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Disaster that lives in this triumph
13 December 2001
'This new kind of warfare seems a wonderful experience for America. No wonder they talk about extending the war'
Here we have one story: a story of triumph. The enemy is collapsing with amazing speed. The casualties have been minimal. The country is being rebuilt. People are grateful. The world is a safer place. Success!
Here we have another story: a story of caution. An unjust war is being fought. The enemy has not yet been captured. Civilians have died, prisoners have been tortured, and hundreds of thousands of refugees are suffering. People are angry. The world is no safer. Disaster!
Can a war be both a triumph and a disaster? It seems so. For American politicians, the sense of exultation when looking at events in Afghanistan is understandable. One overriding fear about military engagements, driven above all by memories of Vietnam, was that their troops would be decimated, traumatised and humiliated. That fear has pretty much been laid to rest by a new kind of warfare, relying on amazingly sophisticated military technology and just a few élite forces on the ground. That's coupled, of course, with local, non-American troops to carry out the grunt work.
In such a war Americans do not have to engage in years of filthy, bloody close-quarters combat. They can call down the big bombs directly to flatten the caves where fighters are hiding, rather than going in and fighting them face to face in the dark.
This new kind of warfare seems to be a wonderfully positive experience for Americans. No wonder, then, that American politicians and military top brass have been talking about extending the war. What a dream it would be to go ahead in Somalia by using air strikes against terrorist camps while backing a group of local warlords to hunt down Islamic groups. What a joy it would be to play an even grander game in Iraq to back Kurdish and Shia dissidents to do the messy stuff on the ground while they hover above, smashing Saddam Hussein's palaces and factories.
But you don't have to subscribe to the disaster version of the war so far to find these dreams chilling. Even the British military does not share the desire to carry the war quickly into other fields. When Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, the Chief of Defence Staff, spoke earlier this week, he warned against following America's determination to widen the war. A war against terror that became disproportionate, he said, could "radicalise Arab opinion further", while a successful war against terror needed to win over "hearts and minds".
This may yet turn out to be the biggest hole in the triumphalist version of the war against terrorism. Never mind those questions about whether there is anything that actually links Saddam Hussein's administration or bases in Somalia to the attacks of 11 September. Even if there was, can force alone be used to combat terror? Or is there a battle for hearts and minds that must also be won?
Even with the war confined to Afghanistan, there is a continued fear that potential terrorists are being radicalised rather than wiped out. After all, if force were really enough to turn angry young men away from thoughts of hijacks, car-bombs and suicide missions, then the British could have massacred the IRA without fear of reprisal, and Palestinians would never dream of striking back at their conquerors.
Those of us who are sitting and watching this war from London and New York don't have any way of knowing how it is really playing in refugee camps in Afghanistan or in schools in Saudi Arabia. But anyone who read Robert Fisk's report of the attack on himself will have been chilled to the bone by the hatred that he encountered among refugees on the Afghan-Pakistan border.
He said that he believed his attackers were filled with loathing of Westerners, enough loathing to bring stones smashing down into the skull of an unarmed man, because they had been bombed out of their homes. He heard from one villager that refugees in the area had been watching videotapes of the massacres in Mazar-i-Sharif and of CIA officers threatening a kneeling prisoner with death.
This is the kind of story that the triumphalists simply cannot understand. Why would these refugees want to kill the first Westerner they could find? But it's not entirely surprising that destitute young men who have seen family members die or who have watched pictures of Americans humiliating Muslim prisoners do not share the same view of the war as the Westerners who hear the stirring tales of liberation and surrender.
We might also remember that, with the massive humanitarian crisis that is still going on, many ordinary Afghans do not yet have much reason to thank the West. One spokesperson from Médecins Sans Frontières was quoted this week saying that less aid was entering Afghanistan now than before 11 September. In just one refugee camp on the outskirts of Herat, in western Afghanistan, about 20 children and old people were dying every day of hunger and cold, The Economist reported last week.
Many supporters of the war argue that if Afghanistan now becomes a more stable, freer and richer country, the seeds of radicalisation will not be able to flower. Indeed, if that happens, the involvement of the West could be seen with gratitude and respect. This optimistic view, which we would all love to believe, rests on the need for long-term nation-building. That is something that British politicians have, to their credit, spoken up for frequently, and they have the weight of public opinion behind them. From the responses I have had to my articles in the past few months, I believe that ordinary Britons are sympathetic to the plight of Afghan civilians and will be shocked if the West runs away from its commitment to help rebuild their society.
But the most scary aspect of American triumphalism is that it seems not to recognise the need for this long-term commitment to peace. That is why George Bush can talk so enthusiastically of extending the commitment to war. He said in a recent speech that Afghanistan was "only the beginning", and that American forces would take on the "evil ones". The targets generally referred to are in Somalia, where al-Qa'ida supporters are said to have found refuge among warlords, and Yemen, where the government is being pressed to move against suspected al-Qa'ida camps.
But Bush also declared that countries that developed weapons to "terrorise the world" would be "held accountable", and mentioned Iraq and North Korea. Donald Rumsfeld chimed with that when he said that the list of suspect nations included Iraq, Syria, Libya, Cuba and North Korea.
Perhaps it is just an overreaction to believe that the United States is now preparing to launch military strikes on Somalia, an even more destitute and chaotic nation than Afghanistan, before seeing what the fall-out from the bombing of Afghanistan might be.
Perhaps it is absurd to believe that it will launch an all-out war against Iraq in the teeth of certain fury from other Arab countries. Perhaps it is merely unfounded anti-Americanism to think that George Bush and his friends are prepared to bomb and walk away, not just in Afghanistan but in other countries in Africa and the Middle East, leaving millions of civilians to try to rebuild their ruined lives without help. I hope so. I hope there are no grounds for these fears.