David Aaronovitch: None of us like bombing but there really is no alternative

'Could CND not see any validity in the argument that failure to act might lead to other acts of terror?'
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In situations like the one we're in, a lot of people (though not Independent readers) believe what they want to believe. I had rather an acrimonious run-in with some leading CND members during a fringe meeting at the Labour Party conference a fortnight ago. At the end of the discussion, as most people hurried to the bar, one of the CND group took me to task for suggesting that the eternally venal United States had intervened in Bosnia for largely humanitarian reasons. "I have been told that they did it," he said, "because Turkey was about to send troops to Bosnia".

God knows where that one came from. There was no time, unfortunately, to get out the maps and show him the impossibility of this threat: the necessary violations of Greek air-space, the logistical problems of shipping troops across the Aegean and up the Adriatic, or overland via Bulgaria and an invasion of Serbia. Nevertheless this illusion played quite an important part in maintaining this man's faith that America was always wrong.

But he seemed sincere, and he probably did love peace. It is interesting how, despite disagreements, in this country at any rate, we have avoided insulting each other. Those who believe that there must be a military component in the battle against terrorism have not – on the whole – been labelled as mad-eyed, gung-ho militarists. And despite the inevitable cries of "debate is being stifled!" on the left, those who marched against the bombing have not been characterised as limp-wristed fainthearts or fifth column terror-symps. It wasn't so civilised during the Falklands War, I tell my children (who have never heard of Port Stanley or General Galtieri). These days you don't hear much about the Enemy Within.

That's good. My quarrel with the peace movement is not that their concerns are misplaced, but that they abdicate from taking responsibility for the potential consequences of their preferred strategies. One of the most popular CND slogans at the moment is "not in my name". Addressing last weekend's peace demonstration in London, Darren Johnson, leader of the Green group on the Greater London Assembly, told demonstrators: "There are thousands and thousands of us here today for peace and justice. The messages here are very simple – stop the bombing of Afghanistan, end the war now."

The chairperson of CND, Carol Naughton, was quoted as saying: "We're here because there are thousands of people across Britain who know that the bombing of Afghanistan is not going to put an end to terrorism."

What she didn't say is that there is no one in Britain who thinks that bombing will put an end to terrorism. These are indeed simple messages for an incredibly complex problem. Nor did she or Mr Johnson, as far as I can tell, ever address the consequences of inactivity. Could she really not see any validity whatsoever in the argument that a failure to act might lead to similar acts of terror? Could they not envisage those states (which most certainly do exist) that have permitted, encouraged or tolerated the planning of acts of terror, being in some way intimidated by the coalition's actions in Afghanistan? And if anyone feels like answering this question, could they also tell me whether they accept that the evidence of al-Qa'ida's involvement in the American massacres is pretty overwhelming? Do they not think that this organisation would carry out further operations? And do they really believe that action against such a group should wait through the long interim while humanity improves itself, the Palestinian question is resolved and India and Pakistan come to agree about Kashmir?

In the meantime those of us who lend our support to the coalition have some hard questions to answer as well. Not least those posed by the aid organisations, who asked this week for the bombing to be suspended so aid could get through. How much suffering are we prepared to cause indirectly to the innocent in order to achieve our goals? And in inflicting this suffering, how much trouble are we laying up for the future?

Oxfam et al, much though we may esteem them, don't have to answer some of the hard questions about the future of Afghanistan. They will have made no calculations about whether a pause would allow the Taliban to regroup, or destabilise Pakistan, or delay a much-needed new dispensation in Afghanistan, or indeed mean that there would eventually have to be twice as much bombing. Their sole (and almost solipsistic) concern is getting more aid to more people now.

But if it were true that the bombing itself was responsible for food not getting to millions of Afghans, and that many thousands were likely to die as a consequence, then the calculation would have to change. Under those circumstances the cure would be worse than the disease. Better another attack killing hundreds than an avoidable famine killing hundreds of thousands. So far, however, Clare Short has been clear that we are not faced with that choice; food is either getting in, or where it is not the bombing is not a major contributory factor.

So what about the bombing? Vietnam it isn't. There are no B52 carpet bombings of inhabited areas, no napalming of villages, no Agent Orange being sprayed over the sparse vegetation. But there are errors. Bombs hit the wrong targets, or the targets turn out not to be what intelligence suggested they were. Arms procurement agencies transform themselves, horribly, into Chinese embassies. Taliban compounds turn into mud villages with kids in them. When they do people are blown to pieces or maimed, lose their children or their parents, are driven mad. You may try to minimise the number of people whose lives are destroyed, but as long as you drop bombs, fire missiles or shoot machine guns, someone innocent will get hurt, and we will see their scorched flesh and stumps on our screens.

CND has argued that "the bombing of Afghanistan is not 'proportionate, targeted or limited'. It is extensive and prolonged and looks likely to be followed by ground invasion and possibly incursions into other countries." CND is wrong. There's no evidence of "mission creep" and the truth, of course, is that proportionate, targeted and limited campaigns also kill, they just kill less.

And they take a long time. We may have hoped that there'd be an air raid or two followed by the collapse of the Taliban and the appearance, from a US helicopter in Uzbekistan, of a bound and trussed bin Laden, en route for trial in America. We didn't want pictures of flattened houses and burning food warehouses. Forget "all over by Christmas", we want it to be done and dusted by Halloween. Let's just hope (we think) that the politicians were being over-cautious with their stuff about the "long haul".

I cannot see an alternative to the three-pronged military-diplomatic-humanitarian strategy, vague though it is. Unless it is shutting up shop, closing the borders, chucking out foreigners and then crossing our fingers and hoping that the world will go away. Which it probably won't.