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Embracing Afghan Refugees

September 19, 2001



With the possibility of a US military strike on Afghanistan, many people from that already war-ravaged country are seeking safety in Pakistan, Iran, and other neighboring nations. The United States and its allies should consider the plight of these refugees, even as they consider striking at Osama bin Laden and the Taliban government that has helped protect him.

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The latest flight of Afghans is adding to the millions already in camps in nearby countries or those previously displaced inside the country. A US move to shelter, feed, and protect these innocent people makes sense not only from a humanitarian standpoint, but politically and strategically. too.

That helping hand could win needed hearts and minds within the very base that terrorists thrive on.

It could also send a message to the broader Muslim world that the US is indeed concerned about the well-being of Muslims caught in the anti-terrorism crossfire. Addressing the needs of refugees, whether in Afghanistan or in the ever-simmering Palestinian camps in Lebanon, Gaza, or Jordan, is a reasonable step against terrorism. These disaffected populations often spawn extremism.

At the request of the US, Pakistan has closed its western border to the fleeing. That could impede efforts to help the refugees.

Afghanistan's string of recent wars already has produced the largest number of refugees in the world - some 3.6 million. Some 900,000 Afghans are internally displaced - the result of a draught and continued fighting between the Taliban and its opponents. The numbers are numbing. But, like those who died in the Sept. 11 attacks, each one represents a story, and a tragedy.

The US can immediately offer humanitarian aid through various relief agencies in the region. Better security screening of refugees can take place so that those seeking to leave Afghanistan for a better life can have a chance to do so.

The US helped rescue Afghanistan from Soviet occupation in the 1980s by supporting the mujahideen armed resistance (including Mr. bin Laden), but then it abandoned the country after the Soviets left. The Afghans remember that, and militant Islamic leaders use that to show how the West treats Muslims. In this new tragedy lies an opportunity to make amends and also thwart terrorists.

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