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Pie in the Sky

Look who's against dropping food.

YOU COULD TELL, in the days following September 11, that lefties were looking for reasons to oppose U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan. At first they flailed about for a rationale but, in the last couple of weeks, they seem to have settled on one argument: By interfering with humanitarian relief efforts, the U.S. military response is exacerbating the famine in Afghanistan. The criticism has received massive attention overseas--it is an obsession of the British press, and it has prompted anti-American diatribes by a gaggle of humanitarian and UN commissioner-types—and it is gaining ground at home as well. An article in the left-leaning In These Times, entitled "Collateral Famine," argued that "the effect of Washington's actions may be to sentence millions of [Afghans] to death for the policies of their leaders."

The bombing has indeed made it difficult for outside famine relief efforts to reach as many people as they did before military action began. And so, in an effort to at least partially make up for the disruption, American planes have been dropping food packets—more than 850,000 to date. That's where the left's argument gets really strange: In the name of humanitarianism, they oppose the food drops as well.

This opposition takes the form of several shifting, often contradictory, claims. The first is that they're inefficient. Whereas food from the United Nations is trucked in and distributed by humanitarian groups on the basis of need, military airdrops are haphazard. Instead of targeting the needy, aid agencies complain, air-dropped food packets often wind up in the hands of whoever has the most guns, rather than whoever has the greatest need.

It's true that people on the ground generally deliver food more effectively. But some mountainous parts of Afghanistan can only be reached by plane. And the location of plane-dropped food isn't completely random—American pilots target high-need villages. Moreover it's far from clear that plane drops are more likely to be seized by soldiers. The food packets are scattered, so Taliban forces can only get their hands on some of them. The UN food supply, by contrast, is concentrated in easily seized warehouses. Just last week, for instance, the Taliban snatched nearly half the UN food supply in Afghanistan. (The Taliban soon released one of the warehouses, but the point is that they can take it back whenever they want.)

The second criticism of food drops is more severe. Aid agencies don't merely think the Pentagon's campaign is wasteful but, as an official from Oxfam told ABC News, that it "can create more problems than it solves." How's that? Well, the packets can land in minefields, luring civilians to their unwitting deaths. But there's absolutely no evidence that such deaths would come anywhere close to matching the number of lives saved. An equally common objection is that the food packets represent "a drop in the bucket." If you think the food drops do net harm, that's a strange charge--sort of like the restaurant patron who complains that the food is inedible, and the portions are too small.

The most fundamental objection, however, is that the food drops taint all humanitarian aid. "The fear is that the Taliban government will now see all aid as being part of the U.S. military objective," argued another Oxfam official, "and shut down all food delivery." This assumes, implausibly, that the Taliban can't distinguish between bright yellow packets of American food fluttering through the air and trucks full of wheat operated by civilian do-gooders.

The truth is that it's not the Taliban who are worried about distinguishing between military and strictly humanitarian relief; it's the aid agencies. In part this reflects institutional narcissism. Just as surgeons tend to think medical problems should be addressed with surgery, aid agencies tend to think humanitarian crises should be addressed by aid agencies. After NATO soldiers sheltered and fed thousands of refugees from Kosovo two years ago, humanitarian groups complained of being overshadowed.

But the deeper reason that humanitarian groups believe the food drops taint relief efforts has nothing to do with their effectiveness. Despite their protestations of neutrality, the aid agencies simply oppose American bombing and, in their view, anything associated with it is morally tainted—regardless of whether or not it saves lives. Criticizing the military for dropping food is really a way of criticizing the military for dropping bombs. The Nobel Prize-winning aid organization Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) generated international buzz when it denounced the food drops as "military propaganda." The drops certainly have a political message—namely that the United States bears no ill will toward the Afghan people—but this is only objectionable to those who disagree with it. The group's president, Jean-Herve Bradol, made the point still more explicit, explaining, "You are shooting with one hand while offering aid with the other."

Sure enough, in addition to sniping at the food drops, some aid agencies have called on the Pentagon to pause all military operations in Afghanistan. The rationale for the pause sounds eminently reasonable: Humanitarian organizations must stockpile food supplies by the onset of winter, at which point the weather will make food distribution impossible. A bombing pause would allow food deliveries and prevent mass starvation. You can see why this line appeals to antiwar types: It sets humanitarian interests directly against U.S. military ones. "Avenging thousands of innocents in America," writes Jonathan Schell in The Nation, "cannot take precedence over saving millions of innocents on Afghanistan."

The key assumption here is that American bombing is the primary factor responsible for halting food delivery in Afghanistan. It isn't. True, some of the decrease results directly from the bombing—many truck drivers, for instance, are unwilling to haul food into a war zone. But most of the decrease results from the Taliban, which has forbidden aid workers from communicating with their superiors outside the country, allowed looting of aid offices, and arbitrarily imposed taxes on aid shipments or halted them altogether.

As the left-wing critics see it, the Taliban's crackdown on aid results from American hostilities (though their mistreatment of aid workers long predates September 11). But, even if that were the case, there's an obvious flaw in allowing the Taliban's anti-humanitarian thuggery to stop the bombing. Consider the chain of events: The Taliban halt food distribution, resulting in the threat of starvation, resulting in a bombing pause. The Taliban would figure out pretty quickly that they could stop the United States from attacking any time it wanted simply by stopping the food trucks.

The left is absolutely right to worry about famine. Its mistake is to see it as a reason to oppose the war. "The bombing should stop," argues Schell, "and a new policy—perhaps one of armed humanitarian intervention on the ground—should be adopted." Schell views humanitarian and military intervention as mutually exclusive. But there's no reason we can't do both. In fact, the more territory the United States liberates from Taliban control, the more food it can deliver to starving Afghans. In the long run, Afghanistan's four-year famine will only end when the Taliban disappear and a new government allows unimpeded food delivery and a rebuilding of the country's agriculture. Humanitarianism, then, requires more American fighting, not less. The pity is that the people calling attention to the plight of starving Afghans oppose the very effort that might ultimately alleviate their suffering.

This article originally appeared in the November 5, 2001 issue of the magazine.