“Daily News” to Afghani Children: Drop Dead!

by Andy Pollack

[The author is a trade union activist and Labor Party member in New York City. This is an edited version of a letter he sent to the New York Daily News on October 13, 2001.]

I can be so naïve before the first coffee of the day awakens my brain. This morning I saw the following headline in today’s Daily News—“Schools, Parents Divided On Dollars for Afghan Kids; Bush’s plea to U.S. children stirs instant debate.” My first thought was, “Finally, there’ll be quotes from someone exposing the hypocrisy of Bush’s ‘humanitarian’ propaganda ploys.” When I heard Bush’s appeal to kids in the U.S. to send dollars for aid to Afghani children I was outraged, because it is the U.S. government that created the situation in which millions of Afghani civilians of all ages face starvation.

First, because the government, in our name, turned Afghanistan into a battleground for 20 years by arming fundamentalist gangs which, after routing the Soviet army, turned on each other. And after having financed and armed all sides in the brutal civil war that ensued, our government walked away from Afghanistan, which descended into anarchy, disrupting food production and creating millions of refugees.

Second, because our government’s current bombing of Afghanistan has prevented humanitarian agencies from doing their job and has drastically worsened the food crisis. Agencies such as Doctors without Borders have pointed out that the coupling of bombs and food drops makes the work of relief groups more difficult; that the tens of thousands of food packets dropped (often into minefields) is a tiny portion of the aid that’s needed; that the bombing creates hundreds of thousands more refugees needing immediate food assistance; and that the only efficient means to bring the massive amounts of food needed are not tiny airdrops but massive, immediate truck convoys—convoys made impossible by the bombing and the closure of borders which followed.

That’s why media critic Norman Solomon drew this conclusion: “The Pentagon’s air drops of food parcels and President Bush’s plea for American children to aid Afghan kids with dollar bills will go down in history as two of the most cynical maneuvers of media manipulation in the early 21st century.”

As Solomon reports, “Relief workers have voiced escalating alarm. Jonathan Patrick, an official with the humanitarian aid group Concern, minced no words. He called the food drops ‘absolute nonsense. What we need is 20-ton trucks in huge convoys going across the border all the time,’ said Patrick, based in Islamabad. But when the bombing began, the truck traffic into Afghanistan stopped.

“In tandem with the bombing campaign, the U.S. government launched a PR blitz about its food-from-the-sky effort. But the Nobel-winning French organization Doctors Without Borders has charged that the gambit is ‘virtually useless and may even be dangerous.’ One aid group after another echoes the assessment. The U.S. has been dropping 37,000 meals a day on a country where several million Afghans face the imminent threat of starvation. Some of the food, inevitably, is landing on minefields.

“The food drops began on Sunday, Oct. 7, simultaneously with the start of the bombing. ‘As of Thursday, a Pentagon spokeswoman said more than 137,000 of the yellow-packaged rations had been dropped,’ the Knight-Ridder News Service reported on Oct. 12. ‘International aid organization officials say, however, that around 5 million Afghans are in danger of starvation because the nation’s borders are sealed and food supplies are diminishing by the day—meaning that only a tiny percentage of the hungry are receiving the U.S. food.’ The borders are sealed because of the continuous bombing.”

None of these points, unfortunately, were touched on in today’s Daily News. What’s worse, the theme of the article is that the U.S. may be giving too much aid to starving Afghanis!

One teacher is quoted saying: “This is war. Food is a powerful tool, and I don’t think the President is using the tool properly. We should tell the Afghans: We will feed you if you become an ally and get rid of your government. You want to be fed? Then you have to be on our side.”

This callous advice to a people upon whom our government imposed the fundamentalist Taliban in the first place!

Others complained that aid to Afghanis should come after aid to World Trade Center victims: “‘When we’ve raised that money [for WTC victims], we’ll take up money for the children in Afghanistan,’ said Gloria Mendez, assistant principal at St. Paul Community Christian School in East New York, Brooklyn.”

Another made the same counterposition: “‘It is something to consider. But we have children who lost parents in the World Trade Center attacks. Sometimes charity needs to start at home,’ said one principal.”

Some students had more empathy (and I have to assume that the Daily News editors edited out more comments like these):

“Ten-year-old Anik Ahmed, part of PS 20’s large Bangladeshi population, said, ‘There are many good people there who are not involved in this, and who would help us if we were hungry.’ Afghans were being brutalized by their own government and deserved help, Anik said, adding: ‘The Taliban is beating up people, beating up ladies who don’t wear scarves. They need food and help.’

“Eleven-year-old Laura Cruz agreed. ‘The children there didn’t bomb us. We should help families who need it. They can’t help where they live.’”

I believe that if fully informed of the depths of the humanitarian crisis facing Afghanis—and the role of the U.S. government in creating it--the majority of people in our country would agree with Anik and Laura and not with the cynical, “I’ve got mine, Jack” attitudes of the others quoted.

Getting that information through, unfortunately, means going up against a government, and its media allies, who are perfectly willing to use mass starvation as a policy tool. Listen, for instance, to the response of then Secretary of State Madeline Albright when queried about the deaths of Iraqi children because of our sanctions. Leslie Stahl of “60 Minutes” said to Albright: “We have heard that a half million children have died… and you know, is the price worth it?” To which Albright replied: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it.”

I don’t believe the majority of Americans, if they knew the facts about Afghanistan or Iraq, would think “the price is worth it.” I also believe that as the war aggravates the recession, and many more are added to the hundreds of thousands of U.S. airline, restaurant, and other workers recently laid off—at the same time as the rich get more tax breaks and corporations get more subsidies—the American people will begin to inquire what we have in common with people in other countries and how we can all help each other.

I’m not counting on the Daily News, however, to help get that information across.