely to do more harm than good," says Lucas Van den Broeck of Action Against Hunger (Boston Globe 10/25/01). And the airdrops bypass crucial distribution methods, which ensure food g ets to all who need it, not just to those nimble enough to gather the yellow packets as they drop from the skies, assuming, that is, that they land where people can reach them and not among land mines (10 million of which litter the Afghan landscape). According to at least one UN report (Boston Globe, 11/30/01), two children have already been killed "when they stepped on mines running across a field trying to pick up food packets."

We won't see pictures of their exploded bodies in the morning newspaper because those images are a theat to the Pentagon's ongoing prosecution of the "war on terrorism." Those images must stay safely shrouded from public view. While the media showcase the newly revealed faces of Afghan women, the innocent victims of the U.S. war are still thickly veiled. This is a veil that U.S. citizens have the power to lift, and the consequences of doing so are immense. We should expose and demand an end to a war that has turned Afghanistan into a world stage for the theatrical display of U.S. might and banal disregard for human life.

Cynthia Peters.
Published by ZNet.

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