The dangers of the impending "war against terrorism" are not only military but moral and political. Deliberations within the White House remain shrouded in uncertainty, but the voices of demagogy on the airwaves and out in the heartland are growing louder, with calls for massive devastation of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Consider the ravings of Bill O'Reilly, highest-rated hothead on Fox News Channel, who demands that "the U.S. should bomb the Afghan infrastructure to rubble -- the airport, the power plants, their water facilities and the roads." This airborne terror is justified, according to him, because "the Afghans are responsible for the Taliban ... if they don't rise up against this criminal government, they starve, period." O'Reilly repeated this same genocidal theme a few days later, urging that the U.S. select targets such as trucks and infrastructure so that "there's not going to be anything to eat."
The ignorance represented by such comments is almost as staggering as the cruelty -- since our government is probably far more responsible for arming and promoting the Taliban than any of the powerless Afghan people. As ought to be known to everyone by now -- including even O'Reilly -- the American weaponry, intelligence and funding provided to the "Afghan freedom fighters" in their war against the Soviet Union led directly to the Islamist takeover of that ruined nation. Here in New York we have just paid a terrible price in blood and grief for that reckless mistake, but the unfortunate Afghans already have paid far more.
Such advice would lead quickly to the disintegration of the fragile international alliance against terrorism, while creating fresh grievances to be exploited by the likes of Osama bin Laden. Imagine the public reaction across the world to pictures of dead and dying civilians whose only crime was to have gotten in the way of American airpower. Nothing, not even the conflagration in lower Manhattan, could thrill bin Laden more. For the moment, there is remarkably strong support around the world for a careful military "police action" designed to punish the sponsors of the Sept. 11 attack and their protectors. That support will diminish rapidly, however, if Western firepower is misdirected at the innocent.
Besides, the Afghans are starving already and have been for years.
The more decent course of action is also the most effective policy. As the United States and its allies muster their forces for strikes against carefully chosen Taliban military and strategic assets, they must mobilize an enormous "humanitarian offensive" to bring food and medicine to the Afghan refugees and, eventually, to those who have not yet reached the borders. Success, in the sense of maintaining a united international effort against bin Laden and his backers, is otherwise impossible.
The catastrophe that has befallen the Afghans presents a momentous oppportunity for the United States and its allies. America should "bomb them with butter," as someone said the other day. We should demonstrate that if the Islamist fascists won't care for their own people, we will. We should prove to the world's billion Muslims that our aim is not to exterminate their brothers and sisters and children, but to rescue them.
Assuming that the U.S. furnishes military assistance to the anti-Taliban forces of the Northern Alliance, let's also provide abundant food, water, medicine and clothing to the people in every town and village liberated. And let's bring food and medicine to the 3 million refugees on the Pakistani border as well, where a humanitarian calamity is imminent.
The immense difficulties of this task shouldn't be underestimated. Averting or even ameliorating disaster will require an effort unlike any we've seen before. Fear of warfare has crippled the humanitarian organizations that have been attempting to feed the Afghans in a desperate attempt to prevent massive starvation. United Nations foreign aid staff and many private aid workers have been evacuated in the aftermath of Sept. 11. According to their estimates, as many as 300,000 people in Afghanistan will run out of food by Oct. 1, reaching 1 million by the end of the year.
On Sunday, Sept. 24, the Taliban raided the U.N. offices, shut them down and seized 1,400 tons of food. It was an act in keeping with the oppression visited on the population by that regime, whose militia have now descended to robbing and murdering people in their homes. The Islamist rulers have no capacity to feed their own citizens, and no apparent interest in letting others do so. They are far more concerned with prosecuting their sacrilegious "jihad" than with anything so mundane.
Our moral responsibility here is clear. The first victims of bin Laden and his Taliban patrons were not the innocents murdered at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon; the first victims were the Afghan people, who have been massacred, tortured and now starved by a fascistic, increasingly corrupt regime imposed in the wake of America's covert intervention.
Bombing out the remaining infrastructure would only punish the innocent again, while inflaming justified anger across the Muslim world. American missiles and bombs could rain fire over the Afghan countryside, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people and leaving millions to die of hunger and disease, without necessarily removing the threat posed by bin Laden and his al-Qaida organization. This would arm them with the moral equivalence trumpeted by their propagandists in the wake of worldwide revulsion at the Sept.11 atrocity.
A military assault on Afghanistan without a humanitarian offensive would not only be immoral. It would also be stupid.