AOS --- All Options Stink
Tue, 9 Oct 2001 17:13:01 -0500
[This is another article forward to me from Jeff Hummel.
He comments: "Although written before the recent US-
UK air strikes, I think this article is tremendously
perceptive." -- JRH]
Published on Tuesday, October 2, 2001 in the Guardian of London
Genocide or Peace
We Can Feed the Starving Afghan Millions or Mount a Military
Campaign. We Can't Do Both.
by George Monbiot
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
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
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
* Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001