The fall of Kabul: challenges of liberation, 13 November 2001


With the Taliban’s abandonment of Kabul, the West is beginning to proclaim the liberation of Afghanistan. The cassette players come out and the beards off, a payoff from the B52s. As Polly Toynbee put it in response to this column’s criticisms: bombing is unheroic but effective.

For the third time in a decade, bombing has been followed by freedom. The third Western war of the global era, like Kuwait and Kosovo, has left many locals happy. Risks have been transferred to local armies and civilians, as I argue below, but the most tangible benefits so far may also have come to Afghans rather than America. And no one can doubt that the fall of the Taliban is a serious good. Whether or not we agree with the methods, it is important that we recognise the need to build on these indirect benefits of the ‘war on terrorism’.

The war isn’t over yet, but ‘Stop the war’ may be an increasingly irrelevant call. Now that the USAF has broken the logjam, the longstanding Afghan war may be rolling towards some sort of conclusion. Two things are most important now: that the new Afghan disposition is based on respect for human rights, and that food is quickly brought to the hungry across the country.

The first demand is no small requirement: the victorious Northern Alliance is a bunch of warlords with very unsavoury records. Leaving the ground-level military job to the locals makes the political job all the more important. Yet neither the US nor the UN will have, or even want, the degree of control that NATO had in Kosovo. And we know how difficult it was to prevent KLA reprisals against Serb civilians there. The second demand may be politically simpler: but real priority will be needed to make sure aid gets where its needed in time for winter.

A great responsibility now falls on Tony Blair to make good his promises of a humanitarian dimension to the war, and of an acceptable political solution in Afghanistan. An equal responsibility falls on Western aid organisations, who will have a privileged role in speaking for the Afghan people to the world, and on Western journalists, who are our authoritative witnesses to events on the ground. We need these forces of civil society to help hold Western governments to account.

There is a special challenge to the peace movement. Can it transcend the simple antiwar message, and deal with these consequential issues of the war? Its options now are to add a powerful voice to the Afghan people’s needs: or to fade over the coming months into sectarian, propagandist irrelevance.

All this assumes, of course, that Afghanistan is the limit of the war. If it is, and US-UK special forces seek out al-Qaida, no one is going to be too upset: but the uncertainty of ends in this pursuit is disturbing. It is a matter of high importance that bin Laden and other leaders be brought to international justice, not conveniently killed in the pursuit. ‘Dead or alive’ will seriously compromise the remaining legitimacy of Western policy.

Most serious is the lingering suspicion that Washington still hankers after bombing Iraq. It is one thing to bring down a shaky, tinpot and poorly armed regime like the Taliban. It is another thing to bomb Iraq towards democracy. This is not the way to drag the Middle East into a new era. After Afghanistan, the ‘war against terrorism’ must become what it should always have been: a determined policing and legal operation. It must not be an open-ended, serial use of violence, a thirty years war of the 21st century.

We must not forget where we started on 11 September. The Islamists have thrown down a fundamental challenge to world society. We can assert the strength of our emerging global political and legal institutions, indict those responsible for the barbarism in New York, and make the political changes (to start with, forcing a just settlement for the Palestinians) that will convince the Muslim world of a place in a common future. Or the West can further indulge its military superiority, safe in the knowledge that it can transfer most of the risks to the locals – risks that sooner or later will rebound.

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