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Genocide or peace: we can feed the starving Afghan millions or mount a military campaign - we can't do both.
2 October 2001
Peace has been declared before the war has begun. Those who advocated the obliteration of Kabul and Baghdad have retreated in the face of insuperable complexity. Many of those who argued against aggression have relaxed as the threat of carpet bombing or nuclear strikes has lifted. Most people now appear to agree that attacking a few military targets and deploying special forces will do no great harm.
Our government, like many others, has promised humanitarian aid. The government of Pakistan has begun to withdraw support from the Taliban and to push forward other leaders in the hope of engineering a noiseless coup. Instead of the terrifying carnage promised by a wounded nation, the response to the attack on New York is beginning to look magnanimous. The needs of both the western nations seeking to control terrorism and the Afghan people seeking to escape starvation can, almost everyone believes, be met calmly and sequentially.
But the new consensus has missed something. It's a consideration that is well understood in peacetime, but often, and disastrously, ignored in war. It's the factor that helped defeat Napoleon and even Hitler. It's the item that brings all humanitarian operations to a halt. It is, of course, the winter. And the Afghan winter, like the Russian one, is absolute. Aid workers with long experience of Afghanistan report that after the first week of November, there is nothing you can do. This is the detail that changes everything, the "s" that makes the difference between laughter and slaughter.
One person requires 18kg of food per month to survive. If the UN's projections are correct, and some 1.5m manage to leave the country, around 6.1m starving people will be left behind. In five weeks, in other words, Afghanistan requires 580,000 tons of food to see its people through the winter, as well as tarpaulins, warm clothes, medicines and water supply and sanitation equipment. The food alone would fill 21,000 trucks or 19,000 Hercules transport planes. The convoy that reached Kabul to such acclaim yesterday has met barely a three-thousandth of the country's needs.
Even without the threat of war, an operation of this size presses at the margins of possibility. But as Afghanistan prepares for invasion, it is simply impossible. The 19-day suspension of aid that came to an end yesterday may have killed thousands already. Now the convoys' resumption is, the United Nations says, "experimental": if battle begins, the trucks will stop. Civilian aircraft, in the fog of war, are likely to be shot down. The aid agencies' hesitation, while understandable, is lethal to the Afghans. The waiting is killing them.
Distribution has now become just as difficult as supply. The UN predicts that some 2.2m will be displaced from their homes within Afghanistan, as they flee the cities for fear of the Taliban's press gangs and America's bombs, and flee the villages for fear of the escalating civil war. This scattering is doubly calamitous: not only are the people unreachable, but they are also unable to sow the winter wheat that would keep them alive next year.
For military reasons, the US appears to have told all Afghanistan's neighbors to shut their borders. Many of those who were not at imminent risk of starvation sold all their possessions to reach the frontier, only to be turned back by its illegal closure. Now they, too, are dying of hunger. If the US bombs Afghanistan's roads and airports to contain the Taliban, almost all distribution will grind to a halt.
It may be possible to mount a successful military campaign between now and November 7. It may be possible to mount a successful humanitarian campaign between now and November 7. It is simply impossible to do both. Unless the west withdraws its armies and announces an immediate cessation, we could be responsible for something approaching genocide in Afghanistan.
Last week on these pages, I suggested that the US could meet its strategic objectives in Afghanistan through peace, rather than war. The Taliban thrive on the fear of outsiders: they invoke a hostile world in the hope that people will cling to them for fear of something worse. A vast humanitarian operation could threaten their gainful isolationism and turn the population against its tormentors. The delightful messages I'd been receiving over the previous two weeks, comparing me to Hitler, Goebbels, Stalin, Chamberlain and Beelzebub, were immediately supplemented by a new acclamation: prince of darkness I might be, but I was also hopelessly naive and idealistic. Perhaps I should have taken a little more care to explain myself.
No strategy in Afghanistan is assured of success, but there is no notion as naive as that which supposes that you can destroy a tactic (such as terrorism) or an idea (such as fundamentalism) by means of bombs or missile strikes or special forces. Indeed, even the Pentagon now lists its military choices under the heading AOS: All Options Stink. If military intervention succeeded in delivering up Bin Laden and destroying the Taliban, it's hard to see how this could fail to encourage retaliatory strikes all over the world.
Nor is it entirely clear that attacking Afghanistan would bring down the berserkers who govern it. Britain and the US have been bombing Iraq for the past 10 years, only to strengthen Saddam's grip. There are many in Washington who privately acknowledge that Fidel Castro's tenure has been sustained by US hostilities and embargos. Had the US withdrawn its forces from Guantanamo Bay, opened its markets and invested in Cuba, it would have achieved with generosity what it has never achieved with antagonism. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that if Afghanistan is attacked, the Afghans will side with the lesser Satan at home against the Great Satan overseas.
Conversely, the Conservative government responded to the riots of the 1980s by regenerating the estates they mauled, until other cities complained that only way to win money was to run amok. But the government understood that while rioters may be encouraged by the residents of depressed and decaying estates, they are fiercely resisted by people whose prospects are brightening.
Some might argue that showering Afghanistan with food rather than bombs would create an incentive for further acts of terror. But Osama bin Laden, if he was indeed linked to the attack on New York, has no interest in the welfare of the Afghan people. Like the Taliban, the social weapons he deploys are misery and insecurity. He seeks not peace, but war. While western aggression will drive Afghans into the arms of the Taliban and their guests, western aid will divide the people from the predators.
Pakistan can continue to withdraw support from the Afghan regime and seek to engineer a bloodless coup. The US can raise the bounty on Bin Laden's capture and surrender for trial at an international tribunal. But if we seek to bludgeon Afghanistan into submission, we will lose the war on terrorism, while inadvertently slaughtering some millions of its inhabitants. We can choose, in other words, between futile genocide and productive peace. It shouldn't be too hard a choice to make.