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Our leaders must decide A halt to the bombing would save some of the starving, but an end to the Taliban might help many more

Polly Toynbee Friday October 19, 2001 The Guardian

So you support the war? Out there the richest countries on earth are bombing the poorest, thrashing rubble into rubble, sending hell-fire gunships with a kill-zone the size of a football pitch to destroy stone age people. Labour backbenchers grow increasingly uneasy, some vocal, others just wriggling in their seats miserably. On day three air supremacy was grandly proclaimed - as if it were an unexpected triumph. So why all this, people ask; what is the thud and crump of yet more ordnance achieving?

The brutal answer is, we don't know. None but the leaders and generals has any idea what is being hit, how many bombs are falling and with what results. For all the pages of newsprint, barely a word or image emerges from Taliban-controlled areas. Taliban news of villages bombed and people dead is hardly to be trusted. But virtually nothing emerges from our side, neither the outline of a plan nor any estimate of how close it is to fruition (if at all). All is conjecture, including numbers of civilians dead. Until it is over and the Taliban are gone, no one can tell if it was proportionate (a subjective judgment anyway), if it saved more lives than those destroyed by one of the most horrible regimes on earth. (Today is Friday, the holy day when the Taliban hold weekly public lashings and amputations in the football stadium - if the football stadium is still standing.)

In this fog of ignorance, everyone takes their position. Many Guardian readers email their anguish at the killing of babies for some war plan that has to be taken on trust. Stop now or pause, say a group of MPs in an early day motion, joined by many aid agencies. MPs fear the collateral damage across the world, as Muslim wrath swells even among the moderate, heightening ethnic tensions here too. A "pause" sounds misleadingly like a middle way - but bombing could hardly start again later in winter snow. To advocate overthrowing the Taliban by force draws increasingly accusatory comments: much easier to join the comfortable call for a pause. Petitions and peace campaign messages flood in: "Stop the War! Invest in Caring not Killing!" says the women's anti-war picket, demanding "an immediate end to this obscene slaughter".

But that is not the tone struck by most aid agencies who appealed for a bombing pause. Oxfam in Islamabad were infuriated yesterday when they said Clare Short had accused aid agencies of grandstanding and tin-rattling. Governments do not understand that NGOs cannot be made into subsidiaries of the state. (It is also why they should not be given more state functions, as increasingly advocated by Tory and New Labour thinktanks). Oxfam's policy director, Justin Forsyth, describes their deep ambivalence to joining the call for a bombing pause. "The Taliban is an appalling regime, unelected and unsupported by the people. We urge the UN to speed up the creation of a new broad-based government. Yes, we were extraordinarily reluctant to call for a halt to the bombing."

However, as Clare Short also said yesterday, the bombing is only one factor preventing food reaching the hungry. A bomb did fall 600 metres from a World Food Programme warehouse in Kabul, injuring a worker, but the food was undamaged. Four Red Cross workers were killed. But yesterday warehouses in Kabul and Kandahar full of WFP supplies were seized by the Taliban. They also took a number of vehicles belonging to Oxfam, Médecins sans Frontières and Islamic Relief. Oxfam notes that the amount of food leaving WFP depots at the border from various points does not match the amount arriving: is it hijacked or looted, where does it go? At the border the Taliban has been heavily taxing incoming aid supplies. Drivers' fear of bombs has added to the distribution problems, but so has the Taliban.

The Department for International Development agrees with Oxfam that around 50,000 metric tonnes a month are needed. So far only 1,000mt a day is arriving - Oxfam says it has been a lot less until now. From now on, DfID claims this will rise to 1,700mt. WFP trucks it in and the many NGOs (now all Afghan aid workers) then truck it on to those in need. There is enough food in the region, Oxfam says, but getting vast tonnes in for the winter is the problem. No doubt an end to bombing would save some from starving - but an end to the Taliban might help a great deal more.

Like all the NGO's, Oxfam's sharp dilemma in Afghanistan long predates September 11. The Taliban's treatment of NGOs has mirrored their attitude to their own population. (All this is well chronicled in Ahmed Rashid's excellent book, The Taliban.) At one point they threw foreign aid workers out, although half of Kabul depended on them entirely. Save the Children pulled out when women were not allowed to attend mine-awareness classes. (Nearly half the land around Kabul is a minefield.) A UNHCR lawyer was only allowed to speak to the Taliban from behind a curtain: they accused the UN of spreading western secular ideas - human rights. Some NGOs left when the Taliban banned them from helping any women: women were forbidden to attend general hospitals. When the UN brought in more women to work with women, the Taliban then said each must be chaperoned at all times by a male blood relative, which was impossible. The Taliban repeatedly told NGOs there was no need for them, nor any need for aid to the people. "Allah will provide" was their slogan and they did nothing. Only roads and petrol pumps were financed to ensure the movement of drugs and guns. The resulting income never flowed back to the people: no development, no schools, no hospitals, no water, no food. Neither they nor Allah provided.

The dilemma Oxfam describes in Afghanistan applies in many civil war zones. Does aid prop up demonic governments and assist their wars by freeing up money for guns? Oxfam says: "It causes us terrible anguish. But in the end we are always driven back to the short-term imperative to feed the hungry, while knowing we may prolong the agony." Having witnessed so much of the agony in Afghanistan for so long, they were deeply torn about urging a pause in bombing. "In the end, we are only aid agencies, not military strategists. We can't tell how it will pan out. It is our job to point out that winter is coming and people are starving."

That is indeed their job. But it is the job of governments to look beyond and weigh up the long term. Bombs fell around Anne Frank hidden in her attic; little comfort to her that they were allied bombs. But leaders cannot draw back from killing civilians if they are pursuing the survival and the freedom of a far greater number. It is their dreadful responsibility to get it right - for we know nothing.

-- Jackson Brown (, October 21, 2001


Forgot link --,4273,4280765,00.html

-- Jackson Brown (, October 21, 2001.

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