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A War on Civilians?

President Bush has declared a “war on terror,” and political leaders such as House minority leader Dick Gephardt insist that “this is not a strike against the people of Afghanistan.”

But the evidence is accumulating that our current military campaign is indeed, as most of the world sees it, being waged against the Afghan people.

Consider this statement from Admiral Michael Boyce, Chief of the British Defense Staff. Referring to the bombing campaign, he said, “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.”

It seems clear from this statement that Admiral Boyce sees the punishment of Afghan civilians, including their children, as an important part of the US/British strategy. On September 16 the New York Times reported that our government had demanded from Pakistan “the elimination of truck convoys that provide much of the food and other supplies to Afghanistan’s civilian population.”

Food shipments fell drastically, although the border has remained porous, especially to those who pay bribes. The Taliban is even able to make money by exporting things as big as logs.

In recent weeks the UN World Food Programme has increased its shipments. But these are still far short of the amount needed to prevent mass starvation during the winter. The increased risk to truck drivers, the breakdown in law and order, and other disruptions due to the war are taking their expected toll.

There are currently about 5.3 million people receiving food aid, and this is expected to increase to 7.5 million in the near future. In about two weeks winter will begin, many roads will become impassible, and people will have to rely on stockpiled food. Relief groups have called for a halt in the bombing so that food – as well as blankets and medicines – can get through before it is too late. But their appeals have so far gone unheeded.

And everyone acknowledges that the air drops of food from US planes are so small that they are little more than an exercise in public relations.

What is terrorism? Edward Herman, Emeritus Professor from Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, has offered a politically neutral, straightforward definition of terrorism that is difficult to argue with: “the use of force or the threat of force against civilian populations to achieve political objectives.”

A strategy to “squeeze” Afghanistan, through bombing and starvation, “until the people of the country themselves . . . get the leadership changed” would certainly qualify as terrorism under this definition.

Most Americans would like to see Osama Bin Laden, and anyone else that was responsible for the atrocity of September 11, brought to justice. But they would certainly be ashamed if they knew that their government was pursuing a strategy that involved starving hundreds of thousands, and possibly even millions, of innocent people.

Of course this is not the first time that our government has used collective punishment, or terrorism, in order to achieve its political goals: there was Nicaragua in the 1980s, Vietnam prior to that, and many other examples. In fact, by any objective definition of terrorism – one that includes the terrorism of states as well as individuals – the United States has been its largest single sponsor over the last half-century.

This war is different, in that it originated with a horrific terrorist attack on Americans. But the collective punishment of the people of Afghanistan is no more excusable than the crimes of September 11. As such, it will only inspire more hatred and terrorism against us.

There is no military solution to the problem of terrorism within our borders. We will have to change our foreign policy, so that our government does not make so many enemies throughout the world. Those who collaborated in the crimes of September 11 will have to be pursued through legal and political channels, including the United Nations.

A good start would be to cut off the major source of Bin Laden’s funding and support, which is not in Afghanistan but in Saudi Arabia. The Bush Administration has done very little on this front, due to a combination of big oil and other “geopolitical” interests. Our government is willing to risk American lives, at home and abroad, and kill any number of innocent Afghanis, but it is apparently not willing to risk disturbing its relations with the Saudi royal family.

Going the legal route won’t boost the President’s approval ratings the way a war does, nor will it make the world fear our military power. But at least we won’t be fighting terrorism with more terrorism, and fueling an escalating cycle of violence. CP

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC.

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Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. and president of Just Foreign Policy. He is also the author of  Failed: What the “Experts” Got Wrong About the Global Economy (Oxford University Press, 2015).

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