by Noel Rooney
[ opinion - august 04 ]
Mainstream news reports on Medicins Sans Frontières'decision to withdraw from Afghanistan seem unduly coy about the actual character of the problem. They admit that there is a problem, but hold back from clearly reporting it, its ramifications, or analysing what is in fact an extremely dangerous military gambit.
Instead we get pious reporting which implicitly criticises the NGO for abandoning the situation, and at the same time exonerates the occupying forces; after all, they were only trying to help, apparently - at worst they have been a tad clumsy. This is as far from the truth as a news report can get without changing the subject altogether: CNN stated that "distinctions have been blurred", as if this was an arcane dispute about job descriptions.
The staringly obvious reason why humanitarian workers in a conflict zone must never be "supported" by soldiers is because it militarises the humanitarian workers. Militants can then present them as legitimate targets on the simple if addled ground that if the soldiers are with them, then they must be with the soldiers.
The broader problem which inevitably arises is that the civilian population will become wary of using humanitarian services in case they themselves become targets of militants as nominee collaborators. Their reticence will in turn enable the identification of aid with the enemy forces to take root - and spread - in the longer term as a pernicious but tenacious myth.
One has to ask what advantage accrues to the military from this state of affairs (I'm assuming that this situation is not the result of random acts of kindness by off-duty soldiers, or the misguided whim of a kindly but dim general).
The most naïve analysis is that the military believes that the situation is about to deteriorate substantially, and they are practising a form of pre-emptive security on the uniformed (or simply short-sighted) NGOs.
The more likely - and rather starker - reading is that either the military are planning to launch an indiscriminate offensive, and they are keen to limit the number of independent observers in the zone; or, that they are certain that the election is going to turn into a major bloodbath (one hardly needs to be Tiresias to predict this), and thus ditto the independent observers, but this time in order to disguise the military's lack of action (which some jaundiced observers might easily misinterpret as collusion with the murderous ambitions of the warlords).
As said, the net effect will be that NGOs will be hamstrung in conflict zones; the military will have a much freer hand, with only a tame media circus to negotiate; and the civilian population will be left in even more parlous straits.
The increasing amount of stridently sanctimonious propaganda from in particular the US administration should have alerted us to the fact that things were going to get worse for civilians. First, the hubristic lies about precision bombing (as grimly amusing an oxymoron as military intelligence); and secondly, the outrageous claim that civilian casualties are being consciously minimised (the two fingers crossed behind the back of the spokesperson delivering such a mendacious homily are no doubt tattooed with the words "force" and "protection").
A Martian observer might be forgiven for thinking that what passes for modern warfare is actually a form of industrialised hunting designed to curb excess population growth (culling, of course, is regularly described as a type of humane intervention in the animal world; proof, is needed, that the first requirement of good spin-doctoring is the mastery of irony).
More to the point, if you have a habit of declaring war on abstract or generic nouns, you will need an ersatz enemy to shoot at. To judge from the casualty figures, civilians have been the enemy of choice for roughly a century of horrible wars (isn't this the true meaning of asymmetrical warfare? People with guns attacking those without?) fought largely, by all accounts, on behalf of reluctant pacifists. Abstract warmongers feel little compunction to change a long accepted system.
Business as usual then: innocent civilians as the real victims of war, even when the declared enemy is a drug, or a concept; and a media apparatus which lacks either the brains or the intestinal fortitude to engage honestly with the facts on the ground. One could be left with the weary suspicion that the war industry has it in for us, and that the war media are an integral part of a system which points rhetorical fingers at putative bad guys, and points the guns at you and me.