Time for a humanitarian halt

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President Bush has faced numerous tough challenges in the past two months. Now, as the snows start to close in on the mountain roads of Afghanistan, here is another one for him: Does he have the moral toughness and vision to call for an urgent halt to hostilities, and the launching of a worldwide campaign to save the lives of millions of Afghan civilians now threatened by a deadly combination of winter and war?

Americans and our leaders have never - and this needs stressing - intended any harm to the noncombatants of Afghanistan. But even without our intending it, the mustering and use of American military power have helped inflict serious harm on a civilian population already weakened by 23 years of war and three years of drought.

As military tensions mounted after Sept. 11, the aid groups on whom 6 million Afghans rely for their daily bread had to suspend nearly all the truck convoys planned for the crucial few weeks before snow blocks key mountain passes.

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A number of American bombs have killed civilians and smashed vital civilian infrastructure, including Red Cross food depots. Such "collateral" damage was foreseeable, given the massive scale of the bombing, the high altitudes from which it was conducted, and the paucity of intelligence about the facts on the ground.

Now, one month into the American campaign, Bush faces tough choices and much conflicting advice. But he should be prepared to examine all available options - and to do so through the tight lens of the well-being of Afghanistan's extremely vulnerable and hard-pressed families. Such a focus would be quite in line with the horror and grief we all felt when thousands of our own people, here in America, were harmed - deliberately - on Sept. 11.

What can America do to reduce the harm suffered by civilians in Afghanistan? Diplomats from NATO nations are reportedly eager to help transport aid supplies into the country. But aid experts stress that, to be successful, such an operation needs hostilities to stop. It probably also needs supervision by a mutually accepted neutral body. President Bush should therefore issue a serious call for a humanitarian cease-fire, and the urgent launching of such an aid operation.

Of course, the cease-fire proposal raises questions. Who could broker it? Is there any chance the Taliban would respond positively? What kind of "rules" might regulate it? And what effect would it have on the efforts to bring the Al Qaeda leadership to justice, and to punish the Taliban for having harbored them?

On the question of who could broker a humanitarian cease-fire, there would be several possibilities. The International Committee of the Red Cross, based in Geneva, has a long record in organizing such cease-fires. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan would also be a good candidate. Some Muslim organizations or individuals might also be invited to help the negotiation.

Might the Taliban agree? Yes, there's a chance. On Nov. 5, their representative in Pakistan urged the UN to step up its aid programs in Afghanistan. (One UN spokesman noted in reply that UN agencies had their vehicles stolen, their offices taken over, and their staff beaten in Afghanistan in recent weeks. Evidently, negotiating a humanitarian cease-fire will take much diplomatic skill!) But even if the Taliban would not agree to a negotiated cease-fire, the president should seriously consider a unilateral halt.

What kind of "rules" might regulate a negotiated cease-fire? Given the broad dispersal and extreme nature of hardship in Afghanistan, the best cease-fire would be one that covers the entire country, and that does not have an endpoint. What kinds of military movements are allowed is always a tricky point. But Washington will maintain an impressive strategic superiority in the broader region around Afghanistan, and need not insist on being allowed to deploy additional "advisers" into the country during the cease-fire.

Finally, what effect would such a cease-fire have on the broader campaign against global terror?

I am convinced it would significantly strengthen the overall campaign. The record of the bombing has been mixed. It has expressed American grief and rage over the September attacks, and it has punished the Taliban to a considerable (if not, as some have wanted, to a terminal) degree. But it has not brought in Osama bin Laden or any other Al Qaeda leaders. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has even admitted that Mr. bin Laden and his colleagues might have left Afghanistan.

If so, why are we still bombing the country? And especially, when the main casualties of our bombing will be - through the continued disruption of aid shipments, as well as "collateral damage" - Afghan families, rather than the Taliban? And why is anyone even thinking about ground operations, in a country of Afghanistan's topography and history - and just at the onset of another paralyzing Afghan winter?

We need to keep our eye firmly on the goal of combating terrorism. And, as Clausewitz would have reminded us, any military operations should be firmly subordinated to that broader political goal.

The president and his advisers told us from the get-go that this antiterror campaign will take a long time, and will require the use of many nonmilitary means. All those nonmilitary efforts - the careful police work, the gathering and analysis of information from around the world - will continue. Indeed, in the climate of increased goodwill toward America that a humanitarian cease-fire could engender, that work may well be even more successful than it has been to date.

The onset of Ramadan, next week, makes these geopolitical dimensions more urgent. But with or without Ramadan, calling for an urgent humanitarian cease-fire - and, if necessary, initiating a unilateral halt in hostilities - is the smart thing to do.

In today's world, we are indeed "dependent on the kindness of others." And they, too, on ours.

Helena Cobban is a veteran journalist and author of five books on international issues.

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