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A Premature Declaration of Victory: six months on, the case against the war is continuing to gain ground

12 March 2002

It has taken six months, but the first dissent has appeared in America's mood of bipartisan chauvinism. Shortly before the battles in eastern Afghanistan which killed eight US soldiers and are still keeping 800 US troops in action, senior Democrats were daring to challenge the notion that a great victory had been achieved. "Clearly, we've got to find Mohammed Omar, we've got to find Osama bin Laden, and we've got to find other key leaders of the al-Qaida network, or we will have failed," the Senate majority leader Tom Daschle said.

Robert Byrd, who cut his teeth as a critic of the Vietnam war, challenged the administration's eagerness for ever-widening war. "We seem good at entrance strategies, not so good at exit strategies. If we expect to kill every terrorist in the world, that's going to keep us going beyond Doomsday. How long can we afford this?" he asked.

These are the first elite echoes from within the belly of the American establishment of what foreign critics have been saying for months. The Democratic senators are not claiming the original decision to use force was a mistake. But their comments mark a serious move forward from last autumn's instinct for revenge and a sign that, half a year after September 11, we now have a cooler emotional climate for assessing what has been achieved.

Even George Bush, while trumpeting success in his State of the Union address (and again yesterday), implicitly acknowledged failure: in neither speech did he mention Osama bin Laden, whose capture or death he had originally called Washington's prime objective. Eight leaders of al-Qaida are thought to have been killed, but it still has cells in 59 countries, according to George Tenet, head of the CIA, in evidence to Congress last month.

Francis Taylor, the State Department's coordinator on counter-terrorism, acknowledged that al-Qaida was more of a network of like-minded freelance activists than a top-down hierarchy. "There are al-Qaida operatives out there with plans to continue their terrorism whether or not they get direction from Bin Laden or his lieutenants," he said. Those who favored vigorous police action on an international scale rather than bombing one country still have a valid case.

Salman Rushdie recently claimed in these pages that "western critics of America's Afghan campaign are enraged because they have been shown to be wrong at every step". He listed their alleged arguments: the Americans would be humiliated like the Russians, air strikes would not work, and the Taliban would hold out for a long time.

In fact, most of the war's opponents made different points. They predicted America's overwhelming might would crush the Taliban, but argued this would not destroy al-Qaida. "Even if the opposition were to take power in Kabul and Kandahar, pockets of resistance and warlordism would continue, particularly in the rugged mountains where Bin Laden and his supporters are hiding. So capturing the main cities will not make the task of finding Bin Laden easier," I wrote in early November. Three months after the Taliban leadership's collapse, the hunt goes on.

In justifying its decision to target the Taliban last autumn and not only al-Qaida, the Bush administration said it was important to send a message to states not to give sanctuary to terrorists. But as the Massachusetts-based Commonwealth Institute has pointed out in an excellent study called Strange Victory, al-Qaida's global capacity does not depend on training facilities of the kind which the US hit at Tora Bora: "Warehouses and small ad hoc sites will do. Moreover, large terrorist organizations have proved able to operate for very long periods without state sanctuaries, as long as sympathetic communities exist. The IRA is an example."

US bombing has not diminished, but enlarged, these communities. If it is extended to Iraq, it will widen them further. A recent Gallup poll of the Muslim "street", covering five Arab countries as well as Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey, found 53% had a negative opinion of the US and 77% thought its action in Afghanistan was morally wrong.

Critics of the war had three arguments (unmentioned by Rushdie). Military force would not dismantle al-Qaida's global network; casualties among Afghan civilians would be high; and far from making the US more solicitous of its allies' views, war was likely to exacerbate its tendency to unilateralism. The best estimates are that the civilian death toll from the bombing exceeds the carnage of September 11. At least 2,000, possibly 8,000, were killed, and at least 3,000 more died of hunger or cold as they fled the air strikes.

Now, flush with their alleged victory and anxious to divert attention from the Enron scandal, the Bush administration is looking for new arenas for military action. A few European leaders have dared to raise questions. Senior US Democrats are calling for caution. The critics of using war against terrorists are gaining ground.

Jonathan Steele
Published in the Guardian © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002

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