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Tuesday, October 16, 2001

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The pity of war

IN WHAT might be termed the ``first big mistake'' of the war on terrorism, four United Nations de-mining personnel, some of the very few who are still in Afghanistan, have been reported killed in the October 9 bombing of Kabul. Military wars are often accompanied by wars of information in our media-saturated age and it might well be that the Taliban police murdered them to build world opinion against the U.S.-led attacks. But as NATO's Serbia campaign in 1999 showed, no matter what kind of precision-guided munition are employed, ``collateral damage'' is inevitable in aerial raids (among the unintended or wilful targets of that period was the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade). Since the victims in this case were U.N. workers, there's at least some consternation and mention in the media. But who accounts for or even worries about civilian Afghan losses?Taliban are claiming 35 dead civilians in the first few days of the war. Even if only five died, it is a war crime. Every single Afghan civilian who is displaced, conscripted or butchered in or as a consequence of `Operation Enduring Freedom' is as much an innocuous bystander caught and charred in the crossfire as those 7,000-odd people whose lives were horrifyingly blown apart by the September 11 terrorist attacks. Human lives and dignity are precious, universal and non-quantifiable. Under no circumstances can 7,000 and 35 be balanced on a numbers scale and the deduction made that Afghan losses are `far fewer' or unintended. Supposing such a reductionist calculation were made, since western capitals are abuzz with speculation of a `sustained campaign' in Afghanistan and since Pakistani intelligence estimates that the Taliban have enough artillery and firepower to last three years in guerilla combat, I can predict that the `scales' will be balanced in no distant future.

Millenarian touch

True to their demonic militarist nature, the Taliban are conscripting all males aged between 14 and 40 to take up positions with anti-aircraft guns and missiles every night and the Americans are also taking actions that are bound to injure, maim and kill common Afghans, who have done nothing to deserve this cruelty and barbarism. Compounding the misery, chaos and destitution of their daily lives for more than two decades (according to the U.N. Secretariat, Afghanistan has a per capita income of $178, which in my opinion is an overestimation) comes this new war, the war Mr. George W. Bush has given a millenarian and missionary touch by calling it the ``first war of the 21st century", but a war that will end up delivering less of justice and unleashing more of revenge. St. Augustine (5th century A.D.) and St. Thomas Aquinas (13th century A.D.) formulated `Just War' theories in times when the concept of `total war' was unheard of. Technology has entered the age of `total war' since 1939, one in which no distinction is made (or possible) between civilian and military targets in the business of extermination.


It is precisely to safeguard against the indignities and miscarriages of `total war' that the Geneva Conventions and Protocols of 1949 and 1977 delimited and proscribed a whole gamut of grave breaches of humane behaviour &151; wilful killing of civilians and captured combatants, torture and other inhuman treatment, issuing orders of scorched earth and that there should be no survivors, etc. But there is a catch in humanitarian laws that governments have always exploited: the task of bringing violators to justice (pending the inauguration of an International Criminal Court) rests with national governments. This assumes that officers and soldiers act independently on their own in committing atrocities and states give no such directions. The doctrine of plausible deniability acts as an accomplice for war ministries and defence establishments to wash their hands off collateral damage on the field, that are described as unfortunate occurrences that were beyond their control or simply, accidents for which they are sorry. Was the order to commence missile and aerial bombing beyond the control of the Pentagon? We will all be hearing a lot of sorries in the coming weeks as `Enduring Freedom' progresses. But it is worth remembering that there are many more un-rehabilitated and unacknowledged deaths in total war than five-letter palliatives. To use Oxford historian Niall Ferguson's pungent phrase, we will all be cocooned, no matter how privy to actual battle information, from the actual pity of war.

No better alternative?

Americans and the international community should sincerely ask some questions and investigate, counter factually whether there were not better alternatives than what has come to pass. Was there not a growing feeling that Taliban support was melting with more and more defections to the Northern Alliance and complete isolation of its god-forsaken regime in the Islamic world (with the exception of Pakistan)? Was there not an argument that the Taliban's original core was not larger than a few thousand and that there is a yawning gap between their real and apparent strength if their alliances crumble? (This point has been especially made by the opposition Northern Alliance as well as experts like Ahmad Rashid, author of Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia). Were there not moves afoot to reinstate former King Zahir Shah through a loya jirga that brought together all significant tribal groups in multi-ethnic Afghanistan? Why did America's patience run out after what seemed like three weeks of fruitful endeavouring for diplomatic and political solutions? Certainly, the Taliban have been obstreperously stubborn on discarding Osama bin Laden, but would not a peaceful and adroitly managed denouement have pulled the carpet from under Mullah Omar's feet rather than ended up in possibilities of dreadful carpet bombing? Was recourse to military action absolutely necessary to fight terrorism?

Humanitarian mask


Of course, the missile strikes are being accompanied by another category of bombardment aimed at genuinely alleviating the suffering of the Afghan people, or so we are told. Food and medicine were dropped from high-altitude aircraft alongside Cruise missiles and Stealth bombers, an admirably novel move that hopes to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, but here too, it must be stressed that the content and distributional spread of the food drops are problematic. News reports have noted that peanut butter, strawberry jam, crackers, beans and tomato sauce comprise the bulk of the droppings of the first few days. It goes without saying that they hardly suit Afghan dietary patterns and also that they should have been dropped before `Enduring Freedom' began and when UNHCR was crying out for greater assistance to meet gargantuan refugee crisis. The writing is clear that the western world, which had neatly forgotten and abandoned Afghanistan to privation after the Soviets withdrew in 1988, has suddenly realised that Afghan commoners are starving now that they need a humanitarian mask for war. It will also be interesting to see how far the Pentagon's plans of dropping relief materials in areas inside Afghanistan, not refugee camps in Pakistan and other border countries will materialise, because in total war, neither side makes distinctions between life-giving humanitarian airplanes and death-rattling military drones. The ultimate farce of this humanitarian barrage will be when a Taliban Stinger missile downs an aircraft about to deliver aid packages deep inside Afghan territory. What a mess this is going to be!

Afghanistan is one of the few unenviable countries of the world whose population has steadily declined since 1980 and the reasons thereof are lucidly evident: incessant civil war, killing sprees of each other and the general population by Mujahideen factions, ethnic cleansing of minorities by the Taliban and totally defunct health and economic infrastructure. My appeal to world conscience is not to add another chapter into this Kafkaesque book of multiple tragedies, a chapter titled oxymoronically as `Enduring Freedom' (formerly Infinite Justice).




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