Chris Buckley: To punish innocent Afghans would be immoral

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I have just returned from Afghanistan, and cannot avoid a growing feeling of dread at what may be about to befall the people I have left behind. The bellicose statements being issued by America and her allies about revenge and retaliation for Tuesday's horrific terrorist attacks against New York and Washington seem to be softening up Western electorates for some kind of massive military action against the Afghan people.

Because of these threats, aid organisations have been forced to pull out their foreign workers – fearing either that they may be caught in the expected raids, or that they would be attacked because they are Westerners after the Nato bombers have flown away. The effects of this withdrawal could be infinitely more tragic and devastating than the worst that a wounded America may throw at this troubled, long-suffering country.

For, although it has gone largely unreported, Afghanistan is in the grip of a three-year drought and on the verge of mass starvation. Figures from the UN-run World Food Programme claim that, by the end of the year, 5.5 million people will be entirely dependent on food aid to survive the hard winter – that's a quarter of the population. As the Christian Aid programme officer responsible for Afghanistan, I have been helping to supply food and seeds to communities in desperate need. In a few weeks, the winter snows will come, cutting off the hundreds of isolated villages whose only links to the outside world are rutted dirt tracks. Without seeds, they will be unable to replant for next year. Without food aid now, thousands could be dead before the spring.

Already fears on the ground about this pending catastrophe are filtering through. Only yesterday, I received this message from one of the local organisations funded by Christian Aid: "What will happen to the people if aid agencies remain reluctant to resume full operations? The consequences are quite clear that people who are already suffering would be the victims. And if any military action is taken, Afghan staff and civilians will be in real danger.

"Terrorism is the worst thing and it shows how blind these people are as human beings. But if the leaders do not have patience and tolerance, they can only do further damage."

This, I think you must agree, is not a voice from a country of dedicated international terrorists or religious fanatics. But it is a voice from the real Afghanistan, unrecognisable from the demonised image we are constantly being urged to accept.

The real Afghanistan is one where 85 per cent of the population are subsistence farmers. Most Afghans don't have newspapers, television sets or radios. They will not have heard of the World Trade Centre or the Pentagon, and most will have no idea that a group of zealots has attacked these icons of western civilisation. There isn't even a postal service.

Now, in these isolated villages, many families are down to their last few weeks of food and, already, men women and children in the bulging refugee camps are dying of cholera and malnutrition. I have spoken to orphans with swollen bellies. I have spoken to men who have no money to hire trucks to escape the drought and make it to the camps. I have spoken to families who say they will wait in their villages for death. And that was even before the aid agencies were forced to withdraw.

Afghans are not willing victims – they are hardy people, as any Soviet general will testify. For the past three years, they have been doing all they can to survive – sharing food, borrowing money to buy food, crossing the borders with Pakistan and Iran to find illegal, badly-paid work. Many used to work on the opium farms as casual labourers but the work is scarce.

All these sources of income have gradually dried up. Pakistan and Iran are throwing thousands of Afghans out each month, the Taliban have banned opium production and there is no food or credit to be had after three years of stifling drought.

As I write this, our worst fears have been realised. I have just received the following message from a friend who works for another of our partner organisations in western Afghanistan. He writes: "I hope you are fine. We have spoken to the World Food Programme in Herat, and asked them to release food so we can distribute it to our beneficiaries who are in severe need. But WFP has stopped their activities right now. Could you please see if it is possible to get the release from WFP?"

That is a real cry for help. Other friends there have stressed the need for the world to adopt a comprehensive approach to the terrorist threat – addressing the underlying causes of this terrifying phenomenon rather than just seeking to extract revenge.

Let me be clear and straightforward about this. The murder of thousands of innocent Americans has shocked and appalled us all. But any military action which disrupts the flow of aid to millions of equally innocent Afghans would be equally immoral.

The writer is the Afghanistan programme officer of Christian Aid