The left is getting itself tied up in knots about the Just War and the propriety of bombing Afghanistan. The respected Princeton professor Richard Falk has outlined in The Nation an intricate guide to "the relevant frameworks of moral, legal and religious restraint" to be applied to the lethal business of attacking Afghans.

War, as the United States has been fighting it in Iraq and Yugoslavia, consists, at least thus far, mostly of bombing, intended to terrify the population and destroy the fabric of tolerable social existence. Remember that bombs mostly miss their targets. Colonel John Warden, who planned the air campaign in Iraq, said afterwards that dropping dumb bombs "is like shooting skeet -- 499 out of 500 pellets may miss the target, but that's irrelevant." There will always be shattered hospitals and wrecked old folks' homes, just as there will always be Defense Department flacks saying that the destruction "cannot be independently verified" or that the hospitals or old folks' homes were actually sanctuaries for enemy forces for "command and control."

How many bombing campaigns do we have to go through in a decade to recognize all the usual landmarks? What's unusual about the latest onslaught is that it is being leveled at a country where, on numerous estimates from reputable organizations, around 7.5 million people were, before Sept. 11, at risk of starving to death. Within four days of the Sept. 11 terror attacks the United States forcibly told Pakistan it desired elimination of truck convoys that were providing much of the food and other supplies to Afghanistan's civilian population. In early October, the UN's World Food Program was able to resume shipments at a lower level, then the bombing began and everything stopped once more, amid fierce outcry from relief agencies that the United States was placing millions at risk, with winter just around the corner.

On Oct. 15 the UN's special rapporteur, Jean Ziegler, said in Geneva that the food airdrops by the same military force dropping bombs undermined the credibility of humanitarian aid. "As special rapporteur I must condemn with the last ounce of energy this operation called snowdropping (the air drops of food packagers]; it is totally catastrophic for humanitarian aid." The relief organization Oxfam reckons that before Sept. 11, 400,000 Afghans were on the edge of starvation ("acute food insecurity"), 5.5 million were "extremely vulnerable," and the balance of the overall 7.5 million were at great risk. Once it starts snowing, 500,000 people will be cut off from the food convoys that should, were it not for the bombing, have been getting them provisions for the winter. Relief organizations are saying that the bizarre Pentagon charge that the Taliban is poisoning its own people further compromises humanitarian food aid.

So, by the time Falk was inscribing the protocols of what a just war might be, the United States was already creating the conditions for human disaster on an immense scale. Not, to be sure, the ghastly instant entombment of Sept. 11, what Noam Chomsky has called "the most devastating instant human toll of any crime in history, outside of war," but death on the installment plan: malnutrition, infant mortality, disease, premature death for the old and so on. The numbers will climb and climb, and there won't be any "independent verification," such as the Pentagon demands.

Let's accept the so-far unproven charge that the supreme strategist of the Sept. 11 terror is Osama bin Laden. He's the Enemy. So what have been this Enemy's objectives? He desires the widest possible war; to kill Americans on American soil; to destroy the symbols of U.S. military power; to engage the United States in a holy war. The first two objectives the Enemy could accomplish by themselves; the third required the cooperation of the United States. Bush fell into the trap, and Falk, The Nation and some on the left have jumped in after him.

There can be no "limited war with limited objectives" when the bombing sets matches to tinder from Pakistan and Kashmir to Ramallah and Bethlehem, Jerusalem. "Limited war" is a far less realistic prospect than to regard Sept. 11 as a crime, to pursue its perpetrators to justice in an international court, using all relevant police and intelligence agencies here and abroad.

The left should be for peace, which in no way means ignoring the demands of either side. Bin Laden calls for: an end to sanctions on Iraq; U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia; justice for Palestinians. The left says aye to those, though we want a two-state solution, whereas bin Laden wants to drive Jews along with secular and Christian Palestinians into the sea. The U.S. government calls for a dismantling of the Terror Network, and the left says aye to that, too. Of course, the left opposes networks of people who wage war on civilians.

So the left is pretty close to supporting demands on both sides, but knows these demands are not going to be achieved by war. The left doesn' t want the "war on terror" to be cashed in blood in Colombia or anywhere else, or for anyone to kill or die in the name of Islamic fundamentalism. The left is for the common sense, humane and legal option. Go to the UN, proceed on the basis that Sept. 11 was a crime. Bring the perpetrators to justice by legal means.

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2001 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.