Mary Robinson's call for a pause in the bombing of Afghanistan, backed by her authority as the UN human rights commissioner, needs to be heeded - even if she half-retracted it later. The original explanation for the American and British air strikes was that the Taliban's air defenses had to be eliminated so that special forces could fly in by helicopter to capture Osama bin Laden without risk. Three days after the strikes began, the US defense secretary announced the US had air supremacy over Afghanistan. What then justifies going on with the bombing of cities?
Does the US want to overthrow the Taliban regime by force? Even that no longer seems valid. Washington has accepted that a quick capture of Kabul by the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance could lead to revenge killings on a massive scale. The Pentagon is not bombing Taliban troops to the north of Kabul, so if the front lines are spared, there is no justification for hitting targets close to innocent civilians. Deaths must already be well into triple figures, and even if the toll is not yet massive, the bombs have caused an exodus of traumatized people. Some young men are escaping Taliban press gangs, but the vast bulk of the refugees are fleeing American and British air-borne slaughter. Thousands left in anticipation of the attacks. Others ran when the first bombs fell.
Apart from the horror of these relentless air strikes, the month since September 11 has produced three depressing features. One is the "empathy deficit" it has revealed in our supposedly sophisticated society. Almost everyone who has sat in a plane since that horrendous day must have wondered whether they might be traveling in a bomb. Anyone who lives or works in a tall building will have dwelt on the nightmare possibility that an aircraft could suddenly come through the wall. Few seem able to put themselves in the place of the people of Kabul and Kandahar, hearing the hellish thunder and feeling the earthquake-like vibration of missiles and bombs exploding around them. They are offered "enduring freedom", but are only enduring terror.
The second sad aspect is the unwillingness of so many in the pro-war camp to engage in argument. I have been amazed by critics who know I supported military action in Kosovo but call my opposition to the Afghan war "pacifist". Some opponents of this war are genuine pacifists, and I respect their position. Others are fiercely "anti-American" in that they rarely approve of US policy (though they make a distinction between America's vibrant civil society and the actions of its government). The war lobby prefers these opponents since they can be dismissed as "absolutist".
Those who oppose the bombing out of pragmatism are more threatening. Our arguments have to be evaded in other ways. In these columns some writers have accused the war's critics of flailing around with no alternative policies. They are attacked by Tony Blair in caricature fashion - "after September 11 the idea that we're going to sit back and do nothing is absurd". In fact, they offered numerous options. These were all the things the prime minister later did, except for military action: improved security measures, more intensive intelligence-gathering, and political pressure on states which harbor terrorists or support Bin Laden, in particular Pakistan. But rather than revenge and force, we advocated patience, cool thinking, and international police work.
The worst aspect of the post-September 11 world is the self-censorship of so many people who hold positions of greater or lesser power. The international "coalition against terrorism" is destroying people's ability to think and speak. Mary Robinson's backtracking on her call for a bombing pause is one case. What of the others in government, parliament, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, or at UN headquarters in New York who know the bombing is wrong but dare not say so openly? Some fear that opposing military strikes will be interpreted as condoning the atrocities of that dark day in America. Others worry their "credibility" may be undermined.
Except for Christian Aid and Muslim Aid, which have come out against the bombing, many aid agencies, particularly those which get grants from the British government, have kept quiet for fear of a cut in their funds. Others look at polls which seem to show strong support for bombing. Shame on them for not taking the lead and trying to change the public's view. Every aid agency in Afghanistan knows military action is causing needless death, increases the number of refugees and exacerbates the task of delivering food and medicine. In the name of the people they claim to want to help, they should break their silence now.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001