Why we have to stop the war on Afghanistan now

written by Andrew Goreing

Unless the bombing of Afghanistan stops immediately, the UK government will share responsibility for an atrocity which will dwarf the toll of September 11. The war has also -


Even before the terrorist mass murders in New York and Washington, the people of Afghanistan were in desperate straits. After 25 years of war, and three years of drought, the country was facing the possibility of mass starvation in the coming winter.

The UN World Food Program and the aid agencies were planning and appealing for massive assistance. Food was entering the country and being distributed.

After September 11, the US promptly (possibly quite correctly) identified Osama bin Laden and his network as culprits, and put pressure on Pakistan to squeeze bin Laden's allies, the Taliban regime.

Washington ... demanded a cutoff of fuel supplies, an end to the use of Pakistani banks as conduits for clandestine money movements by terrorists and the elimination of truck convoys that provide much of the food and other supplies to Afghanistan's civilian population.
New York Times 16 September

The truck convoys stopped (not only because of the US demand). At once the likelihood rose that many thousands more people would die. After two weeks the aid began to move again, to be immediately disrupted when the bombing campaign started on October 7. By October 16 the prospects were so bleak that the aid agencies united in an unprecedented appeal:

Christian Aid [also Oxfam, Islamic Relief, CAFOD, Action Aid, and TEAR Fund] is calling on the US and the UK governments to call a temporary halt to the bombing campaign in Afghanistan, to allow for the safe passage of aid before winter sets in and roads become impassable.
Christian Aid press release

The day before, Jean Ziegler, the UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food, had urged

"The bombing has to stop right now. There is a humanitarian emergency....In winter the lorries cannot go in any more. Millions of Afghans will be unreachable in winter and winter is coming very, very soon."
Reuters, AP, 15 October

The victims will be - as usual - the most helpless;

Unicef are predicting that the staggeringly high infant mortality rates in Afghanistan (25%) will rise because of the war and claim another 100,000 children's lives this winter. Other vulnerable groups of the population, such as the elderly, will also be disproportionately hit as the Afghan population undertakes a desperate struggle to survive. Some are already reduced to eating leaves and grass.
Madeleine Bunting The Guardian 18 October

The threat of famine is the single most pertinent fact about the war. Even if the assault on Al-Qaeda and the Taliban was justified on every other conceivable ground, the war is still a crime. We cannot demand that millions, or hundreds of thousands, or even thousands of Afghans - victims of the Taliban, overwhelmingly - die of starvation for the sake of our self-defence. Another way has to be found.

It is quite surprising how this prominent fact, evident from the very first days of the crisis, is somehow not noticed by supporters of the war. Consider Richard Falk, a figure with a distinguished record in opposing the military adventures of his own country:

I have never since my childhood supported a shooting war in which the United States was involved, although in retrospect I think the NATO war in Kosovo achieved beneficial results. The war in Afghanistan against apocalyptic terrorism qualifies in my understanding as the first truly just war since World War II.
The Nation issue of 29 October

Falk goes on to discuss means and ends, proportionality, legitimacy, etc, without once mentioning the fact that, (in the words of Christian Aid international director Roger Riddell) "We are on the verge of a massive crisis, and food must be delivered. The lives of more than seven million people are at stake."

Possibly Falk thinks that mass starvation is irrelevant to the principles of "discrimination ... proportionality ... humanity ... and necessity" that he recommends, or possibly he is simply ill-informed. The issue has not, reportedly, been on the front pages of the US papers. On a back page of the New York Times, under the headline Bush Voices Pride in Aid, but Groups List Hurdles, one can read in paragraph twelve that "The United Nations believes that 7.5 million Afghans will need food over the winter - 2.5 million more than on Sept. 11." Why has the number gone up by 50% since September 11? An obvious answer comes to mind, but one is unlikely to discover more about it from the New York Times.

The agencies's appeal has been reported more prominently in the UK than in the US, so the British government, though it rejected the demand at once, has been obliged to give reasons. For example;

Bombing operations in Afghanistan are not preventing aid supplies from getting through, the international development secretary, Clare Short, said today .... Ms Short, who is currently visiting Pakistan, told [the Radio 4 Today programme] that aid agencies and United Nations workers on the ground did not believe that military operations were blocking their work. "Most of them agreed with the call [for a pause in bombing], but they agreed with me that we have got to keep everything moving in the meantime," she said.

"It isn't true to say if the bombing stopped there wouldn't be any problem in moving humanitarian supplies. To say we can't do anything until the bombing stops is factually not true."

The Guardian 18 October

It's difficult to see how these remarks amount to anything other than a shameful evasion. Nobody proposed that the aid programme should "do nothing" until the bombing stops, nor has anyone suggested that "there wouldn't be any problem in moving humanitarian supplies". The issue, as Clare Short must surely know, is whether, under the conditions of the bombing, enough aid can be moved to the right places to prevent a massive disaster. Perhaps Clare Short has superior information to that available to Christian Aid, Oxfam, Islamic Relief, the UN Special Rapporteur to the Right to Food, UN personnel and the other "workers on the ground." If so, she failed to say what it was.

As The Independent said in a leader "[Clare Short's] ability to contradict expectations raised by her left-wing past in such a spirited way is one of her strengths." One sees their point.

The Independent, incidentally, applauded Short's reasons for rejecting the plea for a bombing pause;

Ms Short is right that aid was not getting through to much of the population in Taliban-controlled areas before the bombing. She is right that it is the Taliban, rather than the bombing, which is preventing the food getting through to the starving. If the bombing will help to prise the Taliban's death-grip from the drought-ravaged, poverty-stricken country-and the judgement must be that this is likely-then more lives will be saved than lost in the medium term.
The Independent 20 October

These confident judgements are false. Christian Aid had just reported the exact opposite:

The facts are these: prior to the horrific events of September 11, WFP aid was effectively getting into Afghanistan and was being distributed. Following that date, the fear of US military action meant that international aid workers had to leave the country and the aid shipments stopped ....

.... we have been able to work effectively in an Afghanistan under the Taliban for a number of years. This work has included drought relief programmes which we successfully ran in the past two years. Reports from local partner organisations, still operating in Afghanistan, confirm that while there are problems in the Kandahar area, in most other places it is still possible to operate without interference from the Taliban.

Christian Aid, 18 October

The joint press release from the aid agencies also omitted to blame the Taliban, but did specifically mention the US action;

The call by [the agencies] comes 48 hours after a missile exploded a few hundred metres from a UN World Food Program depot in Kabul. A convoy of 250 tonnes of food being loaded at the time was to have gone to an Oxfam distribution site in Hazarajat. This would have been the first food into the Oxfam Hazarajat project since September 11.

The agencies said that labourers and truckers were becoming increasingly afraid to load or unload food, to drive deep into Afghanistan, or to stay overnight in Afghan towns and cities. This series of events has significantly affected the ability of agencies to carry out their work.

"It is evident now that we cannot, in reasonable safety, get food to hungry Afghan people," said Oxfam director Barbara Stocking. "We've reached the point where it is simply unrealistic for us to do what we need to do in Afghanistan. We've run out of food, the borders are closed, we can't reach our staff and time's almost run out."

At about the same time as the missile strike referred to, the US hit a Red Cross food warehouse in Kabul; one man was injured;

at least 35% of the food in the warehouse and other equipment had been destroyed.... "It is definitely a civilian target" ... said Robert Moni, the head of the ICRC delegation in Kabul, which has evacuated to Pakistan. "It is marked on the top with a red cross. People should take all necessary measures to avoid such things."
Luke Harding, The Guardian 17 October

On 26 October the US hit the Red Cross warehouses again, damaging three and destroying food.

The labourers and truckers cannot be blamed for their fear, it seems.

However, if it is possible to blame someone else, we can be pretty confident that the UK government will do so. Take Jack Straw;

The overwhelming number of people who are in dire poverty in Afghanistan are in dire poverty because of the actions of the Taliban government


... the problem arises in getting the aid through. That problem has been caused by the Taliban and not principally by the military action. A regime that taxes trucks as they cross the border has no care for the hunger or deprivation of its inhabitants. We are working as hard as we can to get the humanitarian aid through, but as far as I know no approach has been made by the Taliban to provide safe routes for it. Most of the people who are currently starving were starving and in poverty and desperate need before 11 September...

Thirty years of war and five years of not existing as a functioning state at all have left Afghanistan with few serviceable institutions ... no one should be in any doubt about our will to build a better world for the children of Afghanistan. We will not turn our backs on them again.

Hansard, 16 October

Straw's argument seems to be that we have to remove the Taliban, despite the cost, for the sake of future generations in Afghanistan. It's difficult to believe that this is meant to be taken seriously - what would we think of an Afghani warlord who, told that his actions threatened the lives of hundreds of thousands of British citizens, decided to continue for the sake of improving the future lot of the survivors? - but let's assume Straw means what he says.

In the first place, why should any Afghan - why should we - trust the promises given by one of the belligerents in a war? Robert Fisk:-

Vain promises have ever been a part of our conflict.... To the Jews of the world, especially to Russian Jews, we promised our support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. To the Arabs, Lawrence of Arabia promised independence.... In the end, we imposed an Anglo-French military occupation on the Arabs who had helped us and, three decades later gave the Jews only half of Palestine.

The Independent 17 October

Some very recent history tells a similar story: Kosovo was promised reconstruction funds and funding for the UN mission. The donor countries were willing to provide $1 billion for reconstruction (money that would of course return to western construction firms, overwhelmingly), but not enough to enable the UN mission to function effectively - "Although Kosovo is tiny compared with Afghanistan, the UN found it difficult to restore the power supply a year after the bombing and had problems persuading the international community to meet promises to supply civilian police". Ewan Macaskill, The Guardian, 23 October

The US was not even willing to help remove the thousands of unexploded cluster bombs that it had donated to the region, as that might "create a precedent for clearing up in post-conflict situations" according to the head of the UN civilian demining team. Jonathan Steele, The Guardian, 14 March 2000

Six months after the Kosovo war ended, fifty people had been killed by unexploded ordnance.

If any Afghans were paying attention, they will know just what to expect once the war is over.

If this country had ever before shown the slightest interest in the rights of Afghans to have a representative government, then the promises might deserve a hearing. In fact the UK, along with the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, etc, has made a major contribution to the current disastrous state of Afghanistan, first encouraging, arming and training the mujahideen in their struggle against the Russian invasion, then backing one or other of the warring factions until the country lay in ruins. After 1992, as US favourite Gulbuddin Hekmatyar blasted his way into power, there was no discernible concern for the fate of Kabulis, dying in their thousands in shelling and rocket attacks, and even facing starvation "because Hekmatyar's gunmen have stolen truckloads of wheat and have not allowed local merchants to bring produce and grain into the city." Washington Post Weekly March 14-20, 1994

Second, one wonders how many deaths Straw is willing to risk in pushing forward his (sudden) concern for the Afghan people? Presumably he would not accept a death toll of 50% of the population. The UN is saying 7.5 million are at risk of starvation, approximately a third of the population; perhaps that is acceptable. Let's hope the children of Afghanistan are grateful.

It's worth looking more closely at the charges against the Taliban. We have already noted the opinion of Christian Aid that before September 11 "aid was effectively getting into Afghanistan and was being distributed" and that "in most ... places it is still possible to operate without interference from the Taliban."

In contrast Straw, Blair, Short and others claim that the Taliban is the main obstruction to aid getting through, though they have given no details I have found beyond the charge (Jack Straw) that the Taliban tax aid trucks as they enter Afghanistan.

The press has given several examples of Taliban obstruction. On October 17 Taliban forces seized two World Food Program warehouses and supposedly looted 7,000 tonnes of wheat. "According to Catherine Bertini, executive director of the UN agency, it was the first time the Taliban had disrupted food supplies" Rory Carroll, The Guardian, 19 October

The WFP reported the next day

Apparently nothing has been taken from WFP's warehouse in the Afghan capital, where a total of 5,300 metric tonnes of food is stored. The Agency urges the Taliban to return control of the warehouse in Kandahar.
WFP, 18 October

Taliban or "Afghani" (i.e. non-Afghan islamic) forces ransacked Médecins Sans Frontières centres in Mazar-i-Sharif and Kandahar on October 17 or 18, seriously disrupting medical services for the locality.

The Swedish Committee for Afghanistan reported that several of its centres were looted off and on for two days and that

In Mazar-e-Sharif, the largest city in northern Afghanistan, Taliban members looted and seized the Swedish Committee office Tuesday, [said spokesman Sidney Petersson]... The office reopened soon, but the same group of Taliban came back and set fuel reserves on fire....Other local Taliban tried to intervene but were unsuccessful.... Petersson said nearly half of the committee's 80 vehicles were taken, and - in Ghazni - used by senior Taliban officials to flee the region.
AP, Reuters, 19 October

We may note that Kandahar has been repeatedly bombed, and that Mazar-i-Sharif has been under attack by the Northern Alliance.

There have been several reports of the Taliban taxing aid convoys;

"In some areas Taliban officials have begun to demand new taxes from WFP drivers. Yesterday in Spin Baldak ... Taliban soldiers stopped a convoy of trucks carrying 400 tonnes of food and ordered drivers to pay $32 (£22) in tax per tonne. We refused but we hope to be able to get the convoy through," said [WFP spokesman Francesco] Luna.
The Guardian 12 October
The Taliban have also begun levying a tax of $8 to $37 a ton on wheat coming into the country. "One convey of 1,000 tons of wheat was held up for five days trying to negotiate the tax," Mark Bartolini of the International Rescue Committee said.
New York Times 17 October

Taking these accounts at face value, the picture seems to be that a few days after the bombing started, Taliban officials began to tax aid convoys - possibly an innovation - and that in areas of the highest tension there have been attacks on offices, and trashing and looting of medical supplies, fuel and vehicles. The fact that in the case of the Swedish Committee offices "other local Taliban tried to intervene but were unsuccessful", and that the Taliban backed down over the WFP Kabul warehouse, claiming it had been "a misunderstanding", suggest we are not seeing a fixed campaign of harrassment, but the effects of indiscipline, indecision and factionalising that the bombing can be expected to produce.

Adding more weight to this interpretation, the UNOCHA (UN Office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs) reported

On 18 October, the Supreme Leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, reportedly issued a decree instructing all Taliban authorities to ensure the speedy recovery and return of all assets that have been looted from the international aid community. The Taliban official who had occupied the UNOCHA compound in Mazar-I-Sharif left the compound on Saturday minutes after receiving a copy of the decree.
Afghanistan OCHA Situation Report No. 13, 22 October

But let us suppose that every charge of Taliban obstruction is true. And also the charges - highly plausible - that the Taliban militias are pressganging young men, placing machine-gun posts in bazaars and residential areas, retaliating against the invulnerable American planes by lobbing rockets into the markets of enemy-held towns, and becoming even more savage and desperate. Then a simple question arises; are they more likely to behave this way when we're bombing them, or when we're not bombing them?

Let us also suppose - contrary to the evidence of Christian Aid and others - that only if the Taliban is removed will we be able to move sufficient aid to the neediest parts of the country. Recall the US and UK governments have been eager to stress that we may be facing a long struggle, and that military action against the Taliban may continue "until next spring" (Geoff Hoon) or even (George W Bush) "for up to two years". The Guardian, 12 October

They do not expect to remove the Taliban within days - but that is exactly what is required if the aid is to get to the remotest parts of Afghanistan in time to prevent what the UN Secretary-General has called "the world's worst humanitarian disaster". The conclusion seems fairly plain: the UK and US governments have no concern for the 7.5 million facing starvation, except as a pretext to make hypocritical charges against the Taliban.

Support the aid agencies. The bombing must stop.

Since 17 October, when the aid agencies made their plea (and were turned down and scolded for being "emotional" by Clare Short), the situation has apparently got even worse.

From an Oxfam report of 23 October:

Despite WFP's claims that food aid is moving into Afghanistan, our people inside the country say they have run out of food in their warehouses to give to people who need it. Food may well be moving, but it's not reaching the people who need it at the end of the chain ...

.... the evidence from previous weeks indicates that we are far below the target of 1,700 tonnes per day .... Oxfam's food distribution, previously supplying 265,000 people, has now come to a halt due to a lack of food. All Oxfam and partner food stocks are exhausted and WFP is unable to replenish these or those of other agencies....

WFP have reported that they are changing their logistical plan, so that they no longer deliver to six 'hubs' inside Afghanistan, but instead are committing to direct delivery...this new delivery system will require a new fleet of trucks, but there is no certainty that these vehicles will be acquired.

From Refugees International, 23 October;

The overall humanitarian support system in Afghanistan is getting weaker and weaker, according to Afghan humanitarian aid workers. They warn that the international community needs to redouble its efforts inside Afghanistan in the face of immense political and logistical obstacles.
Jason Burke, The Observer, 21 October;
The United Nations is set to issue an unprecedented appeal to the United States and its coalition allies to halt the war on Afghanistan and allow time for a huge relief operation. 'The situation is completely untenable inside Afghanistan. We really need to get our point across here and have to be very bold in doing it. Unless the [US air] strikes stop, there will be a huge number of deaths,' one UN source said.

WE HAVE TO STOP THE WAR because we are directly killing innocent people

The connection between the US/UK assault and the threat of starvation is inescapable, but it could be argued it is, in a sense, indirect. However any military assault has direct effects on the target population.

The masters of war repeat routinely that they are not targeting civilians and that they regret civilian casualties. Civilian casualties predictably occur, and equally predictably the Pentagon say that they "cannot confirm" what the enemy claim; or government spokespersons - for example Clare Short, who seems particularly unlucky in the speed with which she is refuted by events - tell us that we cannot believe anything the Taliban say. "Clearly there is propaganda being fed out ... claims of casualties that are not true. It's widely understood among Afghanistan refugees that there have not been so many civilian casualties.," said Ms Short, in reply to the Taliban claim that 100 civilians had been killed in the village of Karam. Agency report, The Guardian, 13 October; The Independent, 13 October

The same day one could read:

Danish Karwakhel, an Afghan correspondent for a Pakistan newspaper, was travelling towards the Pakistani border when he passed through [Karam]...According to Mr Karwakhel... scores of innocent civilians were killed...
Richard Lloyd Parry, The Independent, 13 October

The whole village, he said, was occupied in burying the dead. He was told that, including surrounding villages, 150 civilians were killed in the area.

"I saw many bodies in coffins. Eight people were being buried here, five there, it was a very emotional scene."

Alex Spillius and Imtiaz Ali Khan, Daily Telegraph, filed 13 October

Furthermore a refugee, Mohammed Rahim, reported seeing bodies at the Sultanpur Mosque in Jalalabad.

Local people told him that a bomb had hit the mosque during prayers, and that some 17 people had been caught inside. Neighbours rushed in to pull them out of the rubble and the rescue operation was under way when another bomb fell. "The second one killed 120 people,"
Richard Lloyd Parry

A week later the US was admitting bombs had now "gone astray" in Herat (allegedly striking a hospital in a military compound) and Kabul, and the UN was reporting scores of casualties and massive destruction.

Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said ..."We take extraordinary care on the targeting process ...There is collateral damage. Thus far, it has been extremely limited from what we've seen."

Refugees arriving in Pakistan suggested otherwise. Several recounted how 20 people, including nine children, had been killed as they tried to flee an attack on the southern Afghan town of Tirin Kot on a tractor and trailer.

Said Mohammad Azam, Agence France Presse, 24 October

Cluster bombs (still a threat in Kosovo, as we have seen) are now making their contribution to Afghanistan, already the most mined country in the world. Most of the population of Herat has fled to surrounding villages in the wake of recent air strikes, which included the use of

air delivered sub-munitions-which are carried in cluster bombs. Vehicles and pushcarts took an unconfirmed number of casualties from both of these sites to the main hospital in Herat City.... A group of people came from [Shaker Qala] village to the Mine Action Centre in Herat....many bomblets were littering their village ... they were afraid and could not leave their houses.
Stephanie Bunker UN briefing 24 October

The Taliban claim that up to 22 October one thousand civilians have been killed. The Allies, naturally, reject this figure. It is impossible yet to make any reliable guess, but it is clear that there is a steady toll of civilian casualties, and if the war continues for months, as we are promised, the toll will continue to mount.

Apart from people killed and injured by bombs and missiles, the Allies are forcing thousands to flee their homes. 70% of the population of Herat, Kandahar and Jalalabad have fled; Kandahar, struck for eighteen continuous days, has become a "bombed-out ghost town", where social breakdown is so severe that "it is impossible to live there now" and where "it's complete anarchy. The bombs are falling, there are bandits entering people's houses in the night." The UN estimates 8 million displaced persons within the country, as well as the thousands of refugees trying to gain entry to Pakistan, the 10,000 trapped in "No Man's Land", or repulsed and returned who knows where, and over 2000 recently arrived on the border with Iran. AFP; Jason Burke The Observer, 21 October; Richard Lloyd Parry, The Independent, 23 October

For some-the weak, old, the vulnerable-this will mean death. Add their numbers to the victims at Karam, at the Sultanpur Mosque, and the many more that we may never hear of. Recall that this is being done in the name of fighting terror; or even so that we can assist the fortunate Afghans to achieve a "stable, durable, representative regime'. Jack Straw Hansard 16 October

The news of our dedication to his future security hasn't reached Mohammed Sardar, who arrived in Peshawar a few days ago carrying a sheaf of handwritten letters in Pashto, pleas from the residents of his community just south of Kabul;

The letters were addressed ... to President Bush, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, Russian President Vladimir Putin ... Kofi Annan and the leaders of China, France, Britain, India, Iran and Saudi Arabia. "The world must know what is happening in Afghanistan ... The terrorists and the leaders are still free, but the people are dying and there is no one to listen to us. I must get to President Bush and the others and tell them they are making a terrible mistake." Sardar, a taxi driver and father of 12, said his family had spent night after night listening to the bombing .... One night during the first week, he said, a bomb aimed at a nearby radio station struck a house, killing all five members of the family living there. "There was no sign of a home left," he said. "We just collected the pieces of bodies and buried them."
Pamela Constable Washington Post 23 October


On 24 October Clare Short made a statement to the House of Commons again rejecting the call for a bombing pause, and claiming that increased deliveries by the World Food Program were improving the situation considerably. At once Christian Aid responded with a breakdown of the official figures, demonstrating that food distribution is still less than twenty per cent of what is needed.

Christian Aid's International Director, Roger Riddell, said: '... with the World Food Programme still unable to meet urgent food needs, Christian Aid believes that there is no alternative but to continue to call for a humanitarian pause in the bombing.'

1) How much food aid must be trucked in before the winter snows (mid November)?

Current number of recipients of food aid: 5.3 million
(UN estimate of potential need in future: 7.5 million)
Monthly requirement for 5.2 million people: 52,000 tonnes
Winter stockpile for NW and Central sectors: 67,000 tonnes
Total required for a month's supply stockpile: 119,000 tonnes
Food already stored inside Afghanistan: 12,725 tonnes
Total transport requirement by mid-Nov = 106,275 tonnes

2) What rate of transport is needed over the next 4 weeks if this total is to be achieved?

109,275 tonnes divided by 30 days = 3,543 tonnes per day

3) So is enough food aid being TRANSPORTED into Afghanistan currently?

Daily average for week (17th Oct): 900 tonnes per day (shortfall of 75%)
Planned for 10 days from 17th Oct: 1600 tonnes per day (shortfall of 55%)

4) So is enough food aid being DISTRIBUTED currently?

Average achieved since Sept 11th:617 tonnes per day (shortfall of 83%)

The planned average was not attained. The daily rate 22-29 October was 1430 tonnes (UN Information Centre briefing, 31 Oct). Note that some food stocks inside Afghanistan have been destroyed by bombing or looted by the Taliban, a consequence welcomed by the US, if we can believe the Pentagon briefing (23 Oct) that said US forces were

aiming at roads, trucks, petroleum facilities, food, and other supplies that [the Taliban] need to stay in power

On November 2 The Independent reported that Kofi Annan had appealed to the US, on behalf of the World Health Organisation and UNICEF, to halt the bombing to allow the annual measles and polio vaccination program to operate in safety (which could safeguard the lives of 50,000 children under 5). Apparently the Taliban are willing to co-operate; the leaders of the west, who proclaim their concern for the "children of Afghanistan", are not. The appeal was turned down.