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Thursday, Jun 20, 2024

Afghan Starvation Collateral Damage or Human Catastrophe?

Author: Abdur Rahim-Syed

The attack on the World Trade Center was morally repulsive as civilians were targeted. As many as 6,000 civilians were killed that day, and both the sanctity of life and the laws of war were left in the dust. Those responsible for the attacks did not have a personal quarrel with the Manhattan skyline or with the people that worked there, rather they considered the civilians that died as acceptable collateral damage in what they perceived as war. Within weeks, 400,000 Afghans will stand on the brink of starvation, considered acceptable collateral damage in a war they do not understand.

According to the most recent Gallup Poll, 85 percent of Americans agree that civilian casualties are unavoidable and approve of the government's measures to avoid them. This high statistic suggests that Americans either misperceive what constitutes collateral damage or are ignorant of the impending humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan. The death of all civilians directly caused by war is collateral damage. These deaths can come from misdirected bombs but also from widespread starvation directly attributable to war. When the administration mentions collateral damage, they refer to civilians in military areas, victim to circumstance and historical necessity. Yet those civilians in areas that receive neither bombs nor food are victims to historical necessity as well, albeit through starvation.

As the bombing continues, food convoys find it too dangerous to continue deliveries. If the winter sets in before food can be delivered, the United Nations (U.N.) estimates that 400,000 Afghans will be in immediate danger of starvation. There was a food crisis in Afghanistan before the war began, but the bombing has pushed the crisis into a humanitarian catastrophe. Before Sept. 11, Oxfam warned that as many 1.9 million would suffer from severe malnutrition by the end of the year. The U.N. has now pushed that number to 3.9 million by spring. This immense increase in those threatened is directly attributable to the bombing campaign.

Food distribution agencies have been severely limited by the bombing. Both security concerns and the destruction of key roads by the bombing have left humanitarian organizations with high food stocks on the borders but few ways of delivering it to remote areas. The U.N. World Food Program (WFP) had over 50,000 tons of food stockpiled on the border three weeks ago, with the hope of distributing that much each month. After successfully delivering only 9,000 tons to Afghans, the WFP estimates that 100,000 families will be cut-off from food deliveries. Moreover, only 702 tons of food were delivered to Afghanistan per day, from Oct. 1 through Oct. 24, 1,000 tons short of the needed amount.

The rural areas have been the hardest hit, yet the cities have not fared much better. Of eight official distribution centers in Afghanistan, none have received the requisite amount of food. Mazar has just nine tons of food on average to distribute on any given day. Kandahar and Herat have fared even worse, with naught to distribute.

The Bush administration has defended itself in two ways in this humanitarian crisis. First, much of the guilt lies on the shoulders of the Taliban, as their looters have played an instrumental role in aggravating this crisis. Second, the United States has done its utmost to avoid the widespread famine by dropping food in civilian areas along with bombs on military targets. Both these claims only partially remove the guilt of massive collateral damage.

It may very well be true that the Taliban are looting food convoys. Yet even if they were not doing so, the amount of food being delivered is minute when compared to how much would have been delivered were the bombing to never have begun. More importantly, however, one must explain why food agencies were able to deliver food to 3.8 million Afghans in 1997, when the Taliban were firmly in power, and not now.

Airdrops of food have been applauded by the American media but criticized by many humanitarian agencies working in Afghanistan. The food drops are a fraction of the necessary amount, and are, therefore, more ornamental than truly useful. The French medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières, recipient of the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize, has criticized the food drops as not only failing to meet the needs of the Afghan people, but also as "likely to undermine attempts to deliver substantial aid to the most vulnerable." The deliberate action of the military to combine bombing with humanitarian efforts is likely to cause problems in the future for Non Governmental Organizations, who find it key to be perceived as independent of any government in their operations. More succinctly, Dr. Jean-Hervé Bradol of Médecins Sans Frontières asks, "How will the Afghan population know in the future if an offer of humanitarian aid does not hide a military operation?"

Afghanistan is a country riddled with landmines—as many as 10 million, according to U.N. estimates. Dropping food indiscriminately has the added danger of leading starved Afghans into areas infested with landmines. Although the idea of food drops is commendable, they have been of minimal benefit.

There was originally talk of a reprieve in bombing during Ramadan, an Islamic holy month two weeks away. As this suggestion slowly fades from the administration's agenda, the risk of widespread famine grows.

About 25,000 people died in the firebombing of Dresden. 300,000 died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If the bombing does not stop before the onset of winter, we may find collateral damage by starvation to have exceeded both these numbers.