There’s Nothing Humanitarian About This War Print
Commentary/Politics - Guest Commentaries
Tuesday, 09 October 2001 18:00
Our undeclared war on Afghanistan is the culmination of a decade of U.S. aggression with a humanitarian façade. Once the natural sympathies of the American people were touched by the plight of the long-suffering Afghan people, public opinion swung toward helping them. In response to this, the administration concocted the most shameless and cynical cover story for military strikes in recent memory. The idea, leaked last Thursday, went like this:

• The Afghan people are starving, so we need to do food drops. (Never mind that all those experienced in humanitarian-aid programs are opposed to food drops because they are dangerous, wasteful, and, most important, preclude setting up the on-the-ground distribution networks necessary to making aid effective.)

• We need to destroy the Taliban’s air defenses before doing food drops.

• The transport planes might be endangered by the Stinger anti-aircraft missiles that the United States supplied the mujaheddin in the 1980s when they were fighting the Soviet Union, some of which ended up in the Taliban’s hands.

• We have to destroy the Taliban’s air defense. Because so much of it is mobile, we have to bomb all over.

The bombing will seriously hinder existing aid efforts. The World Food Program operates a bakery in Kabul on which thousands of families depend, as well as many other programs. A number of United Nations organizations have been mounting a major new coordinated humanitarian campaign. These efforts were not endangered by the Taliban before, but the chaos and violence created by this bombing – combined with a projected assault by the Northern Alliance – will likely force UN personnel to withdraw, with disastrous effects for the Afghan people.

To add insult to injury, in the first day the United States dropped only 37,500 packaged meals, far below the daily needs of even a single large refugee camp. With 7.5 million people on the brink of death and existing programs disrupted, this is a drop in the bucket compared to the damage caused by this new war.

Those who starve or freeze will not be the only innocents to die. It should finally be clear to all that “surgical strikes” are a myth. In the Gulf War, only 7 percent of the munitions used were “smart,” and those missed the target roughly half the time. One of those surgical strikes destroyed the Amiriyah bomb shelter, killing somewhere from 400 to 1,500 women and children. In Operation Infinite Reach, the 1998 attacks on Afghanistan, some of the cruise missiles went astray and hit Pakistan. Military officials have already admitted that not all of the ordnance being used is “smart,” and even the current generation of smart weapons hits its target only 70 to 80 percent of the time.

Contrary to U.S. propaganda, civilian targets are always on the list. There are already reports that Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, was targeted for assassination, and the Defense Ministry in Kabul – surely no more military a target than the Pentagon and located in the middle of the city – has been destroyed.

This is standard U.S. practice. In the Gulf War, virtually every power station in Iraq was destroyed, with untold effects on civilians. A correspondent for al-Jazeera TV reported that power went out in Kabul when the bombing started, although it was restored in some places within hours. Targeting of any pitiful remnants of civilian infrastructure in Afghanistan would be consistent with past U.S. policy.

George Bush said we are not at war with the Afghan people – just as we were not at war with the Iraqi people or the Serbian people. The hundreds of thousands of Afghans who fled the cities knew better.

Military analysts suggest that the timing of the strikes had to do with the weather. Another possible interpretation is that the Taliban’s recently expressed willingness to negotiate posed too great a danger that peace might break out. The Orwellian use of the term “diplomacy” to describe the consistent U.S. policy of no negotiations – accept our peremptory demands or else – helps to mask the fact that the administration always intended to launch this war.

The same tactic was used against Serbia; at the Rambouillet negotiations in March 1999, demands were pitched just high enough that the Serbian government could not go along.

In this case, the Taliban’s offer to detain bin Laden and try him before an Islamic court, while unacceptable, was a serious initial negotiating position and would have merited a serious counteroffer – unless one had already decided to go to war.

The administration has many reasons for this war.

• The policy of imperial credibility, carried to such destructive extremes in Vietnam. In perhaps the last five years of direct U.S. involvement there, the goal was not to “win” but to inflict such a price on Vietnam that other nations would not think of crossing the United States.

• The oil and natural gas of central Asia, the next Middle East. Afghanistan’s location between the Caspian basin and huge markets in Japan, China, and the Indian subcontinent gives it critical importance. A U.S.-controlled client state in Afghanistan, presumably under the exiled octogenarian former king, Zahir Shah, would give U.S. corporations great leverage over those resources. Just as in the Middle East, the United States does not seek to own all those resources, but it wants to dictate the manner in which the wells and pipelines are developed and used.

• The potential to push a radical right-wing domestic agenda. War makes it easier to expand police powers, restrict civil liberties, and increase the military budget.

This war is about the extension of U.S. power. It has little to do with bringing the terrorists to justice, or with vengeance. Judging from initial polls, the war has been popular as the administration trades on people’s desire for revenge – but we should hardly confuse the emotional reaction of the public with the motivation of the administration. Governments do not feel emotions.

This war will not make us more secure. For weeks, many in the antiwar movement – and some careful commentators in more mainstream circles – have been saying that military action was playing into the hands of Osama bin Laden, who might have been hoping for such an attack to spark the flames of anti-American feeling in the Muslim world. Bin Laden’s pre-taped speech, broadcast on al-Jazeera television after the bombing started, vindicates that analysis.

“Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists,” Bush said on September 20. Bin Laden’s appeal to the ummah, the whole Islamic world, echoed this logic: “The world is divided into two sides: the side of faith and the side of infidelity.”

The American jihad might yet be matched by a widely expanded Islamic one, something unlikely had we not bombed. Remember, we have seen only the opening shots of what many officials are calling a long-term, multi-front war in which the secretary of defense has told us there will be no “silver bullet.” The administration has clearly been preparing the American people to accept an extended conflict.

Bin Laden’s world is Bush’s, in some strangely distorted mirror. A world divided as they seem to want would have no place in it for those of us who want peace with justice.

All is not yet lost. The first step is for us to send a message, not just to our government but to the whole world, saying, “This action done in our name was not done by our will. We are against the killing of innocents anywhere in the world.”

The next step is for us to build a movement that can change our government’s barbaric and self-destructive policy.

If we don’t act now to build a new world, we might just be left with no world.

Rahul Mahajan serves on the National Board of Peace Action. Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas. Both are members of the Nowar Collective (http://www.nowarcollective.com.) They can be reached by e-mail at ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ).

This article comes to us from Alternet, the news service of the alternative press.