Is the Red Cross our enemy?

BY AMER G. ZAHR
The Progressive Pen
Published October 29, 2001

We have now hit the International Red Cross facility in Kabul twice. Both bombings, according to the Pentagon, were "inadvertent." But many of the stories that have emerged seem to tell a different story. A quick examination reveals some disturbing truths. An Oct. 17 CNN headline read "U.S. admits mistakenly targeting Red Cross warehouse." "Mistakenly targeting" seems to mean it was on the list of facilities to be hit, i.e., it was indeed targeted. In this bombing, the main building, which contained blankets, tarpaulins and plastic sheeting, was destroyed. A second building containing food supplies caught fire and was partially damaged.

Paul Wong
Nine-month-old Max Jones of Benton Harbor picks out a pumpkin at Jollay Orchards in Coloma.<br><br>LESLIE WARD/Daily

But the Pentagon also commented that the "warehouses were among a series of warehouses targeted by U.S. forces because the Taliban used them for storage of military equipment U.S. forces did not know that ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) was using one or more of the warehouses."

A statement issued from the ICRC noted that there were no military activities going on at the Kabul compound, stating that they were in a good enough position to know whether the Taliban was using the buildings. The ICRC also noted that the compound marked all of its buildings with a huge painted red cross clearly visible from aircraft. British Defense Ministry sources stated that while the strike of the Red Cross warehouse in the Kabul was "regrettable," the compound that was hit housed Taliban guards and military equipment. Amidst the bombing of the warehouses, Afghan workers were running in and out of the burning building in order to salvage as much of the supplies as possible, supplies, as one can imagine, that are desperately needed by the populations of Kabul and surrounding areas.

After the first attack, U.S. forces again hit the compound just a few days ago on October 26. The BBC reported that U.S. jets "mistakenly bombed six warehouses, destroying vital stocks of food. Two of the warehouses hit this time were struck last time around." A furious Mario Musa, the spokesman for the ICRC, told reporters, "It has happened again Huge explosions took place and three of our warehouses are on fire now." The compounds hit on Friday contained food, blankets and other material that was to be distributed to thousands of Kabul residents. Musa also stated that all involved parties knew the locations of the ICRC facilities. As one local Red Cross worker told an Associated Press reporter, "I am sad. We had special programs over the next several days to distribute these items to the disabled people."

Meanwhile, worldwide aid agencies are pleading for a temporary halt on air strikes so that food supplies can be distributed before winter sets in. According to their estimates, two million Afghans need donated food to help them get through the winter, and half a million of them will be cut off by snow if aid doesn"t reach them by mid-November. A statement issued by a conglomerate of private aid agencies noted that the "current rate of food deliveries and distribution is inadequate to supply enough food by mid-November" and that "all the obstacles to those food deliveries must be lifted." Further, many of these agencies have indicated that U.S. drops of food rations achieve very little if no clearance is given to food agencies to thoroughly distribute the food.

What is most striking from these reports concerning aid agencies, and the double bombing of the ICRC facilities in particular, is that U.S. forces in fact intended to hit the Red Cross complex. In other words, military gains outweighed humanitarian concerns.

What, though, would be the motives behind striking humanitarian facilities and therefore greatening the suffering of the quite innocent and disenfranchised Afghan population? Perhaps it is the same misguided formulation that has gone into ten years of economic sanctions on the civilian population of Iraq, killing about one and a half million people, including over 600,000 children. The U.S. is probably hoping that increasing the suffering of the everyday Afghan man, woman, and child will lessen the dictatorial hold of the Taliban. Dropping packets of food where they cannot be distributed amply seems to be a cynical ploy to divert attention from that objective.

But, just as in Iraq, such policies will fail. Starving the Afghan population will only strengthen the hold of the Taliban, allowing them to transform, much like Saddam Hussein does, the deep physical suffering of their people into a vehemently anti-American propaganda campaign.

Amer G Zahr can be reached at zahrag@umich.edu.