POLLS AND anecdotal evidence make it plain that Americans overwhelmingly favor the war in Afghanistan. But there's something terribly disquieting about TV images of an impoverished country filled with acutely suffering, starving people being bombed daily while millions of Americans cheer.
Bombing Afghanistan has meant overkill from the beginning. The stark fact is that the world's richest and most powerful nation has for the past two months bombed one of the poorest and weakest. That's nothing to crow about. If a humanitarian catastrophe, such as is now looming, follows the war, then instead of celebrating a victory the United States will suffer a strategic setback.
Although the United States prides itself on being generous, our recent record suggests that after bombing a country we turn stingy, apply a Band-Aid to the problems, declare them fixed and move on. Just ask the people of Somalia or Kosovo how they're doing.
Humanitarian aid workers know that deadly downstream effects kill far more civilians in the long run, especially children, than the most powerful bombs.
Exhibit one is Iraq. Nearly 11 years after the Gulf War, Iraq's children are still dying in large numbers every day from the effects of deliberate infrastructure degradation and continuing sanctions. Likewise, the United States will not be able to escape responsibility for much of the continuing civilian toll likely to plague Afghanistan in the coming years. Bombing is merciful compared to the silent, hidden reality that experts fear is almost sure to follow this campaign: the slow death by starvation and disease of millions of Afghans.
The total number of war victims in Afghanistan equals or exceeds those killed on our own soil on Sept. 11. Only a handful of them could possibly have had any involvement with or responsibility for the September attacks. A realistic count shows that hundreds of civilians have been killed unnecessarily, people as undeserving of death from the skies as were the victims of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.
Civilian targets that have been hit unnecessarily include UN offices, Red Cross warehouses, an old folks' home, civilian buses, power plants and mosques (making it hard to convince the world's 1.3 billion Muslims that it's not a war against Islam). Seventy civilians were killed recently in the villages of Balut, Akal Khan and Gudara. A woman died in Northern Afghanistan when airdropped relief supplies fell through her living-room ceiling.
Since 1980, half the refugees in the world have been Afghans. Afghanistan has 4 million refugees, more than the next seven largest refugee countries together, with new numbers created by the war. Nearly a million are internally displaced, and nearly 25 percent of the people in Afghanistan are homeless. At Maslakh camp near Herat, 150,000 people - many without blankets or tents - remain in desperate straits, some barely clinging to life. As early as last summer, tens of thousands of people in the central mountain region of Hazarajat were reported by aid agencies to be eating wild grass, leaves and even mixing insects into their food just to survive.
Health statistics, including maternal and infant mortality, are among the most alarming in the world. Afghanistan has 4 million orphans (50,000 in Kabul alone). One child in four will die before his or her fifth birthday; 400,000 children are expected to die of infectious diarrhea and malnutrition during 2002 (300,000 died last year), along with about 16,000 women who will probably die in childbirth. Seventy percent of the people are malnourished. Medical services are virtually absent except in the cities.
Millions remain at risk of starvation. The UN and humanitarian organizations admit they are losing the race against time, and millions remain at risk of starvation. Ninety percent of Afghans depend on agriculture, but this year's harvest was almost a complete failure. The war means that many people have already missed the October planting season for winter wheat and will face starvation next year. The bulk of their seed stock has already vanished. In a country requiring 400,000 tons of seed, only 10,000 tons are left. USAID officials say the gap is the biggest ever seen in a modern famine.
Aid agencies are rushing to catch up before the onslaught of winter. The shortfall in humanitarian aid was already 1 million tons of wheat before Sept. 11. Afghanistan needs approximately 2,000 tons per day, but many of the food convoys have been stopped or slowed for much of the past two months.
The Bush administration has announced that it does not intend to engage in nation building. Yet when Americans sit down to their Christmas dinner, many Afghans will be eating grass and insects. What will we choose to do about it?
James E. Jennings is president of Conscience International, which is based in Atlanta.
Copyright © 2001, Newsday, Inc.