Humanitarian aid has become a weapon of war

G. Pascal Zachary

The images on the first few days of air attacks by the United States on Afghanistans Taliban regime were a strange juxtaposition of bombingand food drops. Guns and planes are playing a decisive role, but there is another weapon in this war on terrorism: humanitarian aid. And while desperately needy refugees hopefully benefit from the assistance, they are also being used as pawns.

Even before the United States fired a shot, President Bush pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Afghan refugees. The administration wants to portray itself as helping beleaguered Afghans, and relief aid could make the United States appear merciful, especially to Islamic countries that are troubled by the bombing and the inevitable civilian casualties (such as the four U.N. security workers killed on October 9). And Americas linkage of food and guns may helpespecially when the CIA comes to recruit agents out of the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan.

But the American PR offensive seems brittle. Doctors Without Borders is already calling U.S. humanitarian aid counter-productive so long as its tied to air attacks. Such action does not answer the needs of the Afghan people and is likely to undermine attempts to deliver substantial aid to the most vulnerable, says Dr. Jean-Hervé Bradol of Doctors Without Borders, which estimates that 1 million Afghans are on the move, seeking refuge. The U.S. food drops are believed to satisfy the needs of only 37,500 people a day. Millions of Afghans are in danger of starving.

But the United States is not alone in exploiting the humanitarian crisis. The Taliban still seems to think that if it can raise the costs of a fight, then the U.S. coalition will fracture. The Afghan leaders wish to portray themselves as innocent victims of U.S. aggression, and even though they have brought on many of their own misfortunes, their cause might be helped if U.S. bombs kill too many civilians or destroy vital infrastructure that brings on further starvation or disease.
Although the Taliban chieftains may decide they are safer hiding in the caves of Afghanistan, they could easily send loyalists into international refugee camps run by the United Nations. Using the relative safety of these campsand their resourcesthey could help sustain the Taliban resistance in Afghanistan. The Taliban also may be encouraging, if not assisting, ordinary Afghans to flood into neighboring Pakistan to destabilize this wavering U.S. ally.

Yet Pakistan is already using the specter of hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees as leverage against both the United States and Afghanistan. Pakistan surely will exact a price from the Americans for receiving Afghan refugees. The price, beyond what the United States already has paid in lifting sanctions on Pakistan for its testing of nuclear weapons, could prove to be billions of dollars in American aid to the military government. That government may also use Afghan refugees against the Taliban, citing their presence as a pretext for helping topple the regime or as a reason to endorse a U.S. land invasion.

Of course, the use of humanitarian aid as a weapon of war is not new. In Rwanda, after the Hutus systematically killed a half a million Tutsis in 1994, Hutu leaders fled to neighboring Zaire (now Congo) and used the safety and resources of U.N. refugee camps to mount further attacks on Tutsi forces. The West ended up protecting killers in the rush to house, feed and clothe refugees.

In 1999, Slobodan Milosevic drove out Muslim Kosovars from southern Serbia partly as a way of raising the costs to the NATO alliance fighting against him. By creating a vast pool of Kosovar refugees, Milosevic hoped to destabilize neighboring Macedonia, where dominant Slavs were already in a tense standoff with minority ethnic Albanians. While Milosevic now awaits trial for war crimes in The Hague, he has left a legacy of strife in Macedonia. Earlier this year, Kosovar refugees (along with Macedonian Albanians) mounted an armed insurrection, launching attacks from the safety of positions inside U.N.-controlled Kosovo.

As Kosovo and Rwanda show, so-called humanitarian crises often confuse the international community and raise troubling moral questionsquestions that should be asked about the current crisis in Afghanistan. Helping Afghan refugees, aid donorsand their agents on the groundmay be helping the Taliban regime either to regroup or stave off annihilation. All this raises doubts about the wisdom of the Bush administration in linking bombs and humanitarian aid so closely. As Doctors Without Borders argues, such a link puts a cloud over independent aid organizations who are less likely to be perceived as impartial actors in the future.

Ultimately, the militarization of humanitarian aid may do precisely what the U.S. public doesnt want: prolong the suffering of refugees, undermine real aid and render the bombing campaign a failure.

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G. Pascal Zachary is the author of the memoir Married to Africa: A Love Story and The Diversity Advantage: Multicultural Identity in the New World Economy. From 1989 to 2001, he was a senior writer for the Wall Street Journal. Zachary has contributed articles to In These Times for more than 20 years and edits the blog Africa Works, about the political economy of sub-Saharan Africa.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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