• 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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