Bombing It Better – Iraq, The Bombing of Afghanistan and Segregated Compassion

On January 7, 2003, Media Lens published a Media Alert: ‘Moral Dark Age? Millions Of Suffering Iraqis: A “Blip” In The Global Economy?’. This was in response to a New Year comment piece in The Independent by economics correspondent Hamish McRae, titled, ‘A year when more realistic expectations should not lead to disappointment’, (The Independent, January 1, 2003)

To his credit, McRae has since corresponded twice with Media Lens. The first exchange, below, focuses on his endorsement of the US bombing of Afghanistan, while the second exchange centres on McRae’s brief response to our Media Alert. We conclude with commentary on McRae’s replies, indicating how it fits a pattern of liberal whitewashing of the abuses of elite western power.


Email from Media Lens co-editor David Cromwell to Hamish McRae, economics correspondent of The Independent, 2 January, 2003.

Dear Hamish McRae,

I read your January 1st article in The Independent (‘A year when more realistic expectations should not lead to disappointment’). “Last year seemed dispiriting”, you wrote, “because so few of the problems of the beginning of the year were solved”, but you added that at least the “war in Afghanistan” was successful “in military terms”. That the “war” could be more accurately described as a “massacre”, with likely more than 5,000 Afghans killed under the bombing and perhaps 20,000 more dead from the effects of the bombing (starvation, disease), is not mentioned. Why not?

Also, you correctly recognise that “the chief quarry remains at large and the terrorist threat continues”, surely contradicting your claim that the “war” was “successful in military terms”, since removing bin Laden and the al-Qaeda threat were the stated war aims of Washington and London.

I would be interested in hearing your response.

Yours sincerely,

David Cromwell

Reply from Hamish McRae (The Independent) to David Cromwell (Media Lens) 2 January, 2003.

Dear Mr Cromwell.

Thank you for your email. I deliberately used the phrase “in military terms” because, as you correctly point out, there were high costs in human terms. I would not, however, accept your term “massacre”. I think it would be reasonable to argue that in the years to come, the Afghan people (especially women) will have a much better life than they would have had under the Taliban. Those humanitarian gains have to be taken into account. If I did not expand on the human costs, I equally did not also stress these human gains. This was an article of a wide compass about the threat to the world in the coming year, not one specifically looking back at that particular war. Had I been writing at more length I would have sought to maintain this balance, though of course I would not expect people who feel strongly on either side of the argument to agree with me.

As for the success or otherwise of the attack, I think it reasonable to argue [it] was sucessful in the sense that it helped remove the regime that had given shelter to Osama bin Laden and has clearly disrupted the al-Qaeda network. The terrorist training camps, for example, are no longer operating – so the threat is surely less now than it would have been had the attack not taken place.

I hope this helps.

My regards and thanks for your interest.


Hamish McRae


On 9 January, Media Lens sent our January 6 media alert to McRae (see alerts archived at http://www.Media , and invited him to respond. This was his reply, 9 January, 2003.

Thanks – Having now seen your comments, I think the core of the misunderstanding is that, as an economic commentator, I was writing about the future of the world economy in the coming year, not on the political or military issues that would come up. That is what I do. You would find the non-economic matters dealt with on the same pages by the other writers. We try, as a paper, to tackle subjects from different perspectives and I do believe the economist’s perspective is a useful one as part of the wider debate.

My regards

Hamish McRae


We are again grateful to Hamish McRae for taking the time and trouble to respond. However we note that in his second response he has failed to engage with the arguments set out in our Media Alert on the grounds that they are based on a “misunderstanding” on our part. We return to this assertion below.

Addressing the first response above, McRae’s main points on the US bombing of Afghanistan can be summarised as follows:

1. The military campaign was “successful”, though the human costs were high.
2. He deems the term “massacre” inappropriate.
3. There were “humanitarian gains” such as the supposed improved lot of Afghan women.
4. The US bombing contributed to the removal of the Taliban regime, who were sheltering al-Qaeda, the al-Qaeda network has been “disrupted”, and the threat of al-Qaeda terrorism is less now than before the attack.

Points 1 and 4 are obviously linked. Many commentators, McRae included, argue that the bombing of Afghanistan was “successful” because the al-Qaeda network was disrupted by the US attack and because, they argue, the “threat is surely less now than it would have been had the attack not taken place.” As an Independent editorial reviewing the year 2001 declared: “the war in Afghanistan. ought to make the lives of most of the Afghan people better; and it weakened al-Qa’ida”. (‘For all the grand rhetoric, our world has not really changed. More is the pity’, editorial, The Independent, 28 December, 2001)

That the human cost is left out of the equation in determining the success of the campaign is telling. How many people would have to die before an attack on a starving Third World nation by the world’s premier military power is regarded as +unsuccessful+? Would it still have been a ‘success’ if millions of Afghans had starved because of the disruption to humanitarian lifelines – a very real danger, as had been warned by international aid agencies prior to, and during, the onslaught? That such a monumental disaster did not, thankfully, occur does not excuse Western military planners and politicians who were willing to risk a massive military campaign in the face of aid agency warnings that such an assault would place the lives of seven-and-a-half million people at great risk.

McRae neglects to mention numerous war crimes carried out in Afghanistan by US troops or by their proxies, the Northern Alliance. As the US writer Edward Herman noted recently:

“The Northern Alliance has not only killed and raped in Pashtun territory during the past year, it starved and killed Taliban prisoners on a large scale, even after the Northern Alliance and U.S. forces together had negotiated a protected surrender.”

Herman continues: “the United States used air power to kill hundreds of prisoners during a prison revolt in the Qala-i-Janghi prison. There is also evidence that U.S. personnel abused Taliban prisoners and were on the scene and did nothing to hinder the stuffing of the prisoners in containers for the death convoy (documented in Jamie Doran’s film Massacre at Mazar, suppressed by the U.S. media [and not given prominence in the British media either].”(Edward Herman, ‘Nation-Busting Euphoria, Nation-Building Fatigue’, Z Magazine, December 2002)

The Independent’s Robert Fisk observed at the time of these atrocities that “we cannot adopt someone’s army as our own and then deny responsibility for its behaviour. We didn’t allow the Germans to do that after the Second World War. And when our Northern Alliance boys go on a killing spree, we have to take responsibility for the bloodshed that results.” (‘Our friends in the North are just as treacherous and murderous’, Robert Fisk, The Independent, 19 November, 2001)

The call by Amnesty International and Mary Robinson – then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights – for an independent inquiry into war crimes at Qala-I-Jangi was summarily dismissed by the British government. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw declared:

“This was in the middle of a terrible situation where law and order had broken down.” (‘UK condemned for rejecting fort massacre inquiry’, Justin Higgler in Mazar-I-Sharif and Anne Penketh, The Independent, 1 December, 2001)

This form of defence was certainly not acceptable to the judges at Nuremberg after WWII. However, the atrocities at Qala-I-Jangi and elsewhere have been quickly and conveniently forgotten. On the other hand, the fate of prisoners at Camp X-Ray on Cuba, +does+ periodically emerge. While this is certainly a matter of human rights concern, the much more serious matter of the active role, or complicity, in the murder of hundreds of Taliban prisoners, in addition to the deaths of perhaps tens of thousands of Afghan civilians, by western military power is deemed unworthy of further mention in the mainstream.

As for the supposed receding threat of further al-Qaeda terrorism, McRae is far too sanguine: it is pure conjecture based on ipso facto justification for the mass killing of Afghan civilians. The evidence suggests that the threat has, in fact, intensified. As McRae’s colleague Andrew Buncombe reported in The Independent last year:

“American and European intelligence services believe [six al-Qa’ida operatives] have taken a central role in recent months to co-ordinate the organisation’s financial and military operations. The emergence of the men is cited as evidence of al-Qa’ida’s ability to regroup and develop new leadership in response to the US war on terror and the military operation in Afghanistan, which robbed them of a safe haven”. (Andrew Buncombe, ‘Six men of terror exposed in murky world of al-Qa’ida’, The Independent, 30 October, 2002, p.13)

It can reasonably be argued that dispersing the al-Qaeda operatives that were holed up in Afghanistan has made tracking them, and preventing future terrorist attacks, much more difficult.

McRae also argues that “humanitarian gains” brought about by the US bombing, such as the supposed improved status of Afghan women (a specific and dubious point to which we return below), ought to be acknowledged to provide “balance”. This is a constant refrain in the liberal press. Jason Burke writes in the Observer:

“Anyone who doubts that the war in Afghanistan should have been fought should see the school now. In five years of covering the country, I have seen executions, amputations, earthquakes, droughts, ethnic cleansing, massacres and denial of basic human rights on a massive scale. I have never seen 800 girls, aged between eight and 16, doing something as basic as learning. There are so many girls wanting to resume their education, in effect banned by the Taliban, that two classes use each classroom each day. (Burke, ‘A year of living on the edge’, The Observer, October 6, 2002)

If the schooling of Afghan girls justifies war against an impoverished Third World country, then serious reservations must remain. Zama Coursen-Neff, counsel to Human Rights Watch’s children’s rights division comments on the situation in Afghanistan now: “Girls and women are trying to make up for years of school lost under the Taliban,” but restrictions “may make it impossible for many to achieve that.” Coursen-Neff adds: “The Taliban are gone, but government officials and soldiers are still sidelining, abusing and harassing women and girls in Heart.” (Human Rights Watch, New limits on female education in Afghanistan, January 16, 2003,

Girls’ education has been a top priority for NGOs, but even such basic rights have literally gone up in flames in some areas – girls’ schools in five provinces were burned to the ground or subjected to rocket attack last year, Human Rights Watch reports. In Jabul Saraj, school principal Zakia Zaki describes how equal rights remain a distant dream:

“Here in Parwan province, the United Nations and donors have not helped. The rights of women are not good at all, and the government can not reach the far provinces.”

Burke’s dismissal of doubts about the war was registered one month after he had made the following report:

“Last week (August) the United Nations released a ‘hunger assessment’ which revealed that 6 million Afghans were at risk – more than were endangered a year ago.” (Jason Burke, ‘Afghan anarchy hinders aid – Descent into lawlessness damages effort to feed remote villages and returning refugees’, The Observer, September 1, 2002)

Surely, then, +some+ doubts about the war should have remained, given that the UN’s hunger assessment was even +worse+ than the hideous situation of the previous year.

The fact is that the plight of the Afghan people remains desperate, in many cases undoubtedly exacerbated by the effects of the bombing. “Interrupting most of the country’s international aid programmes for three months only made matters worse”, wrote The Guardian’s Jonathan Steele last year. “From mid-September to mid-December [in 2001] it is possible to say that in areas with already high levels of death from malnutrition and exposure there were likely increases in mortality rates.” Steele concluded:

“A Guardian investigation into the ‘indirect victims’ now confirms the belief of many aid agencies that they exceeded the number who died of direct hits. As many as 20,000 Afghans may have lost their lives as an indirect consequence of the US intervention. They too belong in any tally of the dead.” (Jonathan Steele, ‘Forgotten victims – The full human cost of US air strikes will never be known, but many more died than those killed directly by bombs’, The Guardian, May 20, 2002)

Contrary to the assertions of liberal commentators, Western leaders merely pay lip service to the human rights and aspirations of the people they bomb. The Guardian reported that:

“Last November [2001] the leaders of the developed nations promised that, unlike after the Soviet withdrawal, the Afghans would not be abandoned. Tony Blair pledged support ‘for the long haul’. In April [2002], President Bush himself promised a ‘Marshall Plan’. “But out of £1.1bn pledged for 2001, only a fraction has arrived, and there is little prospect of more in the near future. The situation is so bad that even the UNHCR [United Nations High Commission for Refugees] – which dealt with 1.5 million returnees – has run out of cash. Now, as winter nears again, seven million people are at risk of famine.” (Jason Burke, ‘Chaos lurks in an abandoned land – Al-Qaeda and the roots of terror: The West vowed to end poverty, but little has changed for Afghanistan’s people – and this great failing could breed fresh trouble’, September 8, 2002)

As for the issue of women’s rights in Afghanistan, “When U.S. soldiers invaded Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 and unseated the Taliban”, writes US feminist Betsy Hartmann, “they were hailed as the liberators of Afghani women. Bush has repeatedly referred to women’s rights in Afghanistan and Palestine as a positive outcome of U.S. intervention in those areas as well as in Iraq.” This is the argument echoed by McRae in his defence of the US massacre of Afghans. Hartmann continues: “If we are to believe what we hear, militarism is the true herald of feminism. But don’t let the talking heads fool you. Upon closer examination it is clear that tanks and guns are doing more damage to women than liberating them.” Hartmann points out the damage done by bombing to the environment and reproductive health, as well as the high number of deaths and injuries to civilians. (Betsy Hartmann, ‘Militarism and Reproductive Freedom’, ZNet Commentary, January 04, 2003,

In December 2002, Human Rights Watch issued a devastating 52-page report on extensive and increasing restrictions on women and girls in Herat. The report, ‘We Want to Live as Humans: Repression of Women and Girls in Western Afghanistan,’ documented a catalogue of Taliban-style restrictions imposed on women and girls’ freedom of work, education, movement and political participation:

“One year after the Taliban’s fall, women and girls in Afghanistan still face severe restrictions and violations of their human rights, for in many areas Taliban officials have been replaced by warlords, police officers and local officials with similar attitudes toward women. This has meant the reimposition of extremely repressive social codes that typically have a devastating impact on women.” (

Finally, we turn to McRae’s plea that as an economics correspondent he was simply “writing about the future of the world economy in the coming year, not on the political or military issues that would come up.” The world economy, we are to believe, is somehow isolated from “political or military issues”. One wonders what McRae would make of the notion that economic hegemony in fact rests on political and military might, as acknowledged with rare candour by the right-wing New York Times commentator Thomas Friedman:

“The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.” (Quoted, ‘The New Rulers of the World’, John Pilger, Verso, 2001, p. 114)

McRae is keen to stress that a mythical stand-alone economic analysis “is what I do”. The reader will find “non-economic matters dealt with on the same pages by the other writers.” But economic conditions do +not+ arise spontaneously, they are vigorously shaped by powerful corporate and political elites, often hidden from public scrutiny. It is mistaken to claim that one has a specific field of expertise that does not require consideration of humanitarian values. McRae’s implied assertion – that professional expertise and human qualities such as love, compassion and wisdom, can be segregated in separate boxes – is a dangerous self-deception. Writer David Ingleby notes that the cumulative effect of this mindset is that it facilitates atrocities “perpetrated by people like us” so that “similar inhumanities go on being perpetrated, day by day, systematically organized, ideologically sanctioned, and on a global scale”. (From the introduction to Erich Fromm’s The Sane Society, Routledge, 2002, p. xii-xiii)

Liberal commentators are but one class of highly-rewarded professionals who, as American physicist Jeff Schmidt observes in his book ‘Disciplined Minds’, “generally avoid the risk inherent in real critical thinking and cannot properly be called critical thinkers. They are simply ideologically disciplined thinkers.” Schmidt continues:

“Real critical thinking means uncovering and questioning social, political and moral assumptions; applying and refining a personally developed worldview; and calling for action that advances a personally created agenda. An approach that backs away from any of these three components lacks the critical spirit.”

By eschewing the social, political and moral dimensions of “the future of the world economy in the year ahead”, as Hamish McRae puts it, The Independent’s economics correspondent, like so many liberal commentators, demonstrates that he is indeed an “ideologically disciplined thinker”.


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

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