Into the Morass

There is no clear way to end this war

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 9th October 2001

Two weeks ago, the US Under Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, compared Afghanistan to a swamp, which must be drained to catch the snakes which hide there. His analogy may be rather more apt than he intended. Swamps, as everyone knows, are harder to get out of than they are to get into.

On Sunday night, the West took its first, irreversible step into the morass. It may well prove to be the only simple one on an ever more uncertain journey. But there is now no going back. Once you have initiated military action, you are committed to it, and all further adventures in Afghanistan need be armed. It is not clear that either the British or the US governments fully understand the implications.

Yesterday morning, some fifteen hours after the airstrikes began, the United Nations announced that it had halted convoys of food to Afghanistan. From now on, and for as long as the conflict lasts, the humanitarian aid which both Blair and Bush promised would be an integral component of this campaign must be delivered primarily with the help of the armed forces. They don’t seem to have any idea what this responsibility entails.

The military answer to the country’s crisis so far has taken the form of 37,500 yellow ration packs, dropped from transport planes into regions in which hungry people are believed to live. Each of them contains around 2,200 calories: roughly enough to sustain one person for one day.

If you believe, as some commentators do, that this is an impressive or even meaningful operation, I urge you to conduct a simple calculation. The United Nations estimates that there are 7.5 million hungry people in Afghanistan. If every ration pack reached a starving person, then one two hundredth of the vulnerable were fed by the humanitarian effort on Sunday. The US Department of Defense has announced that it possesses a further two million of these packs, which it might be prepared to drop. If so, they could feed 27 per cent of the starving for one day.

Four weeks remain before winter envelops Afghanistan, during which enough food must be delivered to last until March. Yet the US is prepared to drop, at its own best estimate, barely one quarter of one day’s needs.

Some of these rations will, of course, be lost. Many, perhaps most, will be eaten by people who are not in immediate danger of starvation, as they are more mobile than the seriously hungry and better able to reach the packs. Some will remain untouched. One of the warring factions may discover that an effective means of eliminating its enemies is to remove the contents of these packs and replace them with explosives. This is just one of the problems associated with dispensing kindness at 20,000 feet: no one can be completely sure whose generosity they are about to enjoy.

The usefulness of any feeding programme, moreover, is greatly diminished if it is not carefully targetted. People in different stages of starvation require different preparations. Children, especially infants, are more vulnerable than any others. Yet all the packs being dropped on Afghanistan are identical, and all are equipped only to feed adults. The packs contain medicine as well as food, but unlike aid workers on the ground, the pilots delivering them can offer no diagnosis. This blanket prescription is likely to be either useless or dangerous.

So western governments have terminated what may have been an effective humanitarian programme, and replaced it with a futile gesture. The bombing raids, moreover, have persuaded thousands to flee from their homes. Yet Afghanistan’s borders remain closed, while the camps the UN is building in Pakistan will not be ready for another two weeks. The refugees have nowhere to go. The military strikes, the US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced, would “create conditions for sustained … humanitarian relief operations in Afghanistan”. They have, so far, done precisely the opposite.

But the purpose of the food drops is not to feed the starving, but to tell them they are being fed. President Bush explained on Sunday that by means of these packages, “the oppressed people of Afghanistan will know the generosity of America and our allies”. They will know it, for they know that gestures will not feed them. Hunger brooks no tokenism. It demands food, not a semblance of food.

This show of generosity is, of course, designed to impress us as well as them. The yellow packages drifting onto the minefields of the Hindu Kush are likely to be the most, over the next few days, that we will see of the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. The hungry will die quietly, on the forgotten trails through the mountains, huddled behind rocks, searching the streets of deserted cities, clawing for roots in the empty fields. The satellites which can count the shells stacked behind a howitzer cannot peer into the faces of the starving.

And if, somehow, a sensible humanitarian mission resumed, the linkage established by both Bush and Blair between aid and ordnance, which sounds so bold and compassionate at home, could turn out to be disastrous in Afghanistan. If the humanitarian programme continues to be perceived as part of the military offensive, we could expect the dispersed guerillas of a partly vanquished regime to slip into the feeding centres, to lob a few grenades into the crowd.

While it is not hard to predict how the humanitarian operation might end, it is rather more difficult to see how the military mission could be concluded. The Taliban have vowed to fight “to the last breath”. While many of their conscripts will desert, the hardcore are likely to do just this. They dispersed sometime before Sunday’s attacks. Their anti-aircraft guns, tanks and planes were peripheral to the operation of what has always, in effect, been a guerilla force. In confronting them, as Russian veterans have warned, we will be pummelling thin air. Donald Rumsfeld has defined “victory” as the Taliban’s “collapse from within”. But this is not victory, only the beginning of the next phase of war.

If, as Bush and Blair maintain, they aim to leave Afghanistan better than it was when they found it, then the West is committed to defend it against all oppressors, whoever they might be. This implies that if the Northern Alliance moves into the vaccuum left by the nominal defeat of the Taliban, and establishes not the “broad-based” government of assorted extremists the West envisages, but a narrow government of homogenous extremists, we must fight them too.

So at what point do we stop fighting? At what point does withdrawal become either honourable or responsible? Having once engaged its forces, are we then obliged to reduce Afghanistan to a permanent protectorate? Or will we jettison responsibility as soon as military power becomes impossible to sustain?

The consequences of this endless war may be dangerous for the West. They could be deadly for Afghanistan.