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Will a Few Holes in the Runway of Kandahar Airport Make a Difference?'
14 October 2001
How kind of the Americans to suspend bombing on Fridays. Will it, I wonder, be halted on all Muslim sabbaths? For the festival that marks the ascent of the Prophet Mohamed to Heaven? For Ramadan?
This is not the only way we are fooling ourselves. When we opened our air bombardment of Afghanistan, we went straight into Kosovo mode. We were, so we were told, going to attack ground to air defences, command and control centres and achieve total "air superiority''. Forget the fact that the Taliban have already taken Afghanistan back to the Middle Ages, that scarcely any of their 20 clapped-out Mig-21s can fly, that they probably wouldn't know the difference between a command and control centre and a dustbin. In just a few short hours last week, we turned the Taliban into the Serbs.
True, we bombed Osama bin Laden's camps. I bet we did. There would have been no difficulty in spotting their location because, of course, most of them were built by the CIA when Mr bin Laden and his men were the good guys although this salient fact oddly eluded the generals when they came to tell us what they had bombed. But do we really believe that punching holes into the runway of Kandahar airport is going to have any military effect on men who smash televisions and hang videotapes from trees? Do we think that blowing up fuel dumps is going to stop bearded men from shooting at us in the mountains? If the equally bloody men of the Northern Alliance are to be our foot soldiers, do we intend once they reach the ruins of Kabul to allow them to return to their good old days of rape and looting? Or are we going to send in the Americans and the British to capture the cities which is exactly what the Russians did in 1980 and leave the mountains to the bad guys?
We've been making much of the Mountain Division recently, supposedly poised in Uzbekistan. But poised to do what? The only conceivable military tactic that might work for us that is, if we still remember we're after Mr bin Laden, not the destruction of the ruins of Afghanistan would be to slice off bits of the country, one at a time, for search missions. But anyone who has visited Afghanistan knows how awesome that task would be. A journey down the Kabul Gorge with its towering, sheer peaks and freezing rivers, suggests that the Mountain Division would have to spend years picking its way through the rocks.
And all the while, a humanitarian catastrophe is growing closer. Can our soldiers fight their way across a country teeming with starving, emaciated people, distributing ration packs along with cheerful requests for information on the whereabouts of Mr bin Laden. How are we to concentrate on retribution for 11 September when armies of Afghan civilians are appealing for us to save their lives?
Even if we find Mr bin Laden and his men, are we then just going to allow Afghanistan to rot back into the muck, its people dying of hunger and landmines? It's only a matter of time before the clerks of Pakistan accuse the West of responsibility for the humanitarian tragedy about to occur and the worst thing is that they may be partly right.
I'm struck by what President Bush said last week; that this could last weeks, months, even a decade. I wonder how many Afghans will be left alive in 10 years' time to appreciate the respect we showed them by not bombing on Fridays.