January 7th 2002
The National Post
Whatever happened to the "brutal Afghan winter"? It was "fast approaching" back in late September, and apparently it's still "fast approaching" today. "Winter is fast, fast approaching," reported ABC's "Nightline" on September 26th.
Two weeks on, New York's Daily News announced that, "realistically, US forces have a window of two or three weeks before the brutal Afghan winter begins to foreclose options."
Two or three weeks passed and the brutal Afghan winter's relentless approach showed no sign of letting up. "A clock is ticking," declared The Oregonian on October 24th. "The harsh Afghan winter is approaching."
The clock ticked on. On November 8th NBC's Tom Brokaw alerted viewers to the perils posed by "a rapidly approaching winter". "They expect the conditions to deteriorate rapidly as the brutal winter soon sets in," wrote Newsday's Deborah Barfield on November 11th updating her earlier sighting of "the typically brutal winter approaching" a month earlier on October 9th.
Another month ticked on, and the brutal winter carried on brutally approaching. "Winter is approaching fast," said Thomas McDermott, UNICEF's Regional Director, on December 9th. "With winter fast approaching, women wait in line for blankets," The Los Angeles Times confirmed, after the clock had ticked leisurely on a couple more days.
And not just any old approaching winter, but the "brutal Afghan winter", according to ABC, NBC, National Public Radio, The Boston Globe, Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, etc. "Former Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy is in Pakistan" - in case you were wondering - "to find out how to speed up aid deliveries before the brutal Afghan winter sets in," reported the BBC in November. "The temperature can drop to 50 below, so cold that eyelids crust and saliva turns to sludge in the mouth," said Tom Ifield of Knight-Ridder Newspapers.
Yesterday, it was 55 and clear in Kandahar and Herat. Ghurian checked in at 55, with 62 predicted for tomorrow. 57 and sunny in Bost and Laskar, with 64 expected on Thursday. In Kabul, it was 55, though with the windchill factored in it was only – let me see now – 54.
Meanwhile, in Toronto it's 28, New York 38. Overseas? Belfast and Glasgow report 46, London 44, Birmingham and Manchester 42. If those Afghan refugees clogging up the French end of the Channel Tunnel ever make it through to Dover, they face a gruelling battle for survival against the horrors of the brutal British winter.
Just under four months ago, when the doom-mongers first started alerting us to the "fast approaching" "brutal Afghan winter", it was 70 degrees and I was sitting here in shorts and T-shirt. Today, in my corner of Quebec, the daytime high is 21, the predicted overnight low is 5 degrees, and tomorrow we'll be lucky to hit 14. For Saturday, they're predicting 3 degrees. 3 Fahrenheit is, as the metrically inclined would say, minus 16 Celsius. So you'll understand my amusement at the Sunday Telegraph headline of October 21st: "British Unit Prepares To Defy Extremes Of The Afghan Winter. Crack Troops Will Have To Work In Temperatures As Low As -20C." Big deal. Crack columnist has to work in temperatures as low as –16C. And, for my neck of the woods, this is a very mild winter.
Now, pedants will point out that there are one or two brisk parts of the Hindu Kush. On top of Mount Sikaram, at 15,620 feet the highest elevation in Afghanistan's White Mountains, it would no doubt freeze the proverbial knackers off a brass monkey. Similarly, on top of Mount Washington, highest elevation in New Hampshire's White Mountains, it's –15 with the windchill, while down in the state capital of Concord it's a balmy 36. That's why no one except a couple of meteorologist types lives on top of Mount Washington, but thousands do down in Concord. Amazingly, despite the vast cultural differences, the same patterns of population dispersal prevail in Afghanistan. Up on Mount Sikaram, a convenient eight-day donkey-ride to the nearest 7-Eleven, the only guys interested in buying a ski condo are Osama and Mullah Omar. Al-Qaeda operatives aside, the overwhelming majority of the Afghan population live in towns currently enjoying temperatures most Canadians won't see for another three or four months.
So where did this "brutal Afghan winter" business come from? It came, pre-eminently, from spokespersons for the relief agencies. There are some special-interest groups – the National Rifle Association, Right To Life – whose press releases get dismissed by the media as propaganda, and others – environmental groups, for example – whose every claim is taken at face value. Into this last happy category fall the "humanitarian lobby". Throughout the rhetorically brutal autumn, they bombarded us: "Predicting even more desperate times for millions of Afghans, international relief groups and federal humanitarian aid officials are scrambling to get food and medical supplies into a country they say is on the verge of famine... They expect the conditions to deteriorate rapidly as the brutal winter sets in."
"The UN Children's Fund estimated that as many as 100,000 Afghan children could die of cold, disease and hunger within weeks if vital aid did not reach them."
"The situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating rapidly, international aid agencies say, and they are predicting the worst humanitarian crisis ever."
The aid agencies, you'll recall, campaigned aggressively for a "bombing pause" during Ramadan. This would have enabled them to truck some food convoys through the mountains from Pakistan. These routes get snowbound and become impassable, and that's really the only salient fact about the "brutal Afghan winter".
Why are the roads to Pakistan more important than the roads to Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan? Because Pakistan, being Afghanistan's most westernized neighbour, is where the western aid agencies are based. These are the fellows like my old chum Alex Renton – or, as the Canadian papers call him, "Toronto-born Alex Renton". Alex, the son of Lord Renton, is an Oxfam bigshot in the region. A lot of the other humanitarian coves running around out there are also English boarding-school boys, chaps with names like Rupert and Sebastian on a benign version of the journey of self-discovery that Taleban guy from Marin County went on. I'm sure they're all very well-intentioned, but when they start shrieking about the fast approaching brutal Afghan winter and the imminent deaths of millions what they're mainly doing is protesting that the American military action is disrupting their act.
Here's how you feed Afghanistan: You can get Rupert and Sebastian to load up the trucks in Peshawar and drive through to Kabul, where what isn't stolen by the Taleban can be distributed to the people. Or you can bomb the Taleban, drive them from office, put a non-deranged administration in place, re-open the year-round road-and-rail bridge to Uzbekistan, speed up construction on a second Uzbek bridge, and get air convoys to cover the places roads can't reach. In the seven weeks since the fall of Kabul, all this has happened. The millions who are supposed to be dying aren't. The hundred thousand child corpses are alive and kicking. The UN says all the supplies it needs to feed Afghanistan are now getting through.
Here's what would have happened had the aid agencies got their way and pressured the US into a bombing pause: many more Afghans would have starved to death, the Taleban would have been secured in power at least for another few months and perhaps indefinitely, but Rupert and Sebastian would have enjoyed the stage-heroic frisson of bouncing along in the truck to Jalalabad. That seems a high price for the Afghan people to pay. One expects a certain amount of reflexive anti-Americanism from these "humanitarian" types, but in the brutal Afghan fall they went too far: they ought at least to be big enough to admit they were wrong and be grateful the Pentagon ignored their bleatings.
Instead, they seem a little touchy about the fact that among the first food supplies to get through was a fresh supply of egg on their faces. When Axworthy and other self-proclaimed "humanitarians" start droning on next month about starving children in Iraq, always remember the lesson of Afghanistan: a bombing pause is not as "humanitarian" as a bomb. I would urge readers to be highly selective about supporting aid agencies who operate under tyrannies. Better yet, go see for yourself: after all, for Canadians, there's no better time than now to spend a sultry two weeks in Kabul enjoying the charms of the brutal Afghan winter.
from The Face Of The Tiger