Prime Minister John Howard's popularity has soared among the Australian electorate in the last few weeks and this is explained almost entirely by his tough stance on the issue of the boat full of asylum seekers from Afghanistan that recently threatened to land in the country. Australia's policy on asylum seekers is understandably unlikely to soften in the near future; but it is somewhat ironic that, following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States and the retaliatory measures now being formulated, attitudes to refugees may have to be hastily revised. As US President George W. Bush readies his forces for what is now an inevitable attack on Afghanistan, it is understandable that there is little appetite among the American electorate or the more hawkish members of the alliance for much consideration to be given to a looming refugee catastrophe. Yet, while such discussion may not be populist, it would certainly be wise to make provision now for the dreadful chaos that, without intervention, is clearly going to take place. The United Nations has warned that as many as 7.5 million Afghans - some 25 per cent of the population - face starvation or homelessness after years of war, three years of drought and an economy that is in tatters. Major charities are already carrying out massive relief operations and making plans for more help in the weeks ahead. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans are now on the move, all fleeing urban areas and many streaming towards the Pakistan border. All are intent on escaping the imminent US military strikes. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has appealed for US$5.5 million to send medical supplies to the area. But agency and charity workers admit that this is a mere drop in the ocean. More than anything, Mr Bush needs to maintain cohesion among the complex alliance of countries so far established. Few events will undo such multi-national solidarity faster than a humanitarian crisis affecting millions of Afghans that has been directly caused by the fear or the real effects of US-led military action. It would therefore be advantageous for the US and others first to offer strong reassurance that ordinary Afghans have nothing to fear from military strikes; and second to make immediate provision to deal with the displaced masses. Without such preventative measures, support for military strikes against any terrorist groups will quickly lose support, especially among the Muslim world, much of which is already ambivalent about the way the US is proceeding.