As the U.S. launches its fourth week of gaudy, largely fruitless air strikes in Afghanistan, the echoes of the Gulf War a decade ago become plainer and plainer. Once again the Pentagon is releasing carefully vetted footage of aerial bombardments and the networks are dutifully dressing them up with expert commentaries from military officials; once again war is being waged at a comfortable distance with little if any immediate cost to its prosecutors. Once again there are the perfunctory expressions of regret at civilian casualties, and the assurances they are being kept to a minimum. And now as before it’s an unconscionable lie.
There are differences, of course. The bombing raids in Iraq were conceived to decimate the country’s infrastructure-its roads and bridges, its water supply facilities and hospitals-and bring it to its knees. By these means, U.S. planners figured, they would turn a demoralized and immiserated populace against its government and topple Saddam by degrees. From this latter standpoint it was all a huge tactical failure, but it succeeded marvelously well as to the first half of the equation. International estimates of the eventual civilian casualties vary between half a million and a million and a half.
Afghanistan is another matter. It has no civilian infrastructure to speak of, and for that matter not much in the way of a military infrastructure. American officials spoke for the first 10 days or so of incapacitating the Taliban’s air power, but from the start it consisted of 20 or so fighter planes and a rag-tag arsenal of portable, limited range anti-aircraft missiles (Stingers, mainly, supplied by the U.S. or its allies) that are very likely unaffected by all the U.S. bombing to date. It is increasingly apparent that the U.S. offensive began when it did not because we had a line on bin Laden or a neat tactical plan for dispatching the Taliban, but because pressure was mounting to do something.
So we did. And while the tactical picture is quite different from that in Iraq 10 years ago, the likely consequences are strikingly similar-though on a more dire scale. The bombing strikes that began on October 7 disrupted humanitarian food shipments to an Afghan people already reeling from the effects of drought and civil war. By the estimates of numerous international aid groups, some 7-8 million Afghans were at risk of starvation without food aid even before the war began. Those food shipments largely ceased at the commencement of the war. Some have since started up again, including the main one, the U.N.’s World Food Program, but their efforts are in disarray and operating at around half their previous levels. The onset of winter in Afghanistan will place half a million or more people outside the reach of these agencies in any case.
Since the bombing began an untold number of Afghans have fled across the borders into Pakistan and Iran, swelling already ill-equipped refugee camps that contain something over 4 million Afghans. (These people do not figure in the 7-8 million inside the country at risk of starvation.) They are the lucky ones, relatively speaking, but a great many of them will fall prey to starvation and disease as well. The math is simple enough. If relief organizations on the whole are able to function at half their customary capacity-an optimistic figure-then as many as 3 to 4 million may ultimately die as a result of the U.S./U.K. offensive in Afghanistan.
To those few outside the Arab world who are inclined to make a fuss over the food crisis, the U.S. offers a couple of tawdry lies. The first is in the form of American air drops, and these are a manifest farce. The Americans have dumped fewer than a million rations so far, a comparative drop in the bucket, and they refuse to place them in areas controlled by the Taliban, which is where the vast majority of the needy reside. Second, the U.S. has maintained that any food aid to these stricken regions would only be seized by Taliban fighters. Just how true this is remains impossible to say, but who was it exactly that precipitated the wartime footing in Afghanistan in the first place? Well, the U.S. is bound to splutter, it was the bin Laden-harboring Taliban. Never mind the numerous offers to turn bin Laden over to a third-party nation for trial in an international court of law. The U.S. has far too much blood on its hands to assent to a precedent that might bind it to the dictates of international law going forward.
In the meantime, if millions die in a holocaust occasioned by the Bush administration’s holy war, well, that’s collateral damage for you. Tuesday’s London Independent featured a report on rabid dogs roaming the streets of Kabul. They are said to be biting three or four people a day and there is of course no rabies vaccine to be had anywhere in Afghanistan. But the rabid dogs in the streets are as nothing compared to the rabid dogs in the skies.
Anthrax update: an official tilt
For a couple of weeks now there has been brewing speculation that the recent anthrax mailings in the U.S. were likely the work of American right wing elements. Analysts pointed to the handwriting and the language of the enclosed notes; among many pointers it was noted that the phrase “Allah is great” is not one a Muslim would be likely to use. The possible American connection gained more credibility when it was disclosed that the strain of the bacteria being used probably originated in a U.S. military lab.
But this news was slow to reach the American public. It was left to the CIA’s favorite mouthpiece in American media, Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, to codify the shift in official thinking. This past Saturday he published a piece pointing to the domestic right. Quoth Bob: ” ‘Everything seems to lean toward a domestic source,’ one senior official said. ‘Nothing seems to fit with an overseas terrorist type operation. There is no intelligence on it and it does not fit any [al-Qaida] pattern.’ ”
There’s an interesting footnote to this belated revelation. A Newsweek poll taken the week after the anthrax scare spread to New York and Washington asked respondents whether they believed the bio-attacks were related to the September 11 bombings. Given that the American media had mentioned no other possible perpetrator, what percentage would you suppose answered in the affirmative? I would have guessed around 90 percent myself. The answer, though, was 63 percent. Ponder that for a moment. Even in the heat of battle, just weeks after an unprecedented assault on America’s shores by a foreign enemy, over a third of Americans retained at least a shadow awareness that the enemies of American empire are many and varied and not just in the Middle East. Americans recognize at some level that old debts are coming due; no wonder prescriptions for sleep aids and painkillers have skyrocketed in the past couple of months.
Tailgunner Joe takes his shot
Despite the best efforts of hawks in the Bush administration and the Congress, there is no evidence that Iraq had any part in the September 11 bombings or the subsequent anthrax attacks. No matter. There are still plenty of voices calling for an Iraq offensive. The latest is Senator Joe Lieberman, who wrote in a Monday Wall Street Journal op-ed that Saddam’s hordes must be targeted. Lauding the “bright moral line” drawn by the Bush crew, he went on to assert that actual guilt in either attack is a matter of no consequence.
“Whether or not Saddam is implicated directly in the anthrax attacks or the horrors of Sept. 11,” Lieberman bleated, “he is, by any common definition, a terrorist who must be removed. A serious effort to end Saddam’s rule over Iraq should begin now with a declaration by the administration that it is America’s policy to change the Iraqi regime, and with greater financial and tactical support of the broad-based Iraqi opposition. In time, military support will follow.”
The situation now is bad enough. Imagine where we’d be if Gore had won. CP
Steve Perry writes frequently for CounterPunch and is a contributor to the excellent cursor.org website, which offers incisive coverage of the current crisis. He lives in Minneapolis, MN.