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This Futile Campaign - Western Intervention Has Done Little for the Afghans and Less to Beat Terrorism, Madeleine Bunting

20 May 2002

There was almost relief in Brigadier Roger Lane's voice on Friday morning as he told the Today program that they'd finally found and killed some AQT - al-Qaida/Taliban - in the remote mountain valleys of eastern Afghanistan. They had engaged their enemy, hitherto as elusive as the snow leopard, and around 1,000 British soldiers were being flown in for the battle. Twenty-four hours later, Operation Condor, as it was named, looked about as farcical as every other operation in Afghanistan has done in the past six months.

You can take your pick from at least three explanations for Operation Condor. Option one is the claim of locals that far from being AQT, these were tribesmen in a shoot-out over some woodland. Option two came from the Pakistan-based Afghan press agency which reported that these were tribesmen celebrating a wedding by shooting AK-47s into the air. Option three was the Ministry of Defence's modified version by Saturday night that a) they were definitely AQT, but b) the marines had not yet made contact with them.

The problem with option three is how the MoD in London can be so sure they are AQT when everyone else is having such difficulties identifying them. You have to sympathize with the marine quoted as saying: "It's impossible. They all look the same and they all carry guns." Anthony Loyd, the Times correspondent, concluded recently that if you carry a weapon in the wrong part of Afghanistan and point it at one of the coalition special forces, you will inevitably die quickly and once you've been shot, you are AQT by definition. Given that half the male Afghan population is armed, and used to using weapons liberally, there is ample scope for shooting shepherds.

Nor do either of the other options seem particularly plausible. They both cropped up several weeks ago when US forces responded to shots by bombing and killing at least 10 Afghans. Either Afghans have a tendency to fight over woodland or the US is not going to win many friends if its contribution to village nuptials is bombing raids. It's no good instructing your Chinook pilots to wave at everyone they see because friendly relations are crucial, if you then bomb the groom.

The only sensible conclusion is that we know as much about Operation Condor as we do about its predecessors - Anaconda, Ptarmigan, Snipe - and before that, Tora Bora: very, very little. Follow the reports for the past six months and there is a ludicrous pattern of claims of victory, then a few discordant details trickle out and, finally, an admission of failure. So, now we know that Tora Bora was regarded as one of the "gravest errors of the war": the US depended too heavily on unreliable Afghan fighters. Osama bin Laden and many AQT fighters managed to escape.

We were told that Snipe had inflicted a "significant blow" on the AQT by blowing up an arms dump, but immediately a stubbornly off-message Afghan commander popped up to say, rubbish, that was his dump left over from the fight against the Soviets. We were initiated into a new form of warfare - don't measure success by bodybags. This is a very interesting form of fighting: first the US didn't want to get any of its men killed, then the AQT sensibly followed suit and the result is death-free war, a whole new concept of "pacifist war".

Even the marines know this is very silly. Afghanistan is in danger of becoming the most embarrassing chapter in the recent history of British military engagements. A peevishness has crept into the briefings. Brigadier Lane complains that the AQT are "not showing a predisposition to reorganize and regroup to mount offensive operations against us". They just won't come out to play. Well, would you if the place was crawling with some of the most sophisticated weaponry in the world? Far better to lie low and look after your goats, or visit some relatives over the border in Miram Shah in Pakistan's Waziristan, and brush up your Koranic chanting.

Any AQT strategist can rely on the fact that their commitment and patience will comfortably outstrip that of the western soldiers currently trudging up and down the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Al-Qaida, like any terrorist organization, doesn't need a base in Afghanistan to launch its attacks, while the Taliban can sit tight, quietly recruiting and regrouping, before re-emerging in Afghan politics. It's an ignominious ending to the triumphalism of the fall of Kabul just over six months ago. Here we are discussing a bad tummy bug, military latrines and whether our boys are using disposable cutlery. Then, we were celebrating music on the streets and women news presenters back on the TV.

Afghanistan offered the perfect solution to September 11 - a massive expiation of US anger and, more subtly, guilt. Dropping all those bombs felt doubly good: it was retaliation for a terrible crime, but also getting rid of an evil regime. The emotional rush was everything; whether the latter actually worked has fallen off most people's radar screen. They're not interested. The selective memory means that what is remembered is that a few women in Kabul threw off their burkas in November, not that many more women in northern Afghanistan have been raped since then in a wave of ethnic revenge against the Pashtun. Nor is anyone much interested that since the fall of the Taliban, the old lawlessness of highway looting and illegal road tolls has re-emerged. Or that in the past few months there have been at least two major conflicts between warlords - in Mazar-i-Sharif and in Gardez - as an uneasy truce awaits the results of next month's loya jirga.

Nor, curiously has there been much said on the spectacular failure to halt the poppy crop. The Taliban virtually wiped out the trade (which supplied about 75% of the world's opium) but Afghan farmers are a canny bunch and no sooner was Mullah Omar on the run than they started planting on the assumption that no new government would have the authority or will to stop them. They've been proved right. Despite huge EU grants, Hamid Karzai's government has backed off, well aware that its position is too fragile to take on such an unpopular battle.

By the time of the first anniversary of the fall of Kabul it will no longer be possible to ignore the accumulation of these awkward details, and we will be embarrassed to be reminded of our naive triumphalism. The war was a crude and clumsy intervention which did little for the wretched Afghans, and even less for the struggle against terrorism.

In December, Downing Street put out a memo castigating the pundits who had got it "wrong". The war had made the world "safer for you and your family" it declared. Try telling that to Mrs Pearl or the families of the French engineers blown up in Karachi last week. Try telling that to Americans who have been warned that there is a danger of a terrorist attack on a nuclear installation on July 4.

Madeleine Bunting
Published in the Guardian © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002

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