How can the US bomb this tragic people?
by Robert Fisk
The Independent (UK), September 23, 2001
We are witnessing this weekend one of the most epic events
since the Second World War, certainly since Vietnam. I am not
talking about the ruins of the World Trade Centre in New York
and the grotesque physical scenes which we watched on 11 September,
an atrocity which I described last week as a crime against humanity
(of which more later). No, I am referring to the extraordinary,
almost unbelievable preparations now under way for the most powerful
nation ever to have existed on God's Earth to bomb the most devastated,
ravaged, starvation-haunted and tragic country in the world. Afghanistan,
raped and eviscerated by the Russian army for 10 years, abandoned
by its friends us, of course once the Russians had
fled, is about to be attacked by the surviving superpower.
I watch these events with incredulity, not least because I
was a witness to the Russian invasion and occupation. How they
fought for us, those Afghans, how they believed our word. How
they trusted President Carter when he promised the West's support.
I even met the CIA spook in Peshawar, brandishing the identity
papers of a Soviet pilot, shot down with one of our missiles
which had been scooped from the wreckage of his Mig. "Poor
guy," the CIA man said, before showing us a movie about GIs
zapping the Vietcong in his private cinema. And yes, I remember
what the Soviet officers told me after arresting me at Salang.
They were performing their international duty in Afghanistan,
they told me. They were "punishing the terrorists" who
wished to overthrow the (communist) Afghan government and destroy
its people. Sound familiar?
I was working for The Times in 1980, and just south of Kabul
I picked up a very disturbing story. A group of religious mujahedin
fighters had attacked a school because the communist regime had
forced girls to be educated alongside boys. So they had bombed
the school, murdered the head teacher's wife and cut off her husband's
head. It was all true. But when The Times ran the story, the Foreign
Office complained to the foreign desk that my report gave support
to the Russians. Of course. Because the Afghan fighters were the
good guys. Because Osama bin Laden was a good guy. Charles Douglas-Home,
then editor of The Times would always insist that Afghan guerrillas
were called "freedom fighters" in the headline. There
was nothing you couldn't do with words.
And so it is today. President Bush now threatens the obscurantist,
ignorant, super-conservative Taliban with the same punishment
as he intends to mete out to bin Laden. Bush originally talked
about "justice and punishment" and about "bringing
to justice" the perpetrators of the atrocities. But he's
not sending policemen to the Middle East; he's sending B-52s.
And F-16s and AWACS planes and Apache helicopters. We are not
going to arrest bin Laden. We are going to destroy him. And that's
fine if he's the guilty man. But B-52s don't discriminate between
men wearing turbans, or between men and women or women and children.
I wrote last week about the culture of censorship which is
now to smother us, and of the personal attacks which any journalist
questioning the roots of this crisis endures. Last week, in a
national European newspaper, I got a new and revealing example
of what this means. I was accused of being anti-American and then
informed that anti-Americanism was akin to anti-Semitism. You
get the point, of course. I'm not really sure what anti-Americanism
is. But criticising the United States is now to be the moral equivalent
of Jew-hating. It's OK to write headlines about "Islamic
terror" or my favourite French example "God's madmen",
but it's definitely out of bounds to ask why the United States
is loathed by so many Arab Muslims in the Middle East. We can
give the murderers a Muslim identity: we can finger the Middle
East for the crime but we may not suggest any reasons for
But let's go back to that word justice. Re-watching that pornography
of mass-murder in New York, there must be many people who share
my view that this was a crime against humanity. More than 6,000
dead; that's a Srebrenica of a slaughter. Even the Serbs spared
most of the women and children when they killed their menfolk.
The dead of Srebrenica deserve and are getting international
justice at the Hague. So surely what we need is an International
Criminal Court to deal with the sorts of killer who devastated
New York on 11 September. Yet "crime against humanity"
is not a phrase we are hearing from the Americans. They prefer
"terrorist atrocity", which is slightly less powerful.
Why, I wonder? Because to speak of a terrorist crime against humanity
would be a tautology. Or because the US is against international
justice. Or because it specifically opposed the creation of an
international court on the grounds that its own citizens may one
day be arraigned in front of it.
The problem is that America wants its own version of justice,
a concept rooted, it seems, in the Wild West and Hollywood's version
of the Second World War. President Bush speaks of smoking them
out, of the old posters that once graced Dodge City: "Wanted,
Dead or Alive". Tony Blair now tells us that we must stand
by America as America stood by us in the Second World War. Yes,
it's true that America helped us liberate Western Europe. But
in both world wars, the US chose to intervene after only a long
and in the case of the Second World War very profitable
period of neutrality.
Don't the dead of Manhattan deserve better than this? It's
less than three years since we launched a 200-Cruise missile attack
on Iraq for throwing out the UN arms inspectors. Needless to say,
nothing was achieved. More Iraqis were killed, and the UN inspectors
never got back, and sanctions continued, and Iraqi children continued
to die. No policy, no perspective. Action, not words.
And that's where we are today. Instead of helping Afghanistan,
instead of pouring our aid into that country 10 years ago, rebuilding
its cities and culture and creating a new political centre that
would go beyond tribalism, we left it to rot. Sarajevo would be
rebuilt. Not Kabul. Democracy, of a kind, could be set up in Bosnia.
Not in Afghanistan. Schools could be reopened in Tuzla and Travnik.
Not in Jaladabad. When the Taliban arrived, stringing up every
opponent, chopping off the arms of thieves, stoning women for
adultery, the United States regarded this dreadful outfit as a
force for stability after the years of anarchy.
Bush's threats have effectively forced the evacuation of every
Western aid worker. Already, Afghans are dying because of their
absence. Drought and starvation go on killing millions I
mean millions and between 20 and 25 Afghans are blown up
every day by the 10 million mines the Russians left behind. Of
course, the Russians never went back to clear the mines. I suppose
those B-52 bombs will explode a few of them. But that'll be the
only humanitarian work we're likely to see in the near future.
Look at the most startling image of all this past week. Pakistan
has closed its border with Afghanistan. So has Iran. The Afghans
are to stay in their prison. Unless they make it through Pakistan
and wash up on the beaches of France or the waters of Australia
or climb through the Channel Tunnel or hijack a plane to Britain
to face the wrath of our Home Secretary. In which case, they must
be sent back, returned, refused entry. It's a truly terrible irony
that the only man we would be interested in receiving from Afghanistan
is the man we are told is the evil genius behind the greatest
mass-murder in American history: bin Laden. The others can stay
at home and die.