Right now, the suggestion that the United States should immediately cease its military strikes in Afghanistan and enter into good faith negotiations with the Taliban is not likely to be taken very seriously. You have to be kidding! The Taliban will only hand Osama bin Laden over under the most unacceptable conditions (i.e. they”ll demand that he is tried under Islamic law, etc.).

Paul Wong
Nick Woomer

But if these naysayers would only step back from their unilateralist stance for a moment and think about the potential consequences of George W. Bush ruling out any type of negotiations (including prosecuting bin Laden and his associates under Islamic law), they might just be willing to accept the “unacceptable.”

Right now, the U.S. is headed on a course that will end up avenging the senseless deaths of thousands of Americans by senselessly starving hundreds of thousands or even millions of Afghan refugees to death. In fact, as of tomorrow, the World Food Program estimates that 400,000 people in Afghanistan”s Faryab province will have completely depleted their food supplies.

Bush”s food drops to the Afghan people vigorously criticized in the European press won”t even make a dent in the problem and may even exacerbate it. International hunger relief organizations have said that ground transportation is the best way to deliver the mass quantities of food it will take to feed the 7.5 million Afghans the United Nations estimates require immediate food assistance.

However, by mid-November heavy snowfall will block key mountain passes, making food delivery significantly less efficient. The emerging scenario could be nothing short of nightmarish. Mary Robinson, the UN chief human rights official, has called for a suspension of the attacks so that relief agencies could assist the 2 million Afghans who will starve or freeze to death if aid does not reach them before winter. To put the emerging man-made disaster in perspective, Ray Jordan, relief director for the for the Irish agency GOAL told the Seattle Times on Friday that “while hostilities continue, the (Afghan) people are going to starve The world could be looking at the worst humanitarian tragedy since the Rwanda genocide of 1994.”

At the risk of drawing an inappropriate analogy, I think we would do well to remember what happened when the U.S. demanded Japan”s unconditional surrender in 1945. Howard Zinn, in “A People”s History of the United States” argues compellingly that: “If only the Americans had not insisted on unconditional surrender that is, if they were willing to accept one condition to the surrender, that the Emperor, a holy figure to the Japanese, remain in place the Japanese would have agreed to stop the war.” But the Japanese didn”t surrender unconditionally, so we murdered more than 100,000 civilians in Hiroshima with an atom bomb. Three days later, the U.S. hit Nagasaki an unjustifiable and unforgivable atrocity by any half-cogent moral standard.

It might hurt our unelected president”s feelings to be forced into making a few concessions to the unelected religious fanatics who rule Afghanistan. Too bad. In light of the horrifying alternative, that”s just something America will have to live with if it is to keep the blood of thousands or even millions of innocents off of its collective hands. Moral considerations aside, however, it still makes sense to enter into good faith negotiations with the Taliban to have bin Laden brought to justice.

Not even the most Machiavellian right-wing American policy maker will deny that the U.S.-led attacks have seriously inflamed already strong anti-American sentiments throughout the Muslim world especially among fundamentalist Muslims opposed to Arab and/or Islamic governments friendly to the United States. Thus, attacking Afghanistan destabilizes key strategic regions and invigorates a potentially violent anti-American sentiment in who-knows-how-many radical young Muslim men all over the world. That is not exactly a prescription for a safer world.

So what sensible alternative is there to continuing U.S. military action until the Taliban totally capitulates? First, the U.S. needs to stop insisting that bin Laden is tried in a U.S. court this will only (rightly) arouse international suspicions (especially in the Islamic world) that bin Laden will get a show trial.

The best alternative would be for the U.S. to cease its opposition to the proposed International Criminal Court and try bin Laden in that setting. Another strong possibility, proposed by Anne-Marie Slaughter in Friday”s Financial Times, would be to create an international tribunal that recognizes and incorporates Islamic law. Such a tribunal would restore a sense of legitimacy to the proceedings in the Islamic world and probably make Islamic countries with powerful fundamentalist elements more likely to hand over suspected terrorists. The last possibility, though far from ideal, would be to accept the Taliban”s offer to hand bin Laden over to a neutral country and simply try him there under Islamic law. It is foolish and ethnocentric to assume that because bin Laden is Muslim, he will be let off or even punished less severely by an Islamic court.

All of these are options the U.S. needs to start considering immediately. Mid-November is rapidly approaching, and thousands or even millions of Afghan lives are at stake. We should not be willing to make a trade-off between a preventable human catastrophe on one hand and executing bin Laden in Terre Haute, Ind. on another.

Nick Woomer can be reached via e-mail at nwoomer@umich.edu.

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