Killing with kindness in Afghanistan
Killing with kindness in Afghanistan
The Taliban’s Neighbourhood and Regional Diplomacy with Afghanistan (Online Event, 5 March 2024)
The Taliban’s Neighbourhood and Regional Diplomacy with Afghanistan (Online Event, 5 March 2024)
Op-Ed / Asia 4 minutes

Killing with kindness in Afghanistan

The notion of humanitarian war is causing problems for aid agencies in the region, says William Shawcross.

War and humanitarianism are always uneasy bedfellows, but they have become more and more closely intertwined since the end of the cold war. The phrase "humanitarian war" was used by Nato to explain its war against the Serbs on behalf of the Muslims in Kosovo in 1999. It makes the humanitarian agencies very nervous - never more so than in Afghanistan now.

In their necessary, indeed laudable, efforts to show that their war is against the Taliban and its terrorist guests, not the Afghan people, both President George W. Bush and Tony Blair, prime minister, have emphasised the importance of humanitarianism. On Sunday, Mr Bush promises that "the oppressed people of Afghanistan will know the generosity of America and our allies". Mr Blair said the need to succour the millions of Afghan refugees inside and outside their country "is as vital as the military coalition".

He is right. But the danger is that stating the connection so openly could make the humanitarian agencies' task more difficult. The agencies are usually loath to believe that force is the best way towards a humanitarian goal. They certainly hate being associated with it.

The offices of Unicef and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Quetta, Pakistan, were attacked yesterday. Some officials believe it was because the agencies are already identified as part of the war effort. The attacks have terrified staff, both local and expatriate, and will undoubtedly affect their ability to build the refugee camps that the UN believes will soon be needed.

At the same time, the Disasters Emergency Committee, which co-ordinates appeals from the major British relief agencies, postponed an appeal on behalf of the 7.5m Afghans it considers at risk in Afghanistan. "The current situation makes it difficult to present the humanitarian needs independent from the current aerial bombardment and its related food drops," it said.

Famine has threatened millions of Afghans for years under the misrule of the Taliban. There are already some 2m Afghan refugees in Pakistan and another 1.5m in Iran. The UN fears that another million could flee in the next few weeks to Pakistan, 400,000 to Iran and 50,000 each to Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.

One humanitarian aim of the coalition should be to get the borders around Afghanistan reopened fast. Pakistan has offered some 100 new campsites but they are in remote, insecure tribal areas and have no water. Aid officials add that none of the new sites could be ready for at least two weeks.

We do not yet know the amounts of food, medicine and other relief supplies the US is planning to drop in Afghanistan, nor where. But it is hard to see how it could be more than a token. Except in concentrated areas free of immediate fighting, as in the case of the Kurds along the Turkish border in 1991, air-drops of emergency food supplies tend to be largely symbolic. In Bosnia, air-drops to the Muslim enclaves did help save lives but the scale of the operation was relatively small.

The World Food Programme, the main distributor of food in Afghanistan, reckons that in two northern provinces some 400,000 people have only a few days of food left. WFP calculates that some 50,000 tonnes will be needed every month to feed those in need. Meeting that demand would require 1,800 Hercules cargo aircraft flights a month - hardly possible.

There are no exact precedents for the present crisis in which the coalition is both bombing a failed state and trying to feed its people. In the past, humanitarian agencies have had different dilemmas. Since Biafra, the first international humanitarian cause, agencies have been exploited by governments or rebel movements.

In Cambodia in the 1980s, the Vietnamese used international agencies to help them build up what the international community saw as an illegal administration in Phnom Penh.

So Vietnam's enemies, led by China and Thailand, sought to bolster resistance to Hanoi by feeding the Khmer Rouge, who were active among Cambodian refugees on the Thai border. Humanitarianism made both sides viable and prolonged the war.

In the early 1990s, the EU decided absolutely not to intervene in the wars of Yugoslav succession, except with humanitarian relief co-ordinated by the UNHCR. The aid saved many hundreds of thousands of lives but was also stolen by the warriors and thus sustained the fighting.

The closest parallel to the Afghan dilemma is to be found in 1999 in Kosovo and Macedonia. About 360,000 Kosovar Muslim refugees fled to Albania and Macedonia in a matter of weeks during March and April that year to escape Serb ethnic cleansing.

The UN was overwhelmed and reluctantly had to ask Nato to build its refugee camps; UNHCR and its partner agencies then delivered the services to refugees in those camps. It was, to say the least, unusual for one of the military parties to a conflict to undertake vast humanitarian actions of this sort but the approach broadly succeeded.

In Afghanistan today, the problem may be that although the military and humanitarian aims of the coalition are stated to be co-equal, it is hard to see how they can be in practice unless the Taliban is quickly and cleanly defeated.

Only such a defeat would ensure the necessary access to the Afghan population for humanitarian agencies. The coalition's aims - the end of Taliban rule and the end of the terrorist al-Qaeda network - are more than just, they are essential. But military air-drops alone cannot save many of those Afghans at risk; massive supplies and unrestricted refuge for Afghans in neighbouring countries are needed.
Some agency officials fear that the rhetorical linking of military and humanitarian aims could damage the impartiality of the UN and its partners and therefore the ability of the system to save Afghan lives. That is clearly not what Mr Bush or Mr Blair intend.

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