A War Against Civilians?

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President
Bush has declared a "war on terror," and political leaders
such as House minority leader Dick Gephardt insist that "this
is not a strike against the people of Afghanistan."

But
the evidence is accumulating that our current military campaign
is indeed, as most of the world sees it, being waged against the
Afghan people.

Consider
this statement from Admiral Michael Boyce, Chief of the British
Defense Staff. Referring to the bombing campaign, he said, "The
squeeze will carry on until the people of the country themselves
recognize that this is going to go on until they get the leadership
changed."

It
seems clear from this statement that Admiral Boyce sees the punishment
of Afghan civilians, including their children, as an important part
of the US/British strategy. On September 16 the New York Times reported
that our government had demanded from Pakistan "the elimination
of truck convoys that provide much of the food and other supplies
to Afghanistan's civilian population."

Food
shipments fell drastically, although the border has remained porous,
especially to those who pay bribes. The Taliban is even able to
make money by exporting things as big as logs.

In
recent weeks the UN World Food Programme has increased its shipments.
But these are still far short of the amount needed to prevent mass
starvation during the winter. The increased risk to truck drivers,
the breakdown in law and order, and other disruptions due to the
war are taking their expected toll.

There
are currently about 5.3 million people receiving food aid, and this
is expected to increase to 7.5 million in the near future. In about
two weeks winter will begin, many roads will become impassible,
and people will have to rely on stockpiled food. Relief groups have
called for a halt in the bombing so that food – as well as blankets
and medicines – can get through before it is too late. But their appeals
have so far gone unheeded.

And
everyone acknowledges that the air drops of food from US planes
are so small that they are little more than an exercise in public
relations.

What
is terrorism? Edward Herman, Emeritus Professor from Pennsylvania's
Wharton School of Business, has offered a politically neutral, straightforward
definition of terrorism that is difficult to argue with: "the
use of force or the threat of force against civilian populations
to achieve political objectives."

A
strategy to "squeeze" Afghanistan, through bombing and
starvation, "until the people of the country themselves . .
. get the leadership changed" would certainly qualify as terrorism
under this definition.

Most
Americans would like to see Osama Bin Laden, and anyone else that
was responsible for the atrocity of September 11, brought to justice.
But they would certainly be ashamed if they knew that their government
was pursuing a strategy that involved starving hundreds of thousands,
and possibly even millions, of innocent people.

Of
course this is not the first time that our government has used collective
punishment, or terrorism, in order to achieve its political goals:
there was Nicaragua in the 1980s, Vietnam prior to that, and many
other examples. In fact, by any objective definition of terrorism – one
that includes the terrorism of states as well as individuals – the
United States has been its largest single sponsor over the last
half-century.

This
war is different, in that it originated with a horrific terrorist
attack on Americans. But the collective punishment of the people
of Afghanistan is no more excusable than the crimes of September
11. As such, it will only inspire more hatred and terrorism against
us.

There
is no military solution to the problem of terrorism within our borders.
We will have to change our foreign policy, so that our government
does not make so many enemies throughout the world. Those who collaborated
in the crimes of September 11 will have to be pursued through legal
and political channels, including the United Nations.

A
good start would be to cut off the major source of Bin Laden's funding
and support, which is not in Afghanistan but in Saudi Arabia. The
Bush Administration has done very little on this front, due to a
combination of big oil and other "geopolitical" interests.
Our government is willing to risk American lives, at home and abroad,
and kill any number of innocent Afghanis, but it is apparently not
willing to risk disturbing its relations with the Saudi royal family.

Going
the legal route won't boost the President's approval ratings the
way a war does, nor will it make the world fear our military power.
But at least we won't be fighting terrorism with more terrorism,
and fueling an escalating cycle of violence.

November
2, 2001

Mark
Weisbrot [send him mail]
is co-director of the Center for Economic
and Policy Research
in Washington, DC.

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