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Tuesday, 30 October, 2001, 08:43 GMT
War View: 'Our guns can help to get aid through'
It's not a question of stopping the fighting to let humanitarian aid through, says Colonel Bob Stewart, a former Nato commander in Bosnia. The coalition forces must use their military might to aid to Afghanistan's needy.

Seven weeks ago few of us would have heard that so many Afghans were likely to die from starvation this winter.

Humanitarian professionals may have realised that four million people there may starve but most people in Britain would not. How things have changed since 11 September.

Only what the Americans call 'boots on the soil' which remain there can have real impact

International compassion has a direct relationship to distance and identification. Something that happens thousands of miles away or in places with which we have little direct relationship is much easier to stomach than events closer to home.

That is partly why Europeans are quite so interested in the Balkans to the exclusion of events in other places such as Rwanda. But Afghanistan is very close to the Middle East and what happens there is of intense concern to the Islamic World.

Rightly or wrongly, throughout the Muslim World a perception is growing that the refugee crisis may be a direct result of Western actions and specifically bombing.

If these feelings grow and, worse still, a belief that Afghan lives are worth much less that those of westerners, then we are in deep trouble. Our actions must disprove this.

Reluctant drivers

Getting food across the border, down very difficult routes and into towns such as Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad is difficult enough at the best of times.

Some humanitarian convoys are managing to crawl their way through the passes into Afghanistan carrying food, clothing and shelter but it is a minute amount compared to the need.

There is no contradiction in soldiers fighting and handing out food at the same time

So much depends on the steadfastness of the truck drivers, many of whom, it is reported, are unwilling to drive into Afghanistan, believing all sides will target them.

It is crucial for military forces to create a 'climate' in which humanitarian aid missions can function.

From the start of this crisis I have hoped the Allies would put soldiers quickly into Afghanistan. Only what the Americans call 'boots on the soil' which remain there can have real impact pinning down Bin Laden or stopping hunger.

Of course our military action must be targeted directly at Al-Qaeda and Taleban forces. That is the main mission. But military power is also vital to the humanitarian effort.

Lessons from Bosnia

Distributing aid in a war zone such as Afghanistan needs military sponsorship even if many in the non-governmental organisations may not like it.

Stopping people starving must be a central tenet of military action

There is no contradiction in soldiers fighting and handing out food or medicines at the same time. That is effectively what my soldiers had to do in Bosnia during 1992-93.

For us it was normal to have powdered milk alongside shells in our vehicles. We went to places where aid agencies could never have gone and saw mothers mixing flour with water to make baby milk.

Military Aid to the Civil Community is a standard part of military operations.

The Americans realise this. They have already established a centre to 'de-conflict' the disparate requirements of the military campaign and the need to get aid through in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Think of the long-term

It has not had much success yet but I reckon its effect will grow rapidly in the coming weeks.

Stopping people starving in Afghanistan must be a central tenet of overt military action. Military force may blaze the way in but food, medicine and clothing must be close behind.

Guns with aid alongside them would also work well in keeping international public opinion behind what is happening.

In the long-term today's wars are only won if people who live nearby support the outcome. Getting the way we deal with the people of Afghanistan right is fundamental to whether the place rises up once more as a centre for international terrorism.

You can add your comments to this or other personal opinions we are publishing during the current situation. Add them using the form below.

I agree with your report. I still remember doing the same thing in Viet Nam. We must help the common folks, but first we must defeat those who have created this war; otherwise no one, in any country will be safe.
Bill Shields, USA

Humanitarian aid must be non-governmental and non-militarily affliated or else the aid becomes another weapon of foreign policy. Aid workers must be allowed to do their job without being targetted because they represent the military regime that supplies them. Please get your jobs seperated: be in the army or in the aid business, not both.
Paul Robertson, United Kingdom

Once again we hear 100% common sense coming from a man who has experienced military action at first hand. Will some of the politicians making the decisions please listen to these people? On the one hand we have Bush and Blair foolishly pledging "crusades" and "a war on terrorism" without any personal military experience. On the other hand we have experienced veterans of past battles, such as Bob Stewart and Colin Powell, who urge caution, forward planning and a long-term view. Ask yourself: which ones really know what they are talking about?
Jon, UK

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