“Humanitarian Impulses” and the Bombing of Afghanistan

Published online at Znet (www.zmag.org) in October, 2001

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Columnist George Melloan called the current bombing campaign over Afghanistan a “humane war” in which “the US is subjecting targets…to bomb and missile attack while at the same time dropping food and medicine.” This combination “reflects the humanitarian impulses that so often guide the Western democracies.”(1) Judged in terms of the consequences of its policies, the impulses that guide the US government can hardly be considered “humanitarian.”

Before September 11, Afghanistan was considered to be “on the verge of a medical emergency.”(2) “In most aspects, Afghanistan is worse off than almost any country in the world,” says the director of the UN Human Development Report Office. The US government bears a heavy responsibility for the condition of Afghanistan, but for simplicity let us confine ourselves only to events that took place after September 11. Based on the threat of US attacks, aid agencies immediately withdrew their international staff from Afghanistan. Then, Pakistan agreed to “full cooperation” with Washington’s request to “virtually shut down its border with Afghanistan.”(3) The results for humanitarian work were devastating. With 3-4 million people relying on food aid, and stocks for only 1-2 weeks remaining, “the threat of American-led military attacks turn[ed] [the] long-running misery” of Afghans “into a potential catastrophe.”(4) After the bombing began on 7 October, any remaining aid convoys were curtailed dramatically, since “truck drivers are…unwilling to take to the roads to deliver goods…because of fear of US-led bombing or attacks by one or another of the factions.”(5)

Stephanie Bunker of the UN complained that “the missile strikes make our job harder to do,” mentioning a “six week race against winter,” after which it will be extremely difficult to get aid into the country.(6) According to UNICEF, “as many as 100,000 more children will die…this winter unless food reaches them…in the next six weeks.” Two million people do not have enough food to last the winter, and 500,000 of them will be unreachable after snow begins to fall in mid November. “It is evident now that we cannot, in reasonable safety, get food to hungry Afghan people,” said Oxfam director Barbara Stocking. The only solution, according to a joint press release by Oxfam International, Islamic Relief, Christian Aid, CAFOD, Tear Fund and ActionAid, is to suspend air strikes. UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson agreed: “we must have a pause in order to enable huge humanitarian access.” The Pentagon disagrees. “There are clearly potential downsides to pausing,” says a senior defense official.(7)

The airdrops of food and medicine that accompany the bombing, Melloan’s showpiece of the “humanitarian impulses” of the West, are condemned by most aid agencies working inside Afghanistan. In general, aid workers agree that airdrops are “expensive, dangerous, and difficult to monitor,” and “are a last resort.”(8) Even with sharp cutbacks in the number of food convoys entering Afghanistan, trucks have still been delivering more food than the airdrops. “The US airdrop is not the only, nor the most significant supply chain at this time,” says the general director of MSF-Holland.(9) The UN special rapporteur on the right to food urges that distribution be supervised on the ground: “I must condemn with the last ounce of energy this [US airdrop] operation…it is totally catastrophic for humanitarian aid.” MSF concluded the airdrops were “aimed mainly to have the bombings accepted by public opinion.” Oxfam called them “more PR than a well prepared aid effort.” Indeed, “the target appeared to be not only Afghans, but also the public in other Muslim countries.”(10) James Steinberg, deputy national security advisor for President Clinton, admitted that “Afghanistan has been in a humanitarian crisis for a long time, but we haven’t worried about it much until now. All of a sudden it’s a major rationale for the air strikes.”

By insisting on bombing Afghanistan, the US government is consigning hundreds of thousands of Afghans to death by starvation, extreme cold, and treatable diseases, far more than may die due to the bombings themselves. If the bombing is not halted soon, US policy will have not humanitarian, but genocidal consequences.

The author is on the board of directors of the Afghan Women’s Mission, and is a staff scientist at the California Institute of Technology.