HUNGER IS HAUNTING this year's Thanksgiving. Before U.S. bombing began, respected food aid groups—Oxfam, the International Red Cross, the Red Crescent, the U.N.—warned that up to 7,500,000 Afghans were, through a gut-wrenching combination of poverty, drought, war, dislocation, and repression, at risk of starving to death this winter. When bombing began, almost all delivery of food from the outside world stopped. Now the U.N.'s World Food Program has helped somewhat, but roads and bridges are destroyed, millions more people are displaced, and the snow and bitter cold have arrived.
Even if the Taliban are history by the time you read this—a nice, but unlikely, thought—the crisis is still urgent. By blocking food delivery until winter, which made ground distribution all but impossible, America, in the world's eyes, may become responsible for death on a scale the world has not seen in a long, long time.
Seven and a half million people at risk of dying in a matter of months: That's three times the number of people Pol Pot took years to kill. Thirty-five times Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. Ten World Trade Centers, every day, for 150 days. Slow, painful deaths. Entirely avoidable deaths. Deaths whose sole cause isn't America, but most of which can now be prevented only with a massive effort that the U.S., so far, has shown little interest in.
It's a situation simply inconceivable to those of us at the Thanksgiving table, reared on Safeways and drive-thru burgers: no food, electricity, or health care, and two decades of death. In much of Afghanistan —perhaps all, as you read this—aerial bombardment is no longer the issue. Now there are two issues: weather, which makes roads impassable and prevents people from traveling by foot or pack animal to food distribution points, and the Northern Alliance. Northern Alliance forces are already reported to be stealing food aid meant for starving refugees and other Afghan civilians. In Mazar-i-Sharif, an entire U.N. warehouse of food—89 tons of food, sugar, oil, and high-protein biscuits—was stolen. A U.N. convoy with another 200 tons of supplies was seized by Alliance soldiers. There are reports that Alliance soldiers have shot aid workers. As a result, aid groups have again suspended food delivery.
Now that the Northern Alliance has Kabul, there is no guarantee that it will either behave or cede power willingly. The Taliban generally protected aid shipments. If Alliance warlords, empowered by U.S. bombs, cannot be counted on to do so, the starvation crisis may worsen. And now much of the distribution must be by air; Alliance soldiers' thievery will render this difficult task even more arduous.
The U.S. has hardly solved the threat of terrorism by evicting the Taliban; even catching bin Laden wouldn't mean much in the big picture. Not only is he just one operative among many, but the U.S. campaign has flooded terrorist groups with new recruits. Al Qaeda is spread among countless countries. Between the bombing, mounting civilian casualties, indifference to the possible starvation of millions, and new alliances with despots, the U.S. "war on terrorism" has already done a lot to alienate world opinion and reinforce charges of American arrogance.
President Bush has a choice: continue to invade country after country, displacing governments, arresting a few more people each time, killing or uprooting more innocents, and creating more anti-American hatred and proto-terrorists around the world; or get serious about trying to convince the world that we are all in this together and that the United States' first interest is not in expanding its own power at all costs but in promoting global freedom, democracy, self-determination, and economic opportunity. One is a path toward permanent war; the other, a path toward permanent peace.
The "war on terrorism" is ultimately a war of persuasion, not conquest. If several million innocent Muslim civilians get fatally trapped between winter and the rage of America, how many will take George Bush's proclamations about eradicating "terrorists" and "evildoers" to heart and label him, and us, as the prime examples? Part of how the U.S. will be judged is by whether we act to prevent large-scale famine this winter in Afghanistan. That crisis is not over, and neither is terrorism. In this case, feeding people is not only more humane than bombing them; it is a strategic, as well as moral, necessity.