The horrors that have been sprung upon the world since September 11 have come with a rapidity that threatens to overwhelm the capacity of the imagination to respond, not to speak of the capacity of governments to frame policies that make sense.

No sooner had the Trade Center fallen and the Pentagon been attacked than the United States was declaring war; no sooner had the United States declared war than it was at war; no sooner was the United States at war than someone was attacking the United States with "weapons-grade" anthrax. The fifth week of the crisis has proceeded likewise. No sooner was anthrax arriving in mailboxes around the nation than still another horror–one that may yet prove the greatest of the entire story–was upon us: the prospect that millions of Afghans could starve to death this winter. On October 12 Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and now the United Nations commissioner for human rights, sounded a sharp, clear warning. She called for a halt to the bombing of Afghanistan in order to permit humanitarian aid–above all, food–to be sent into Afghanistan before the winter snows cut off access to the population. "It is a very, very urgent situation," she noted. "It is very hard to get convoys of food in when there is a military campaign…. You have millions of people, they say up to 7 million, at risk." And she asked, "Are we going to preside over deaths from starvation of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people this winter because we did not use the window of opportunity?" Her words, though widely quoted around the world, went almost entirely unreported in the United States. The next day, among the thirty or so newspapers that the Lexis/Nexis database of newspapers calls major, only one–the San Francisco Chronicle–saw fit to mention it, and none of the major television networks did. (The day after that, Steven Erlanger briefly mentioned her comments in the New York Times in a story about eroding support in Germany for the bombing.) Not until four days later, when an American bomb destroyed a Red Cross warehouse in Kabul and humanitarian groups joined Robinson's call for a bombing halt, did the appeal begin to get attention in this country.

That a catastrophe was developing was not news–or should not have been. The combination of a decade of war by Afghan fighters against the Soviet Union, the civil war that followed the Soviet defeat, the extreme misrule of the victors in that war, the Taliban, and four years of drought have destroyed Afghanistan's ability to feed and care for itself. Humanitarian groups whose aid was already keeping substantial numbers of people alive have been warning of the gathering disaster as it has unfolded. After September 11, foreign aid personnel, advised by the Taliban that it could no longer assure their safety, withdrew from the country. Soon, the nations surrounding Afghanistan closed their borders to refugees. On September 19, Dominic Nutt, the emergency officer for the relief group Christian Aid, told the Guardian, "It's as if a mass grave has been dug behind millions of people. We can drag them back from it or push them in." On September 24, two weeks before the military campaign began, the UN warned in a report that "a humanitarian crisis of stunning proportions is unfolding in Afghanistan," and Secretary General Kofi Annan appealed for assistance to head off "the world's worst humanitarian disaster." On October 5 twenty relief organizations again reminded the world that Afghanistan was on the "brink of disaster." "It must be remembered," the statement said, "that these potential refugees are currently trapped inside a closed country." Two days later, the bombing began, and the vast internal migration from the cities to inaccessible rural parts of Afghanistan began. The new element introduced by Robinson's appeal was her delineation of the terrible significance of the bombing campaign in view of the deadline for assistance imposed by approaching winter.

The principal reason for saving the lives of the Afghans must, of course, be those lives themselves. Avenging thousands of innocents in America cannot take precedence over saving millions of innocents in Afghanistan. To say this is to make a moral point, but it is also more than a moral point. The humanitarian crisis of course arrives in the middle of a global military crisis and a political crisis. These last two–and the relationship between them–have dominated public attention and policy in the United States. (I have to admit that this has also been true of this weekly "Letter from Ground Zero.") What, we have been asking, is the outlook for military success in the "war on terrorism"? Will overthrowing the Taliban reduce or increase the terrorist threat? If they are overthrown, who will follow them? Will military success in Afghanistan spell political defeat in Pakistan and/or Saudi Arabia, where brittle, repressive regimes face strong opposition from Muslim extremists? These questions, echoing issues that arose in the Vietnam War, are important, but the answers to every one of them, we can now suddenly see, will depend on whether mass starvation can be headed off in Afghanistan. The spectacle of US special forces roving through a land of the dead and the dying in search of Osama bin Laden is as absurd a prescription for policy as it is offensive to decency.

A reversal of American policy is necessary. At present, political goals have been treated as a footnote to military goals (George W. Bush did not drop his opposition to nation-building in Afghanistan until a week after he ordered the bombing campaign), and humanitarian goals have been treated as a footnote to political goals. (The piteously inadequate food drops from US planes is the embodiment of this footnote.) This policy must be stood precisely on its head. Whatever the operational details, the humanitarian crisis must dominate. The bombing should stop, and a new policy–perhaps one of armed humanitarian intervention on the ground–should be adopted. Such a policy would replace the current iron fist in a humanitarian velvet glove with a helping human hand in a glove of chain mail. Not nation-building but nation-saving–the physical salvation of Afghan lives–must be the controlling consideration. Only if this humanitarian effort is successful can a political policy succeed–whether in Afghanistan itself, in Islamic opinion or in world opinion. And only if these humanitarian and political goals are accomplished will the war on terrorism–whose importance, in our anthrax-menaced world, has become greater than ever–have any chance of going well.