Starving to Death,

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I. Collective Punishment

In response to the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC on 11th September 2001, the United States has led an international coalition in initiating a bombing campaign on Afghanistan. The campaign is purportedly part of a new “war on terror”, an attempt to root out the individuals suspected of having masterminded and arranged the attacks on U.S. soil, and moreover to abolish the regime that harbours them.

But the U.S. response illustrates that this supposed “war on terrorism” is itself guilty of the same category of politically-motivated atrocities that amounts to terrorism, making a mockery of the idea that the U.S. has genuinely humanitarian motives. Indeed, the official FBI definition of terrorism states that: “Terrorism is the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

U.S. and British political leaders have promised their public that the bombing of Afghanistan does not target the country’s civilian population. U.S. House minority leader Dick Gerphardt, for instance, has insisted that: “[T]his is not a strike against the people of Afghanistan.” But such assurances appear to be contrary to fact. The West’s strategy of targeting civilians to achieve regional socio-political objectives in Afghanistan é a strategy falling directly under the FBI definition of terrorism é was perhaps most explicitly outlined in a statement by the Chief of British Defence Staff, Admiral Michael Boyce. Referring to the ongoing bombing campaign, he stated:

“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.”[1]

Anglo-American strategy thus includes the punishment of Afghan civilians as an integral objective, designed to secure the final aim of toppling the Taliban regime. In this context, the mass destruction of civilian structures and lives that has accompanied the bombing campaign can be understood as part of a deliberate strategy of collective punishment against the Afghan people. That the current U.S.-led war is itself an act of terrorism thus clarifies the duplicity of the concept of a “war on terrorism”, and calls into question the motives of the Western powers.

II. Starving Out the Children

The New York Times reported around mid-September that: “Washington has also demanded [from Pakistan] a cutoff of fuel supplies,… and the elimination of truck convoys that provide much of the food and other supplies to Afghanistan’s civilian population.”[2] By the end of that month, America’s ‘newspaper of record’ reported that officials in Pakistan “said today that they would not relent in their decision to seal off the country’s 1,400-mile border with Afghanistan, a move requested by the Bush administration because.”[3]

The U.S., in other words, effectively called for the mass slaughter of millions of Afghans, most of them already on the brink of starvation thanks to sanctions imposed under U.S. pressure, by severing the country’s last few sources of limited sustenance. As a consequence, about 7-8 million Afghans are now at risk of imminent starvation according to UN estimates. The New York Times noted, for instance, that nearly 6 million people depend on food aid from the UN. Another 3.5 million in refugee camps outside the country, many of whom fled just before the borders were sealed, also face imminent starvation.[4] Additionally, almost all aid missions withdrew or were expelled from Afghanistan in anticipation of the coming bombing campaign, while several million innocent Afghans fearfully fled to the borders creating a massive refugee crisis. With the borders of surrounding countries sealed for several weeks under U.S. pressure, the refugees were trapped, deprived of sustenance and largely destined to die with international community barely even batting an eyelid. Indian journalist Arundhati Roy commented aptly on what was at first dubbed Operation Infinite Justice, now euphemistically re-titled Operation Enduring Freedom: “Witness the infinite justice of the new century. Civilians starving to death while they’re waiting to be killed.”[5]

The U.S. attempt to absolve itself of responsibility for this predictable humanitarian catastrophe has involved the crude public relations exercise of dropping food aid into the country. But this belated response to a genocidal crisis of its own making has been condemned almost universally by international aid agencies. Leading British aid agencies have described the U.S. food drops as “virtually useless” as an effective aid strategy.[6] Thomas Gonnet, head of operations in Afghanistan for the French aid agency Action Against Hunger, observed that: “It’s an act of marketing, aimed more at public opinion than saving lives.”[7] The international medical aid agency, Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontiéres [MSF]), which has worked in Afghanistan since 1979, condemned the food air drops as “a purely propaganda tool, of real little value to the Afghan people.” The agency stated that: “Such action does not answer the needs of the Afghan people and is likely to undermine attempts to deliver substantial aid to the most vulnerable.” Dr. Jean-Herve Bradol of MSF elaborated that the real impact of the food drops will be “minimal”:

“How will the Afghan population know in the future if an offer of humanitarian aid does not hide a military operation? We have seen many times before, for example in Somalia, the problems caused for both the vulnerable population and for aid agencies when the military try to both fight a war and deliver aid at the same time. What is needed is large scale convoys of basic foodstuffs, rather than single meals designed for soldiers. Until yesterday the UN and aid agencies such as ourselves were still able to get some food convoys into Afghanistan. Due to the airstrikes the UN have stopped all convoys, and we will find delivering aid also much more difficult. Medical relief is not the same as dropping medicines by plane. Unless they are administered by qualified medical staff, medicines can actually do more harm than good. Dropping a few cases of drugs and food in the middle of the night during air raids, without knowing who is going to collect them, is virtually useless and may even be dangerous.”

The military operation can therefore not be honestly cast in any sort of genuinely humanitarian light. MSF “rejects the idea of a humanitarian coalition alongside the military coalition.” [8]

Recognising the Holocaust-like proportions of the impending disaster in Afghanistan as a result of the international blockade, a United Nations special investigator called for an end to the bombing in mid-October. Jean Ziegler, Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, stated that:

“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. We must give the (humanitarian) organisations a chance to save the millions of people who are internally displaced (inside Afghanistan).”

Unless the bombing campaign is ended, he urged, aid will not get through, and up to 7 million Afghan lives will be at risk from imminent starvation.[9]

III. A War on Terror?

Although the U.S. has attempted to emphasise that it is not deliberately targeting civilians in Afghanistan, there thus remains little reason to take such attempts seriously. Middle East expert Stephen Zunes, Associate Professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco and senior policy analyst at the Foreign Policy in Focus Project, points out that:

“The use of heavy bombers against a country with few hard targets raises serious doubts about the Bush Administration’s claim that the attacks are not against the people of Afghanistan. The Taliban has allowed Bin Laden and his followers sanctuary, but there is little evidence that they have provided the kind of direct financial or military support that can be crippled through air strikes.”[10]

The deliberate targeting of civilians in the recent military intervention in Kosovo only adds weight to this view. For instance, in April 1999, the Washington Times reported that NATO planned to hit “power generation plants and water systems, taking the war directly to civilians.”[11] The New York Times similarly reported that: “[T]he destruction of the civilian infrastructure of Yugoslavia has become part of the strategy to end the war on Kosovo… We are bringing down terror on the Serbian people”.[12] Analysing the sequence of events in the bombing of Afghanistan confirms that similar policies of terrorism are being employed by Anglo-American forces.

The first notable incident was the killing of four civilians é and the injuring of another four – when the offices of a United Nations agency, the Afghan Technical Consultants (ATC) in Kabul, were bombed on 9 October 2001. The ATC oversees mine clearing operations in the country.[13] While the Pentagon claimed that the ATC was near a military radio tower, UN officials contradicted the U.S. pretext, pointing out that the tower was a defunct medium and short wave radio station that had been abandoned and out of use for over a decade. Prior to the bombing of, the ATC had passed on its address to more senior UN officials to notify the U.S. military of the site so that it would be not be bombed.[14]

The second occurrence was confirmed by a large number of independent witnesses. In the northern village of Karam, an estimated 100-200 civilians – mostly women, children, and old people – were killed when bombers made repeated passes over the site during early evening prayers, flattening the entire village. The Pentagon claimed that Karam had been training camp for Osama Bin Laden’s terrorist network, Al-Qaeda. In fact, the site was used solely to train mujahideen during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, with CIA support. The camp had been run by Sadiq Bacha to train members of the Hezb-i-Islami faction. The base has never been used by Al-Qaeda, and was closed and abandoned in 1992, long before Bin Laden moved to Afghanistan. Since the 1990s, Karam has been inhabited by families living in mud and rock houses, and nomads during the winter.[15]

The bombing of buildings owned by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), first on 16 October 2001 and again on the 26th, provides further evidence of the systematic targeting of civilian structures in the Anglo-American air raids. The ICRC reported that “two bombs were dropped on an ICRC compound in Kabul, wounding one of the organization’s employees who was guarding the facilityé

“The compound is located two kilometres from the city’s airport. Like all other ICRC facilities in the country, it is clearly distinguishable from the air by the large red cross painted against a white background on the roof of each building. One of the five buildings in the compound suffered a direct hit. It contained blankets, tarpaulins and plastic sheeting and is reported to be completely destroyed. A second building, containing food supplies, caught fire and was partially destroyed before the fire was brought under control.”[16]

Only ten days later, clearly visible Red Cross buildings were again destroyed by U.S. bombs in the very same compound. The ICRC reported that “bombs have once again been dropped on its warehouses in Kabul. A large (3X3 m) red cross on a white background was clearly displayed on the roof of each building in the complexé

“At about 11.30 a.m. local time, ICRC staff saw a large, slow-flying aircraft drop two bombs on the compound from low altitude. This is the same compound in which a building was destroyed in similar circumstances on 16 October. In this latest incident, three of the remaining four buildings caught fire. Two are said to have suffered direct hits. Following the incident on 16 October, the ICRC informed the United States authorities once again of the location of its facilities. The buildings contained the bulk of the food and blankets that the ICRC was in the process of distributing to some 55,000 disabled and other particularly vulnerable persons. The US authorities had also been notified of the distribution and the movement of vehicles and gathering of people at distribution points.”[17]

The Red Cross incidents in themselves clarify the United States’ flagrant lack of concern for civilian life in relation to the bombing campaign, and illustrate the Western powers’ insistence on punishing the Afghan people as an integral part of their military strategy.

A lucid breakdown of the systematic targeting of civilians since then in the month of October has been recorded by American journalist and peace activist Geov Parrish, based on refugee testimony and reports from Western and Pakistani journalists:

é        In Jalalabad, the Sultanpur Mosque was hit by a bomb during prayers, with 17 people caught inside. Neighbors rushed into the rubble to help pull out the injured, but as the rescue effort got under way, another bomb fell, killing at least 120 people.

é        In the village of Darunta near Jalalabad, a U.S. bomb fell on another mosque. Two people were killed and dozens–perhaps as many as 150 people – were injured. Many of those injured are languishing without medical care in the Sehat-e-Ama hospital in Jalabad, which lacks resources to treat the wounded.

é        More civilian deaths are being reported in the villages of Torghar and Farmada, north and west of Jalalabad. At least 28 civilians had died in Farmada, which has an abandoned Al-Qaeda training camp nearby.

é        In Argandab, north of Kandahar, 10 civilians have died from the bombing and several houses have been destroyed. The same has happened in Karaga, north of Kabul.

é        A five-year-old child was killed while sleeping in his family’s home outside Kandahar when two bombs fell on a munitions storage area half a mile away. The explosion threw shells and rockets in all directions and one of those shells smashed through the mud-brick wall of his bedroom, slicing open young Taj Muhammed’s abdomen and burning his six-year-old sister, Kambibi. Taj suffered for 12 hours at a nearby hospital before he died.

é        On Oct. 7, the first night of the bombing, at least one private residence in Kabul suffered a direct hit and others were damaged. The U.S. also destroyed the Hotel Continental in the city’s center. On the same night, bombs were dropped on the houses of Taliban leaders in Kandahar. Two civilian relatives of Mullah Muhammad Omar were killed: his aged stepfather and his 10-year-old son.

é        On Oct. 8, the second night of the bombing, three missiles were aimed at the airport in Jalalabad, but only one hit the target. The other two went astray and exploded nearby, killing one civilian, and injuring a second so severely that he was driven to a hospital in Peshawar, Pakistan, to have shrapnel removed from a deep wound in his neck and his spinal injuries treated. He’s not expected to survive. A third 16-year-old boy injured in the same attack was also taken to a hospital in Peshawar; he lost his leg and two fingers, and he says that many more people were injured and may have died in the same incident.

é        On Oct. 11, a bomb aimed at the Kabul airport went astray and hit Qala-e-Chaman, a village one mile away, destroying several houses and killing a 12-year-old child. On the same night, another missile hit a house near the Kabul customs building, killing 10 civilians.

é        As of Oct. 12, the U.N. had independently reported at least 20 civilian deaths in Mazar-i-Sharif and 10 civilian deaths in Kandahar.

é        On Oct. 13, Khushkam Bhat, a residential district between Jalalabad airport and a nearby military area, was accidentally bombed by U.S. planes trying to down a Taliban helicopter. More than 100 houses were flattened. At least 160 people were pulled from the rubble and taken to hospitals. In Kabul, witnesses described a huge fireball over the Kabul airport, indicating either the possible use of fuel-air bombs, which can cause destruction over a wide area, or the bombing of an enormous fuel storage faclity which can have the same effect. Casualties are not yet known.

é        On Oct. 16, two bombs fell on two Red Cross warehouses in the center of Kabul. The warehouses, bombed in full daylight, were clearly marked with red crosses on their roofs. U.S. spokesmen claim that the warehouses were hit because there were military vehicles parked nearby. They were Red Cross transport trucks.

é        On Oct. 17, a bomb scored a ‘direct hit’ on a boy’s school in Kabul, but fortunately didn’t explode. A U.S. plane, however, dropped a bomb at Mudad Chowk, a residential area of Kandahar, which did explode, destroying two houses and several shops, and killing at least seven people. In Kabul, four bombs fell near the city center; casualties are still unknown.

é        On Oct. 18, a bomb killed four members of a family in the eastern suburb of Qalaye Zaman Khan when it demolished two homes. A half mile away, another bomb exploded in a housing complex, killing a 16-year-old girl. The U.N. reported that Kandahar had fallen into a state of ‘pre-Taliban lawlessness’, with gangs taking over homes and looting shops. By the next day, according to the U.N., at least 80 percent of Kandahar’s residents had left the city to escape the bombing. They are swamping the surrounding villages, where there are no resources to care for them. Some have moved on to the border and crossed into Pakistan. One refugee said that there are bodies littering the streets of Kandahar and people are dying in the hospitals for lack of drugs. ‘We know we will lead a miserable life in Pakistan, in tents,’ he said. ‘We have come here just to save our children.’

é        The civilian death toll is probably in the thousands, and sure to rise with two new developments. U.S. Air Force pilots may now fire ‘at will’ – at anything they desire, without pre-authorization from strategists peering at satellite and surveillance photos. In fact, there are now regions of the country that have been designated ‘kill boxes’, reminiscent of Vietnam’s ‘free-fire zones’ but without benefit of advance warning to Afghanis. Kill boxes are patrolled night and day by low-flying aircraft with the mission to shoot anything that moves within the area.[18]

The testimony of Afghan refugees further demonstrates that the bombing campaign is virtually targeting the entire civilian population. On 22 October, Reuters reported that: “Afghan refugees fleeing U.S. air raids said Saturday the strikes destroyed shopping bazaars in the heart of the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, killing and injuring shoppers and other civilians. The bombs hit the southern city Thursday and Friday, spearing shoppers with shards of shrapnel in attacks apparently targeting government buildings.”

Mohammed Ghaus, who crossed into Pakistan with his wife and five children, stated that: “On Thursday night around 10 p.m. and yesterday at 2 p.m. and again last night, there was heavy bombing. The bazaar around the Keptan intersection in the city  enter was flattened.My neighbor’s house was destroyed. That’s why we left.” Reuters added that: “There were civilian casualties, he said, but he did not know how many. Other new arrivals, streaming across the Chaman checkpoint in their hundreds Saturday, told similar stories.”[19]

Testimonials from many other refugees confirm the indiscriminate nature of the bombing campaign. The Institute for Health and Social Justice has compiled a sample of such testimony based on reports in the Boston Globe and New York Times:

Rais Mazloomyar Jabirkhail: “They are not God. They want to pinpoint every target, but they can’t make every missile go after Osama and terrorist training camps.” Clarifying that he is not a supporter of Osama Bin Laden, he asked why, on the pretext of targeting Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, the U.S. “is destroying our whole country.”

 

Mohammad Akram: “They should find Osama bin Laden and attack only him. Why did they attack all of Afghanistan? We are just poor people in Afghanistan.”

 

Mohammad Zahir: “Everyone wants to eliminate terrorism from the face of the earth, but the way adopted by the U.S. is not fair because masses of ordinary people also live in Afghanistan. The attack was not just on terrorist camps… I know those are residential areas.”

 

Abdul Malik described the “great panic among the people” in his village: “[T]hey are running toward hilly areas away from cities… We were telling the women and children that everything will be OK, we will be safe [in the hills], we will pray to God.”

 

Naseebullah Khan: “It’s not true that the Americans have only been bombing military targets. Many of the bombs are dropping on residential neighborhoods.”[20]

The “war on terror” is thus utilizing mass terrorism to achieve its alleged objectives. There is thus nothing humanitarian or moral about this war, which in fact is clearly not a war on terror, but a war on America’s enemies, conducted to secure strategic interests with a completely racist disregard for the lives of Afghans. As has thus been noted in London’s Independent by British Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk, “as the Afghan refugees turn up in their thousands at the border, it is palpably evident that they are fleeing not the Taliban but our bombs and missilesé

“The Taliban is not ethnically cleansing its own Pashtun population. The refugees speak vividly of their fear and terror as our bombs fall on their cities. These people are terrified of our ‘war on terror’, victims as innocent as those who were slaughtered in the World Trade Centre on 11 September. So where do we stop?é The figure of 6,000 remains as awesome as it did in the days that followed. But what happens when the deaths for which we are responsible begin to approach the same figure?é Once the UN agencies give us details of the starving and the destitute who are dying in their flight from our bombs, it won’t take long to reach 6,000. Will that be enough? Will 12,000 dead Afghans appease us, albeit that they have nothing to do with the Taliban or Osama bin Laden? Or 24,000? If we think we know what our aims are in this fraudulent ‘war against terror’, have we any idea of proportion?é This particular war isé not going to lead to justice. Or freedom. It’s likely to culminate in deaths that will diminish in magnitude even the crime against humanity on 11 September.”[21]

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