Jason Burke, an expert on Afghanistan, has covered the conflict since day one.
From Peshawar he warns that the Alliance strategy is fatally flawed
Sunday October 21, 2001
Kandahar, the spiritual and administrative heart of the Taliban, was quiet.
I sat in a small office down a narrow lane not far from
Mullah Omar's house with the young assistant of a senior Taliban official
and talked - of Islam, of the West, of Afghanistan and of the
blasts that, 10 days earlier, had demolished two American embassies in East
Africa killing 224 people and injuring 4,500. The young
Talib asked me if I thought the Americans would attack Afghanistan. After
all, he said, Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect, was
known to be hiding there. 'No,' I said, 'they wouldn't be so stupid.'
Six hours later, 75 Tomahawk missiles had turned four empty terrorist camps
in the east of Afghanistan into piles of rubble. Within
two days, outrage had exploded throughout the Middle East and bin Laden had
been made a folk hero. My confidence in the good
sense of Washington's decision-makers looked slightly ridiculous.
Yesterday morning, 200 US Army Rangers, who shout: 'Rangers lead the way,
sir, yes sir' when they salute superiors, engaged
Taliban soldiers about 20 miles from where I had sat chatting to the young
My overwhelming sense is of bewilderment. Like anyone who knows
Afghanistan, who has driven the long, rocky roads under that
impossibly clear blue sky, who has dropped a few notes to the urchins who
shovel dirt into the potholes to earn their dinner, who has
seen the double amputee landmine victim cheering his friends playing
football, or heard the Kabul dogs howling in the night after a
rocket strike on the north of the city, I simple cannot understand how it
came to this.
Nobody can argue with the aim of the war. Justice for the 6,000 dead in New
York must be done and seen to be done and destroying
bin Laden and al-Qaeda is an integral part of that. And, if civilians have
to die, then too bad, civilians always die in war. But this war,
as it is being fought, will not make the world a better, safer place. It
will make it far more dangerous.
The Islamic militia's leaders may be bad but they are not mad. They have a
coherent ideology fusing modern, resurgent Islam, the
centuries-old customs of the Pashtoon tribes, from which they are largely
drawn, and a bizarre nostalgia for the simple, predictable
village life that they imagine existed before the Soviets forced them into
a life of refugee camps and war.
Mullah Omar, the reclusive, one-eyed cleric who leads the movement, and his
top commanders believe, with some justification, that
they rescued their country from the violent anarchy of the post-Soviet
years. You cannot bomb these men into submission. Nor will
the Taliban footsoldiers be particularly worried by the forces ranged
against them. Whoever advised the Americans to mock the
Taliban's antiquated weaponry in the ludicrous, boasting broadcasts to
Afghanistan last week had not done their research. Many of
the first mujahideen fought the Soviets with muzzle-loading muskets or
First World War-vintage Lee Enfields.
Nor is threatened destruction much of a disincentive. After a revolt in the
western city of Herat in March 1979, the Soviets
carpet-bombed the city, killing between 5,000 and 25,000 people. It did
nothing to deter insurrection. This time, Taliban casualties
have been almost farcically light and the damage done has been minimal. We
are told that the Americans have knocked out the
Taliban 'command and control centres'. I have seen many of these. They
largely consist of a man sitting on a rug with a radio, an
ancient, unconnected telephone and the mother of all teapots.
There are signs that the Americans - and the British Government - are
beginning to comprehend this and the near impossibility of
tracking down bin Laden. Even if the Taliban are rolled back to a rump of
territory in the southern strongholds, bin Laden would still
have plenty of boltholes.
The Afghans are now falling in behind the Taliban. The strikes are swiftly
radicalising what was an essentially moderate country. That
is not only tragic but dangerous. A few days before the 1998 strikes, I
asked a guard outside the foreign ministry in Kabul about bin
Laden. He did not know who I was talking about. Nor did the men in Guldara.
Two years ago, few Afghan fighters I spoke to could
point to their own country on a globe, let alone discuss the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Now, of course, they all can talk about the
'Amriki' and its zulm or 'tyranny' against Muslims.
So no defections, no coups against Mullah Omar, no handing over of bin
Laden are likely - just a steady rallying to the Taliban flag,
mounting civilian casualties, growing extremism and an unfolding
Yesterday, we got a taste of what is to come. Domestic opinion in the US
and the UK, the approach of the Muslim holy month of
Ramadan and the growing fragility of the coalition mean that 'a result' is
needed within a month. The Americans are likely to commit
hundreds more ground troops, probably with the SAS hanging on to their
camouflaged coat-tails, in an increasingly desperate bid to
get their man. It is difficult to exaggerate quite what a disaster for
everybody that will be. The Northern Alliance would be permanently
tarred as Western stooges, the rest of the country would take their guns
and go to fight the invaders. So, as they have told me
repeatedly in recent weeks, would all the commanders currently watching
developments from Pakistan.
Zarameen is an old friend from Jalalabad. He fought the Soviets, fought the
puppet regime that Moscow left behind and fought against
the Taliban until forced into exile. Three weeks ago, he asked me if I
could arrange for him to get weapons to fight them again.
Yesterday, he told me he was getting ready to defend 'his country'.
Western troops in Afghanistan just wouldn't win. They would be forced, like
the Soviets, into isolated, fortified firebases. The idea of
150 US or Royal Marines dug in on some hilltop in Nangahar facing 1,000
Zarameens doesn't bear thinking about.
There has to be a pause in the war. Some carefully bought defections could
strengthen the Northern Alliance. That would shock the
Taliban. Funds and weapons could be channelled to those within Afghanistan,
or based currently in Pakistan, who would be happy to
see the end of Taliban rule. More pragmatic elements within the Taliban,
who are concerned about the damage Mullah Omar is doing
to their country, can be wooed. The instinctively moderate, flexible nature
of the vast majority of Afghans can be used to our
advantage if we stop forcing them to take sides. We should tell the Taliban
that the bombing will stop for a set period so that a
conference, that will include them, can meet to discuss the future of the
country and of bin Laden. If they do not agree, the attacks
can start again, preferably after Ramadan. In the meantime, flood the
country with aid and talk about addressing the real causes of
terrorism and Islamic extremism: poverty, repression and skewed policies in
the Middle East.
When I think about the huddled masses of the refugees, about the small,
stone-covered graves that are appearing outside every
village, about Mohammed Ghaffar, the white-bearded waiter at Kabul's
battered Intercontinental hotel who grimly counted off the
regimes that have successively run and ruined his country on his fingers, I
know we have to halt the escalation before it is too late.
But when I listen to Rumsfeld and Bush and Blair and Straw and their macho,
ignorant and fatally flawed rhetoric it is hard to be optimistic.
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