Why Bombing Afghanistan is Wrong

Theodore S. Norvell

October 9th, 2001.

(This page does not -- and nor do any of my more work related pages -- reflect any view of Memorial University.)

... Not in our son's name.

Our son died a victim of an inhuman ideology. Our actions should not serve the same purpose. Let us grieve. Let us reflect and pray. Let us think about a rational response that brings real peace and justice to our world.

But let us not as a nation add to the inhumanity of our times.

Phyllis and Orlando Rodriguez

The bombings of the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in September were terrible atrocities. There is no defending these actions and I have no desire to do so. There is no doubt that such horrific acts call for punishment of the guilty and for rational measures to protect the lives of others from similar atrocities.

The response by the United States, Britain, and other countries is multi-faceted and complex. However as of October 7th, there is one response that can not be ignored and that must be spoken and acted against. The attack by the United States and Britain, which is being supported by other countries, including Canada, is an equally indefensible and horrific act. Perhaps it is more terrible as it is being perpetrated not by a small gang of criminals, but by nations acting on behalf of citizens who, on the whole, wish to act on the basis of reason and compassion rather than on the basis of hate.

Casting my mind back, I can recall no bad thing that the people of Afghanistan have ever done to me, my country (Canada), the United States, or Britain, in living memory. Yet the current attack is being called a retaliation. The rhetoric of "retaliation" and "counter-strike" are everywhere, but retaliation for what? For the September 11th bombings?  No, those terrible acts were not perpetrated by the people of Afghanistan, nor yet by the odious Taliban regime that calls itself their government. There may be a connection between the bombings of the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, and certain groups with members living in Afghanistan. The same could be said of Yemen, Egypt, and even Germany and the United States itself, yet these friends of the United States are not being bombed. It might be argued that the government of Afghanistan should have known that bad things were likely to be done by those attending training camps within their borders.  The same is true of the United States and its School of the Americas, yet few would have supported bombing the United States on that basis. Retaliation does not justify dropping bombs on the people of Afghanistan.

The official line of the United States government, at least of George Bush, who is reaping a popularity bonanza, is that Afghanistan is being attacked because it did not accede to Bush's demands, among other things that they unconditionally hand over Osama bin Laden. At first brush, this may appear to make sense; after all it is true that the Taliban government did not accede to Bush's demands; furthermore it is entirely possible that the Taliban actually had the ability to hand arrest bin Laden, and they certainly had the ability to release aid workers who had been arrested earlier in the year -- another of Bush's demands. However, under what international law were Bush's demands made? As far as I can tell none. I for one do not wish to live in a world where one government is expected to do the will of another simply because they are out-gunned. I happen to think that Bush's demands were good ones; the aid workers probably did nothing wrong and bin Laden should probably be tried in court for the crimes for which he has been indicted. However, it is not civilized to get what you what at the point of a gun, nor yet at its use. The fact that there is no international law to protect aid workers or to allow extradition of suspected criminals is a problem, but a very complex one. For example, no country extradites without prima fascia evidence being presented, and often such extradition are not unconditional. No matter how reasonable Bush's demands were, no international law required that they be acted on, and they can not serve to validate this attack.

Much has been made, especially recently, of the Taliban's human rights abuses. These have concerned me for some time; I would venture to speculate, longer than they have Bush. One might even support a covert operation to topple such a regime and replace it with a government that treated the people, especially the women, of the country better. However, it is hard to see how dropping bombs on the country is likely to improve the lot of the people there. This country is already full of unexploded ordinance, and more of the same is only going to lead to future casualties. Furthermore the much touted smart-bombs of the United States are unlikely to be smart enough to distinguish between the supporters of the Taliban and other Afghanis. As in the war on Iraq by the United States and others, "troop concentrations" are being targeted. "Troop concentrations" is military jargon for people. I do not know whether, like Iraq, Afghanistan relies on conscription, but, even if it doesn't, in a country that has seen three years of drought it is easy to imagine that for many joining the armed forces may be the only way to get a meal on the table.  So the bombing of troops is the bombing of people not only innocent of the September 11th attacks, not only innocent of harboring members of al Qaeda, but also innocent of the human rights abuses of the Taliban. Furthermore, it is already clear that the attack on Afghanistan is killing not only armed personal, but also civilians.

[Note added Nov 1, 2001: On the question of conscription, there is no doubt that conscription, both by force of law and by plain force is widespread in both the Taliban controlled and the opposition controlled areas of Afghanistan and that it extends to children as well as adults. It is worthwhile to keep in mind that when news reports say that "positions" are being bombed, these positions likely include children. See The Guardian and The ChildWar database.)]

In the case of the Taliban, we again have a failure of international law. The world clearly needs a way to deal with governments that do not act to benefit the people they govern and to deal with situations where the rule of law has disappeared. Rwanda in 1994, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, today, make this clear. The United States acting as the world's cop is not a viable solution. First, the only interventions that will happen are those in the national interests of the U.S. (or worse, its leadership). For example, there is little effort being made, as far as I can tell, by the U.S. to stop the civil war in the DRC -- it just isn't important to them. Secondly, the U.S. is not very good at this role and its interventions have a history of doing more harm than good. One only need look at ten years of death and suffering brought to the people of Iraq by the United States and its allies acting as world cops.

The U.S. claims that its efforts in Afghanistan are not only military, but also humanitarian. The humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is large, but is one that could have been solved by the western nations for the cost of a few dollars per citizen per year. The humanitarian crises in Afghanistan was only worsened by the American threats, yet until the decision was made to attack Afghanistan, the American government made no effort to help. Now, instead of seeing wheat and other staples being trucked into the country, we see a very small number of rations being dropped from airplanes. This is an amazingly inefficient way to deliver food aid, as can be seen by comparing the 37,000 rations dropped in one day (each ration contains enough food for one person for one day) to the 4 million people who need food. Even if all these rations were found and distributed each to one person (rather unlikely) that is one ration for every 108 hungry people.  The entire 4 million people could probably be fed for a fraction of the cost of the military assault on Afghanistan. Moreover, by turning the country into a war-zone, conventional and rational relief efforts, including building the nation's agricultural infrastructure, are made impossible.

[Addendum: Oct 25th, 2001. The Pentagon now says that it will target food and fuel supplies and continue its bombing campaign through the winter. In other words, they intend to create a larger humanitarian crisis as a matter of policy.]

Could the end effect of all this be good? The objectives of the attack on Afghanistan are as yet unclear and it may be that the U.S. government is divided on what they should be. If the Americans succeed in overthrowing the Taliban, will they then go on to replace it with a government that functions for the people? They have not committed to doing so. In the past the Americans have destabilized, or overthrown and replaced a great many governments. In many cases, this has not resulted in a demonstrable benefit for the peoples of those countries, although it often has resulted in a government that has been more friendly to the United States. Chile is a clear cut case, and Afghanistan itself is another case, although Pakistan, the U.S.'s close ally, seems to have had an active role as well. In Iraq, U.S. lead bombing and sanctions have only strengthened an oppressive government. In Cambodia, U.S. bombing lead to the rise of the Khmer Rouge. There is no moral high-ground in simply replacing one bad government with another.