The Ugly American
Elation over the Northern Alliance’s march toward Kabul obscures America’s real gain in the war on terrorism: responsibility for 7 million starving Afghan refugees. Our horrific cluster bombs and missiles have driven these people to the borders of their country, where they stand begging to get out. If for no other reason than to keep up appearances, the Bush administration will have to feed and clothe them, provide them with shelter, and protect them for years to come.
As a writer with Working for Change put it, the 7 million are three times the number of people Pol Pot killed and 35 times the number who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Or look at it this way: A twin towers tragedy every day for almost four years. We get to start the century by defending ourselves from charges of genocide.
Shielding the refugees from the marauding Taliban and tribal fighting led by the U.S.-backed thugs of the Northern Alliance will almost surely necessitate a long-term commitment of American ground forces in Central Asia. You can’t run the place from the air, and the Northern Alliance can’t run it at all. So over the next decade or so, Afghanistan will be dotted with U.S. and British firebase charlies—forts set up to protect ourselves from a tenacious local enemy. Didn’t work for us in Vietnam. Didn’t work for the Brits in Northern Ireland. Sure as hell won’t work here. And as we antagonize more and more Muslims, we’ll be fending off jihad attacks from all over the place.
Citing the toll in human misery, some liberals criticize the war on purely humanitarian grounds, which has no effect on Bush’s conservative government. The more surprising opposition is on the right, among the military experts who advocate a leaner, faster guerrilla-style attack. They believe the campaign should be run by the Special Forces, without the meddling of conventional warriors. They think commanding general Tommy Franks is a know-nothing artillery officer and laugh at the mention of B-52s flying high-altitude bombing runs from bases in the States.
Most of all, the guerrilla lobby’s scorn is concentrated on the military industrial complex, which they see getting rich while the best of the Special Forces are exposed to the Pentagon’s cockeyed maneuvers. These former Green Beret officers won’t openly criticize Bush, but they are sick over what’s going on, especially what’s happening to the Delta Force. This is the elite group of highly trained troops who slip into a country and spend as long as a year planning their attack. They operate on their own, develop their own intelligence, then strike and get out. The Delta Force is a bit like the OSS working quietly behind German lines in World War II, except that here they’re being dropped into battle zones.
The U.S. is spending a fortune blasting hillsides and abandoned training camps with the most advanced conventional weapons available. With the war already costing $1 billion a month—compared to the annual defense budget of between $250 billion and $300 billion—the Defense Department aims to add an initial $12.8 billion to repair the Pentagon and pay for all these bombs. We’d flown 1800 sorties as of last weekend, at an estimated price of $1 million apiece. Chris Hellman, senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information, a liberal think tank in Washington that tracks the military, estimates the daily cost of the bombing missions runs anywhere from $40 million to $50 million. Add to that the burden of three carriers steaming offshore to the tune of $2.7 million a day.
None of this includes the weight of homeland defense, with double and triple stepped-up security, active-duty troops from the National Guard, bailouts for industry, and the response to anthrax attacks. This is supposed to be a war on terrorism, and we have to ask whether we’re winning. With billions already spent and more to come, what have we got? One nation where the tide of refugees never stops rising, and another jolted awake with every bump in the night.
Afghanistan’s Huddled Masses
The Lost Colony
What kind of colony have we obtained in Afghanistan? With a per-capita annual income of $800, Afghanistan is one of the very poorest countries in the world. Forty-two percent of its 26.8 million people are under the age of 14, and 147 of its infants die for each 1000 live births. Afghans have a life expectancy of 46 years. About a third of the population over 15 can read, although 85 percent lack any sort of formal education. Among women, who’ve been kicked out of schools by the Taliban, the literacy rate drops to 15 percent.
Fifty percent of the people speak a Persian dialect called Dari. There are 30 more minor languages. The country has 29,000 telephones, 167,000 radios, 100,000 TVs, and more land mines than any other nation.
During the Soviet war, 6 million people fled to the borders of Pakistan and Iran, with half that number still there.
Traditionally, over half the people are subsistence farmers, but the war destroyed what there was of irrigation systems, and the current drought has made conditions worse than ever. The one bright economic spot in Afghanistan has been its position as the world’s leading producer of opium poppies. And despite popular myth, the Taliban stamped out poppy growing, leaving the Afghan farmers even more destitute and driving the production into land held by the Northern Alliance, who of course we’re supporting.
U.S. Drops Bigger Bombs on Darker People
U.S. propaganda portrays Al Qaeda and the Taliban as one and the same—a gang of dark-skinned subhuman monsters who must be squashed like cockroaches, by any means necessary. This is exactly how American propaganda depicted the Japanese in World War II—little yellow guys who lost their equilibrium at night. The white Germans, on the other hand, were viewed as just like us: clearheaded, tough, clean fighters.
To get rid of these nasty tan bugs, we’re hitting them with everything we’ve got. We can’t use nuclear weapons—at least not yet, so the next best thing is the Daisy Cutter. The world’s biggest conventional bomb, the Daisy Cutter weighs 15,000 pounds and costs $27,318 a shot. Originally used to clear jungle for chopper pads in Vietnam, the bomb was later employed as an antipersonnel weapon there and in the Gulf War. The U.S. military has 225 of these rigs.
The Daisy Cutter is basically a big drum filled to the brim with an assortment of relatively inexpensive explosives. Dropped from 6000 feet by parachute so the pilot can escape, the bomb detonates about three feet off the ground with a terrifying concussion. Do-gooders portray the Daisy Cutter as a weapon of mass destruction, but the military views it as a psy-ops weapon, calculated to scare the hell out of enemy troops.
Soviet Nukes Give D.C. Big Squeeze
From Russia With Love
All last week Washington resounded with administration scare tactics. First there was a national terrorist alert, issued despite objections from the FBI staff. Then came a growing undercurrent of concern over runaway Russian nuclear weapons.
Here’s what we really know about these weapons: The Russians had 84 suitcase bombs, compact explosives weighing about 70 pounds, says nuclear theft expert Matthew Bunn of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Some of them may be missing. John Eldredge of Jane’s Intelligence Review told the Voice that British and U.S. intelligence see the missing suitcase bombs as the result of “inadvertent commerce or paper accounting errors.” But no one, including Russia, knows for sure. A terrorist could hide a suitcase bomb just about anywhere—in luggage left at a train station, in the back of a truck parked near the Capitol, or on the deck of a pleasure boat cruising up the Potomac. The resulting blast would have a circumference of half a mile, and a Chernobyl-like radioactive effect across the city.
“You’re talking about a bomb, a device with a capability of one kiloton of destruction, which . . . would cause severe destruction of a major inner-city area, perhaps causing a multitude of buildings to collapse with the people inside of them,” Congressman Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania told PBS two years ago. “So you’d have a massive loss of life, you’d have massive radioactive contamination, and you’d have massive havoc, unlike any that we’ve prepared for in the past.”
Despite such horrifying scenarios, U.S. officials are more worried about small nuclear artillery shells that aren’t accounted for. You could shoot one of these out of a gun or drop them like bombs from small planes. The U.S. stopped producing these shells long ago, and they were believed to have all been dismantled. However, one type proved difficult to destroy, and nearly 300 of these are still around. No one knows how many shells are in the Russian inventory. They were supposed to be mothballed by 2000 under a gentleman’s agreement, but when Joshua Handler, a Princeton expert on the subject, spoke with a Russian general a few months ago, the general “dodged” his questions. “Several dozen, hundreds, or thousands may exist in storage,” Handler said.
Additional reporting: Meritxell Mir and Sarah Park