No American soldier is yet (openly) on Afghan soil, or even an American plane overhead. But already our TV screens are beginning to be filled with piteous pictures of the starving Afghan children.
This starvation is patently not, at the present time, the fault of the United States or the West except in indirect ways. It is much more obvious that the warring Afghan factions and above all the Taliban have brought their people to this state.
Yet now that America has all but announced its intention to attack their country, the West is becoming responsible for Afghan suffering. America’s threats have driven hundreds of thousands more to flee their homes. They have forced the remaining humanitarian agencies from the country. They are seen as worsening the suffering of millions, as well as likely to kill maybe thousands of innocents.
In each major war of the global era, the West has found itself responsible for millions of miserable people uprooted from their homes, and this has had a profound effect on policy. This has never been the Western intention: but still the refugees come, from Kurdistan at the end of the Gulf War, from Kosovo after the first bombs in 1999, and now from Afghanistan before a single bomb has been dropped. And once they come, they have to be looked after.
So what starts as a ‘war on terrorism’ may end as social work on a gigantic scale. The camps that George W. Bush will find his forces in charge of will be full of poor, starving, cold refugees, not the militants of Osama bin Laden. Blankets may turn out to be as important as bombs.
Although the suffering Afghan people could have well done without the new disaster, in other ways this will be no bad thing. The UN, NGOs and every journalist worrying about becoming Bush’s poodle now have a cause. The President, Tony Blair and their colleagues will find it difficult to turn their backs.
The fledgling peace movement should take note. It is probably too late to prevent Bush miring himself in Afghanistan. It may well be possible, however, to make sure that increasing proportions of Western energies are devoted to the terrible plight of the civilian population. That is where we should be bending growing efforts.