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Poisoning the Well

by Rahul Mahajan

The first principle of humanitarian relief is that it be impartial, that aid be given on the basis of need without any consideration of political agendas.

The United States government, the same government that aroused international execration by using Red Cross markings on planes used to smuggle arms to the contras in Nicaragua, has once again made a mockery of that principle with its conduct in Afghanistan.

Its conduct to this point was bad enough causing the suspension of aid programs for weeks because of threats of bombing; constructing a “humanitarian” reason to bomb (air drops are required to feed people, the planes will be endangered, so we must bomb to suppress air defenses); causing renewed suspension because of the bombing; and the piece de resistance, adding insult to injury by dropping 35000 meals a day to replace programs that had fed millions. That last has been repeatedly criticized by aid organizations as associating humanitarian operations with military assault, thus making aid work far more difficult and dangerous as a spokesperson for Doctors Without Borders put it, “We do not want to be perceived as a part of the U.S. military campaign.”

At a Pentagon news briefing on Wednesday, however, this politicization was taken to new heights with the invocation of unnamed “sources” claiming that “there are reports that the Taliban might poison the food and try to blame the United States,” according to Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He went on to warn Afghans receiving aid, “If it comes from Taliban control, they must be careful.”

It scarcely needs mentioning that poisoning one’s own populace is senseless, and that there is no reason to suppose the Taliban is planning anything of the sort. In fact, it was reported yesterday that officials from the World Food Program expressed “surprise” at the allegations, with one saying “If they’re talking about the food we deliver, there’s not been a single instance that we know of in which the Taliban have tampered with it. Stolen, yes, but not tampered.”

When contacted, Sam Barratt of Oxfam International, currently working out of Peshawar, Pakistan, characterized the Pentagon statement as “deeply unhelpful,” adding, “This claim further goes to undermine the position of aid agencies in the country.”

It’s well known that our government frequently uses “disinformation” in wartime. And we find out long afterward. We know now that the story about Iraqi soldiers throwing Kuwaiti babies out of incubators was a fabrication created by a Washington PR firm and that the “nurse” testifying about it was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States, who wasn’t even in the country at the time. We found that out, but not before an Amnesty International report about it was circulated to all the media and to all of Congress, playing a major role in building support for the Gulf War.

In order to combat disinformation effectively, however, we will have to learn how to recognize it before the war is over, while it’s still relevant to current affairs. And, in fact, we’ve already seen open evidence of its use in this crisis. Government officials were forced to admit that reports that the terrorists targeted Air Force One were untrue (presumably they were circulated to further anger the American public).

If we do manage to have the courage of our intellectual convictions, the question still remains, “What is our government trying to do?”

A clue may be found in previous statements by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who expressed concern early on that humanitarian operations be conducted ”in a manner that does not allow this food to fall into the hands of the Taliban.” Since the Taliban, as the men with guns, will always be fed while there is any food in the country, this seems like a hint that the United States would consider interfering with the supply of humanitarian aid in Taliban-controlled areas, in order to erode public support for the Taliban. Further hints come today, with the second bombing of a Red Cross warehouse complex in Kabul. It was entirely plausible that the first strike was accidental, but the second does make one wonder. Obviously, there is no way to know, but some vigilance is definitely in order.

Such tactics are not at all foreign to the U.S. government. Making the Chilean economy and later the Nicaraguan “scream” was an essential, deliberate part of destabilizing the Allende and Sandinista governments.

UN agencies have warned that 7.5 million people are dependent on aid for their survival through the coming winter. UNICEF has estimated that 100,000 children may die. The U.S. government has continued its protracted bombing campaign in the face of numerous concerted from private aid agencies and from the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right of Access to Food for a bombing halt so that supplies can be trucked in. Simultaneously, the noncombatant toll of the bombings continues to grow a bus in Kandahar, a hospital in Herat, numerous private homes, and more.

Notwithstanding its invocation of humanitarian concerns, the U.S. government has shown a criminal indifference to human life. It has sabotaged one of the few truly noble, truly heroic efforts in the modern world humanitarian aid. It has also severely tainted public discourse, to the point where it is difficult to know what is true and what is not.

Among Afghans and other peoples for whom water is scarce, poisoning a well is the deepest crime, more powerfully symbolic even than taking a human life. The reason is that it takes something vital, something necessary to preserving life, and perverts it into a force of destruction.

That is what our government has now done. CP

Rahul Mahajan serves on the National Board of Peace Action and is a member of the Nowar Collective. He is the author of the forthcoming “The New Crusade: America’s War on Terrorism” (Monthly Review Press). He can be contacted at

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