Aid for Afghan refugees must be part of the West's campaign against terror

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The world has been slow to respond to the seriousness of the refugee crisis in and around Afghanistan for two reasons. One is the absence of television pictures. It was the footage of the Kosovo refugees gathered helplessly by the roadside on the Macedonian and Albanian borders that galvanised Nato countries into a successful campaign of humanitarian aid. Camps were built and hundreds of thousands of people were fed, watered and given medical treatment. The 1.5 million Afghans estimated to be newly on the move are, by contrast, invisible to the West. The borders are closed and most of the displaced people are still deep inside the country.

The world has been slow to respond to the seriousness of the refugee crisis in and around Afghanistan for two reasons. One is the absence of television pictures. It was the footage of the Kosovo refugees gathered helplessly by the roadside on the Macedonian and Albanian borders that galvanised Nato countries into a successful campaign of humanitarian aid. Camps were built and hundreds of thousands of people were fed, watered and given medical treatment. The 1.5 million Afghans estimated to be newly on the move are, by contrast, invisible to the West. The borders are closed and most of the displaced people are still deep inside the country.

The other reason is the ambiguity felt about the causes of the present crisis. The trigger for it was the attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. Our sympathy and sense of injustice has been first engaged on behalf of the families of the victims in New York and Washington; the emergence of another class of victim of an entirely different kind, thousands of miles away, complicates the moral judgements. Especially when one of the reasons why Afghans are abandoning their homes is their fear of bombing by the US and its allies. Since it is generally agreed that doing nothing about Osama bin Laden's organisation, al-Qa'ida, is not an option, that threat cannot be lifted.

However carefully limited the action against al-Qa'ida and its Taliban protectors might be, and this newspaper is encouraged by the restraint that has been shown by the Bush administration, civilian casualties are inevitable – not least because Mr bin Laden and the Taliban military might use civilians as human shields.

It is not simply the threat of Western bombing from which Afghanistan's refugees are fleeing, however. Many of them are also on the run from the Taliban's press gangs trying to enlist them for service in the "holy war". Widening the aims of the "war against terrorism" to include toppling the Taliban, however, will not only make the refugee problem many times worse but offer little prospect of success. Conducting a proxy war by arming the Northern Alliance is not an easy solution. Attempts by the US to install regimes friendly to the West have a poor track record; that is, after all, how Mr bin Laden came in to Afghanistan in the first place. It would have to be done covertly in any case – any government seen as a US puppet regime in a Muslim country is likely to be unstable.

Dealing with the causes of the refugee crisis, therefore, is not easy, and anyone who claims to know all the answers is probably a fool. As with the struggle against fundamentalist Islamic terrorism, the humanitarian effort to help the refugees is likely to be a long one. But, as Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, said yesterday, it needs to be pursued with the same urgency as the attempt to bring the terrorists to justice.

It will be expensive to provide Iran, Pakistan and other neighbouring countries with the help they need to persuade them to open their borders to let the refugees in. But the money must be found. To be fair, Ms Short and Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, have already provided substantial new amounts. Germany yesterday pledged extra funds. The US is likely to follow suit. Western nations need to back this up by restating their willingness to provide safe haven for Afghans seeking political asylum.

It seems that, thankfully, the war against terrorism will be fought in a thoughtful way. With this week's arrests, the first figurative shots in that war have been fired. It is to be hoped that the next phase will be conducted with equally little collateral damage.

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