Any city freed from tyranny is a place of joy. Yesterday the Afghan capital, Kabul, was joyful. Its people lined the streets cheering the demise of their latest oppressors. As the latter fled south, civilised people cried good riddance and wished the Afghans well. Any change must be for the better. Any change is an opportunity.
I could have written the above paragraph, more or less, in 1996, 1992, 1989, 1973, 1919, 1879, 1841, 1504, 1219 and possibly in 329BC. In each case my optimism would have been misplaced. What is different today? The answer can be seen in nervous Western responses to yesterday’s events. The fall of Kabul was unpredicted. Commanders hate the unpredictable. Until two days ago, the strategy being touted in London and Washington was of a Western ground assault on Afghanistan postponed until the spring. High altitude “psychological” bombing would assuage the Americans’ need for reprisal. This might undermine regional support, but American commanders would not commit troops to a grizzly and possibly inconclusive ground war over the winter. Patience must be the keyword. Something might turn up.
Something has turned up. The much-feared Taleban proved completely flaky. Whatever the political counter-productivity of bombing civilian targets in Kabul and Kandahar, close air support for Northern Alliance troops on the front line was clearly effective. The troops, re-equipped and goaded forward by American advisers, were eager to avenge past humiliation at the hands of the Taleban, not least the murder of their leader, Ahmed Shah Masood. Having chosen to ride this particular tiger, America and Britain must do so.
I hope the word ethical never again crosses the lips of a British government minister. Not in modern history can Britain have forged a public alliance with such unsavoury characters as Abdul Rashid Dostum, Abdul Malik, Ismail Khan, Mohammad Ustad Atta and other northerners, mostly financed by heroin. These men have given a new dimension to the word terror. Ahmed Rashid’s admirable book, Taleban, should be avoided by any squeamish coalition partners. Yes, Kabul has been liberated, but as Mr Rashid makes plain, it is by the same gangs whose faction-fighting and brutality gave the Taleban their opportunity seven years ago.
These men make Slobodan Milosevic look like a playground bully and Hamas and Hezbollah a couple of lightweights. Their greed for drugs money is outstripped only by their retributive sadism. Rape, mutilation and the most gruesome executions are, as Gibbon would say, only the lesser charges that General Dostum might in rights have to answer before a war crimes tribunal. He never will. These men are “us” and “our allies in the coalition against terror”. They quaff vodka with British and American special forces. Such is the moral relativism of war.
Since “we” are now in Kabul we had better get there fast. Foreign Office ministers were yesterday talking of “our wanting to set up a broad-based multi-ethnic coalition representative of all groups”, as if the Northern Alliance were Liberal-Democrat herbivores. There appears to be no Western military strategy to seize the rest of Afghanistan. Nor is there a political strategy to reconstruct the country, supply its starving population and secure it from possible counterattack.
George Bush and Tony Blair must surely send soldiers immediately to maintain order in the areas they boldly claim to have freed from tyranny. They yesterday pleaded for United Nations help, which is strange since they ignored the UN in the aftermath of September 11, and ignored the plea of the Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, to stop the bombardment of Kabul. Mr Bush and Mr Blair wanted to conquer Afghanistan alone. Their pledge was unequivocal. The West had betrayed this country in 1989. Now it would not walk away. Now it must stay. This must be the mother of all peacekeepings.
Kabul is also the mother of all traps. In fleeing, the Taleban respected the old saying, that in setting the mousetrap you must leave room for the mouse. Relieved that its troops will not have to fight their way through the Hindu Kush, America and Britain find themselves entering a vacuum. They cannot do nothing. They bombed Kabul. They must offer its citizens security, feed them and bribe the warlords not to seek revenge. In theory the search for Osama bin Laden should be easier. But is “justice against terrorism” best served by his being skinned alive or torched in a well by the Northern Alliance to avenge Masood’s death? Such vengeance was reportedly on the lips of the invaders of Kabul yesterday. Britain and America started a war to capture a man and appear to have captured a country. This was against the advice of states in the region not to inflame radical Muslim sentiment. A Pakistani Afghan whom I trust, told me that “bin Laden had outstayed his welcome even before September 11. He was vulnerable. Enough money would have found him.” Above all, he said, let Pashtuns do this. Do not use Tajiks.
The British and Americans are using Tajiks. They broke off covert negotiations with the Taleban after just 20 days and allied themselves to the Northern Alliance, called for the toppling of the Kabul regime and its replacement by one more liberal and friendly to the West. This goal was nobler than simple reprisal. But nobility has a price. While the reprisal party might now be packing up and going home, the war party’s job has just begun. It must rout the Taleban and stop any tribal massacres. It must honour its promise to establish a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan that will never again harbour his ilk.
The Government said yesterday that while this task might seem hard, it is better for all concerned than what prevailed before. I regard that question as open. If the Taleban can collapse so easily, they might as easily have fallen to the combined coalition pressure that was being mounted by the Saudis, Iranians and Pakistanis before the bombings. The Americans were lucky that their troops were not involved yesterday, but involved they must be now. More to the point, anti-American and anti-British feeling throughout the region have conferred on bin Laden a heroism likely to outlive him. Indeed he is probably at his least harmful now, hunted but alive and stuck in a cave.
Afghanistan hated the Taleban more than anyone thought, and the Northern Alliance has taken advantage of that hatred. But such liberation has always been a snare. Afghanistan’s machinegun message echoes through the mountains, to leave it alone. I may feel a humanitarian obligation to aid the Afghans in their suffering through private charity. I feel no obligation to fight them, rule them or ordain who should govern them. Whatever threat is posed to the West by an occasional madman, even one claiming to possess a chemical or nuclear device, is not lessened by wars such as this, that make heroes of his supporters and reward one group of terrorists with the loot of another. Bin Laden and his like must be pursued by a cunning and patience of which the West seems bereft.
Instead the past month has shown a West pathetically vulnerable to fear. It refuses to travel. It avoids tall buildings. It sees infinite menace in subway trains, bridges, food supplies, even the air it breathes. It plunges its economy into self-induced recession. Pathologically risk-averse, we demand of our rulers degrees of protection that only a totalitarian state can offer. Perhaps it is small wonder that Mr Bush and Mr Blair react by declaring a Hundred Years’ War on an abstract noun.
I was brought up to believe that Western civilisation was far too robust to be threatened by this sort of terrorism. I was appalled when the US President implied the opposite. I thought that British democracy was strong enough not to glorify bin Laden as a Hitler, summoning a “war Cabinet” against him and flattering him with yesterday’s over-blown “emergency powers”.
The West is weaker than I thought. But Afghanistan will test that weakness. It will test the New Moral Imperialism more severely than did Vietnam, the Balkans or recent excursions into the Middle East. Afghanistan’s history says that this adventure will end in tears. In Kabul we must fight more than terrorism. We must fight history.