The Innocent Starve

Below is the latest in a series of articles I found on the Guardian/Observer site, by author Nick Cohen. He must feel he's beating his head against a wall. His recent series on the impending famine in Afghanistan repeatedly drives home the point that it's now or never.

In a 10/25 press release, the Food and Agriculture Organization said that 7.5 million Afghans are in need of immediate aid. I've read estimates that from one to three million Afghans will starve to death if aid agencies can't get food to the central highlands by mid-November. The harsh fact is that the transportation of aid takes time; because of the bombing, already aid agencies are way behind schedule for trucking in food. In his 10/21 article, "In the Fogs of War the Innocent Starve," Cohen wrote,

"Do the maths and you can see that 122,000 tonnes needs to be moved in the next month at a rate of about 4,000 tonnes a day." At this point only ridiculously small amounts of food have been trucked in due to the bombing, and the need has become even more pressing since the date those figures were published.

Feeling it's time for people to stand up and be counted on the issue, I sent a modified version of this letter to the Guardian/Observer after reading Nick Cohen's articles. Hope they print it!

I was poised to write everyone on my e-mail list suggesting we demand of our government a cease-fire during Ramadan. With over a million Afghans on the brink of starvation, a desperate measure - like compassion - seems appropriate. I hoped a Ramadan cease-fire would appeal to the PR instincts of the US government, which must have been severely taxed to come up with the palliative yellow packets (serviette enclosed, see directions). If the US magnanimously halted the bombing in honor of a religious observation such as Ramadan, it might save face and still get out of what's proving a deadly exercise in futility - maybe even polish up its image in the Middle East. I hoped a Ramadan cease-fire would provide an opportunity for less reactive response; is it too late to hope for diplomacy from the Bush administration of dolts and oil execs, as Cohen puts it? ("Short Measures," Nick Cohen, Sunday October 28, 2001)

After reading this journalist's articles and others which reiterate the same viewpoint, I've reluctantly concluded that a Ramadan cease-fire would come too late to stave off mass-starvation. What we really need is an IMMEDIATE cease-fire. Even that will be tardy.

(The electorates the author refers to at the end of the article is us.)

Here are the relevant links to get in touch with your representatives, should you feel moved to discuss this with them:

President George Bush


Bread not bombs

By doing little to avert a famine in Afghanistan,
the West is sowing the seeds for more Islamic hatred
Nick Cohen
Sunday October 14, 2001
The Observer

The bombing of Afghanistan must stop. To say so isn't to appease mass murderers by pretending they are misunderstood fighters against imperialism. You can think, as I do, that the sum of human happiness would inflate exponentially if the Taliban and their Arab allies were driven from power. You can believe that the atrocities of 11 September changed the world and made hitherto unthinkable expedients necessary. You can even fall in love with Tony Blair's mythical America which stood 'side by side with us' in the Blitz of 1940, rather than staying out of the Second World War until 1941, and was 'born out of the defeat of slavery', rather than a declaration of independence by, among others, slave owners.

You can hold all these views simultaneously and still argue that this war is a moral and political disaster. Its worthwhile ends are unattainable. Its means are self-defeating. The choice before America and her supporters in Britain is to back off or inflict a famine on Afghanistan which will kill tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands and take the case for a just war with them.

Tolerance of starvation is unconscionable. It dumps supporters of bombing in the same intellectual wastebasket as those who mutter that America 'had it coming'. Afghan peasants, like the workers in the World Trade Centre, aren't strictly culpable, you understand. But if they're in the wrong place under the wrong government then, somehow, they deserve to die.

I wouldn't expect everyone in a government which employs Jo Moore to be distracted by ethical arguments. I count many hardened socialists and pacifists among my friends. For all their fierce anti-Americanism, they were too filled with shock and sympathy on 11 September to match the seediness of the propagandist's cry: 'Everyone else thinks the extermination of thousands is a problem! I see it as an opportunity!'

From what I hear, though, New Labour is beginning to worry about the political 'collateral damage'. The formal war aim - the defeat of terrorism - is a fantasy. More realistically, we might have hoped war would do the world a favour by bringing justice of a kind to bin Laden and the Taliban without creating the resentments which will breed further violence.

Starvation in Afghanistan dashes modest hopes. It provides the inspiration for future suicide bombers while inflaming intelligent Muslim opinion. The Prime Minister's interviewer on al-Jazeera TV made a comparison I suspect we're going to hear many times in the coming months. Iraqis are still paying the price of the Gulf war of 1991, he said. 'They are under sanctions and about one million Iraqi children died because of famine. Aren't you repeating the same thing in Afghanistan now?' Blair said, quite rightly, that hunger in Iraq was the fault of Saddam Hussein. He didn't answer the Afghanistan question.

FAMINE WAS COMING anyway. Oxfam warned before 11 September that drought and the economic consequences of a Taliban theocracy which couldn't create a civilisation worth clashing with would leave 1.9 million Afghans hungry by the end of the year. Clare Short and her Department for International Development had been saying for months that Afghanistan was a catastrophe waiting to happen. Christian Aid spent the summer planning an Afghan appeal for 15 September. The eradication of the means of life in Afghanistan did not therefore arrive out of a clear blue sky.

The kamikaze attacks which did halted United Nations food deliveries for three weeks. They started, stopped again when the bombing began on Sunday, and then restarted. The UN had 9,200 metric tons of food inside of Afghanistan yesterday. Officials in the World Food Programme calculate the country needs 52,000 metric tons from outside a month.

Their horrendous difficulty is not finding supplies. The Bush administration has belied its reputation for know-nothing callousness by being exceptionally generous in circumstances which might have induced parsimony, as, indeed, has Britain. There's plenty of food near the borders. But getting it in before winter closes the mountain roads next month is a nightmare. Afghanistan must have a five-month stockpile - 250,000 metric tons - in place within five weeks. If it doesn't, then voices as sober as Andrew Natsios, the administrator of Bush's US Agency for International Development, say 1.5 million Afghans risk starvation and seven million will face critical food shortages.

To make matters worse, the Afghans aren't behaving as predicted. The United Nations and aid agencies thought that 11 September would produce a rush of refugees to the borders where rudimentary camps could be prepared to shelter them. The expected exodus has been the great non-event of the war. The Taliban have banned foreign journalists and looted UN communications equipment, so no one really knows why Afghans aren't on the move. The most frightening suggestion is that most with the ability to get out fled in the Nineties. The majority of those left behind are too young, old or sick to travel far. The people who are most likely to starve, in other words, are least able to reach food stations.

Moving hundreds of convoys into one of the poorest countries in the world within weeks would probably be impossible in peacetime. It's certainly impossible during a war which Sir Michael Boyce, the Chief of the Defence Staff, said on Thursday would 'go through the winter and into next summer at the very least'.

The bombing won't last that long; there aren't enough large pieces of rubble in Afghanistan worth smashing into small pieces of rubble. But if the predictions that an apocalypse will begin some day around 20 November are half right, any stalling of food deliveries by B52s will bring mass starvation.

The officials in Whitehall who fear that Britain and America will be complicit in a calamity get angriest about the absence of co-ordination. There's no plan, they say, to share information between soldiers and aid workers and balance humanitarian and military objectives. But then an absence of coherent planning defines the conflict.

YOU MAY remember that the Northern Alliance was meant to fight America's ground war by proxy. Now we're told it is almost as brutal and unfit for power as the Taliban. Last Saturday, Alastair Campbell was adamant that Britain did not want to extend the war to Iraq. On Sunday, Bush hinted strongly that he'd like to do just that. Bush had backed away from declaring war on Iraq by Friday. He was no longer sure if the complete overthrow of the Taliban remained a war aim. Elements of the Taliban could have a role in a national government if they surrendered bin Laden, he suggested. 'If you cough him up and his people we will reconsider what we are doing to your country.'

America can't define her enemies. If the Taliban are ejected, she doesn't know who should form the next government. Blair and Bush, however, are aware that they must convince the Muslim world that they are acting justly if they wish to escape a new generation of bin Ladens. Yet their war will exacerbate a famine which may further shred America's reputation in the region.

The alternative to hunger is a generous bombing pause so food can be delivered and Washington can work out what this war is for. The Taliban aren't going anywhere and can be defeated at any time. When you don't know what you're doing it's usually best to adopt the pose of masterful inactivity and do nothing.

Watch out, there's a dinosaur about

Broadsheet pundits and academics were arguing before 11 September what description best suited an American Right which was tearing up every treaty.

'Isolationist' was rejected by one and all. The Bush administration didn't give a damn about world opinion, but was very keen on global dominance. 'Unilateralist' was the preferred label of right-thinking people. Only Dan Plesch of the Royal United Services Institute and a few other Leftish dons argued that America's refusal to recognise international law meant that technically it was an 'anarchist' state. I saw their point, but thought they were pushing it a bit after 11 September.

A generous but not necessarily inaccurate explanation of Blair's willingness to stand by America come what may is that he is trying to persuade Bush to accept the need for global security. He could have argued that US's sabotaging of controls on chemical and biological weapons in the summer, for instance, was folly when hindsight proved that no crime was unimaginable.

To call America anarchist after what she has suffered seemed cruel, until I read the debates on Jesse Helms's Amendment to Protect Servicemen From International Criminal Court.

An urgent task in the 'war' against terrorism was, said the far-Right Senator, the undermining of international justice. America must not accept the jurisdiction of a court for war criminals, even though it was supported by Britain and every other civilised country. Her military should be free to take 'any necessary action' - including the deployment armed force - to 'free US soldiers' from its cells.

'Nothing is more important that the safety of our citizens, soldiers and public servants,' said Helms. 'The terrorist attacks of 11 September have made that fact all the more obvious.'

Attacking the law against war crimes after the crimes of 11 September was at best frivolous - weren't their more pressing matters to discuss? - and at worst insane. Arguments against an impartial court which might try the bin Ladens of the future weaken America's attempt to build coalitions and present her case in the Muslim world. To then propose surgical strikes on the citizens of her allies was, surely, the ravings of a dinosaur.

Yet a proud Helms told the Senate that his amendment was 'endorsed by the Bush administration'. 'Anarchist' was the mot juste, after all.


In the fogs of war,
the innocent starve

Nick Cohen
Sunday October 21, 2001
The Observer

The 'war' is usually enclosed in unironic inverted commas because the real war is not in Afghanistan. The campaign to contain Islamic fundamentalism is more about winning arguments than winning battles. The overthrow of the Taliban and capture of bin Laden will be worthless victories if America inspires a new generation of fanatics by allowing itself to be portrayed as complicit in atrocity. Tony Blair and Clare Short recognised the danger and argued fiercely that the choice between bombing and famine was false. I've no doubt they were sincere and am sure they don't want mass starvation. But when Short said 'we are trucking in huge amounts of food' and gracelessly accused relief workers of being 'emotional' she was being idiotic.

Here, without a tremble of the lip or a tear in the eye, are the figures. The World Food Programme says Afghanistan needs 250,000 metric tonnes of food to get through the winter. Not every sack of grain needs to be distributed to stockpiles before the snows come next month. Parts of the country will be still be accessible. None the less the most conservative aid-workers estimate that 52,000 tonnes must get in by mid-November, along with stockpiles of 35,000 tonnes each for the central highlands and north west. If the food isn't there tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands are going to die.

Do the maths and you can see that 122,000 tonnes needs to be moved in the next month at a rate of about 4,000 tonnes a day.

The best the World Food Programme has managed since the bombing started was 900 tonnes in a day. Last week it shifted 4,000 tonnes in total. As an unemotional chap at Christian Aid told me, it's impossible to recruit enough drivers while the bombs fall.

A ceasefire will allow the Taliban to regroup, we're told. Yes, it will, but so what? America can defeat the Taliban at any time whether the regime has regrouped or not, unless, that is, supporters of the war believe that the US doesn't have the will for a long struggle.

I guess this is the fear that no one could quite utter last week. If the momentum was lost, nervousness would set in and the demoralised military would end the campaign. Yet we are assured daily that the American public has a steadfastness and willingness to take casualties. If this is true, it should be told that while the bombing may be a sensible military tactic, as a political strategy it stinks.


Short measures

The West goes on bombing,
the Taliban keep resisting and the
Afghans face a catastrophic famine

by Nick Cohen
Sunday October 28, 2001
The Observer

When the government meets those who question America's cack-handed 'war' with Hilary Armstrong's brilliant: 'It was people like you who appeased Hitler in 1938', we must get back to basics. I'm sure even Ministers will concede that it was possible to support the fight against the Axis powers while protesting that the bombing of Dresden and the atomic obliterations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were crimes against humanity. You can applaud the ends while deploring the means. You can suspect that degraded means may make worthwhile ends unobtainable.

About 25,000 died in Dresden. About 300,000 were incinerated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The body count from the war-exacerbated Afghan famine will exceed the Dresden total and may be as high as Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If food does not get through before winter makes many roads impassable next month, the UN estimates that 400,000 will be in immediate danger. Aid agencies had intended to feed 3.9 million Afghans before the spring. They can't see how they can do it now. The chaos in Afghanistan renders all predictions foolish. Unless we are very lucky, the Afghan death toll will be somewhere between these terrible numbers.

Churchillian growls are all the rage in Westminster, but the comparison with 1938 fails because the Second World War was a war for national survival. The slaughter of civilians was, and still is, defended as a brutal but necessary means of ending the conflict. However atrocious the destruction of the World Trade Centre was, America's existence does not hang on the success of the Afghan campaign. Jack Straw has tried a more plausible comparison. He wants us to see the war as a rerun of the successful Kosovo campaign. Yet Serbia was a modern country with targets to hit. The risible official announcements of Taliban 'command-and-control centres' and 'infrastructure' being destroyed are intended to hide the near complete absence of targets which can be bombed from 15,000ft. Milosevic and the Taliban are both monsters. But the Taliban will not be brought to their knees because they must save Afghanistan's 'assets'. They have already helped ensure there are no assets to save.

The Kosovo campaign was also a last resort after years of indulgence of Serb national socialism. The war in Afghanistan is a first resort, 'a live on CNN, something must be done, do my poll ratings look good in this?' war.

We have not been meant to write this way since 11 September. Sensible people who once regarded George W. Bush as a dolt and his administration as a mediocre collection of oil executives and political has-beens, are spooning praise on Washington for 'not lashing out'. But if they reflected that no power, not even America, can launch an air war just like that, they would realise that 'lashing out' is exactly what Bush did the minute his aircraft carriers and submarines were in position. Covert networks are broken by assassins, spies, blackmailers; regimes such as the Taliban need to be encircled and subverted before they are attacked. These are urgent tasks which take time. They require the turning of America's vast and fantastically expensive intelligence apparatus towards a threat which it was unready to face. America preferred a quick, flashy campaign.

The Pentagon admits as much. Officials whispered at the start of the conflict that they expected the Taliban to fall apart in days. Last week, Rear Admiral John D. Stufflebeem accepted the war was a 'stalemate'. The US Joint Chiefs had been shocked to discover that the Taliban were 'tough warriors'. He and his colleagues were 'a bit surprised at how doggedly they're hanging on to their power'.

The demented Taliban have proved yet again that no civilisation worth having can be built on sacred texts. They can be accused of virtually every crime. Their fiercest critics have never suggested that they weren't 'tough', that they couldn't take punishments as well as inflict them.

When those who care about the skeletons which will be found in Afghanistan wonder how it was that America and Britain could begin bombing at the moment when the aid agencies needed to pile food in, the answer will be that the Pentagon expected an easy war. Now that we're in a long struggle, and a famine is about to begin, the buck is being passed so fast you would think it was dusted with anthrax.

Clare Short sobs and sighs in private. She has grave doubts about the bombing and favours a pause which will allow food in before the winter. She must know that starvation will be blamed on America and its British sidekick and fill the ranks of the Islamic terror groups the 'war' is meant to eliminate. If she were to say as much in public, she would be making a brave stand on principle, an eccentric, indeed unprecedented, posture for a member of Tony Blair's Cabinet.

The PM promised on 7 October that there were there were three parts to his strategy - 'military, diplomatic and humanitarian'. In truth, there was nothing Blair could do if Washington didn't share his priorities. Neither British politicians nor the mainstream media can bring themselves to confess we are not America's equal partner and our contribution to the 'war effort' has been ornamental.

Clare Short's Department for International Development (DfID) accepts that the real masters of the war are not overly concerned with the humanitarian worries. When aid agencies reported that starvation had begun in the central highlands, they received a desperate message from DfID: 'Interested to hear about your sources of information for some of the facts you are quoting. Most recently, the figure of 600 dying of hunger in Dara-e Suf two months ago: I cannot find anyone to confirm it. Please don't think I am questioning the accuracy of your information. But it gives us and others a stronger case for arguing for humanitarian [rather than strategic military] priorities if we can point to hard sources of evidence for what is happening to innocents in Afghanistan to back up what we already suspect.'

Short's staff in Pakistan accept the bombing is preventing food moving. It may well breach the Geneva Convention prohibitions on targeting civilians, they say. Short can't find the courage to repeat their conclusions. She denied the obvious in the Commons last week when she breezily announced that 'the World Food Programme is moving towards achieving its target of delivering 1,700 [metric] tonnes of food a day'. It was a sly formulation for a no-nonsense politician. The UN may be 'moving towards its target' but it is moving too slowly to be of use.

For three weeks after 11 September, the UN didn't take food into Afghanistan. It may have been trying to put pressure on the Taliban to hand bin Laden to the Americans. Its workers may just have been scared. In either event, it was a dereliction of duty for an agency with an honourable record of working in the world's most dangerous places. From 1 October to 24 October, an average of 702 tonnes a day got in, 1,000 tonnes short of the target.

Food is meant to be taken to eight regional distribution centres. Only 415 tonnes a day were released from the warehouses in the first three weeks of the month, 1,300 tonnes short of the target. This dismal achievement does not, however, convey the scale of the coming crisis. Figures leaked from the World Food Programme to Oxfam show that one centre, Mazar, distributed just nine tonnes.

This abysmal performance was far better than the warehouses in Kandahar, Herat and two other centres which had nothing to release.

Blair and Short blame the shortages on Taliban looters. There is some truth in the accusation, but not enough for Britain and America to escape culpability. 'Obviously if you seal a country's borders and bomb it, the troops loot,' exploded one aid worker. 'What the Government has to explain is why it is we were able to feed 3.8 million people from 1997 when the Taliban were in power and can't now.'

Everyone I've spoken says the bombing has scared off drivers. Those who are prepared to take lorries over the border find that petrol dumps have been blown up by the Americans. If they overcome the Taliban and the fuel shortages and their own fear, charity workers at the warehouses say the villages they once fed have been abandoned and they don't know where the refugees have gone.

In this time of famine, I would be happy to eat my words. If the Taliban and bin Laden could be destroyed in days or weeks and the hungry fed, I would plead guilty to every charge of alarmism and shroud-waving. At present, unfortunately, all reputable sources agree that a nation is about to be emaciated.

Several politicians and pundits have cried with relish that the war on terrorism is the 'great test' for the baby-boomer generation. The implication that we are at last being allowed to play the great game of war is faintly sick, but the analogy has a lot going for it. Britain and America are being tested. By any intelligent standard, we are failing abjectly.

One day, soon I hope, the leaders of Britain and America will have to explain why they charged into a meretricious war whose one predictable consequence was mass starvation. Their electorates might also be asked why so few among them raised a squeak of protest.


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