Published on Tuesday, December 11, 2001 in the Guardian of London
Fighting the Wrong War
Afghans Have Paid a High Price for a Campaign That Has Failed to Meet Its Original Aims
by Jonathan Steele
The toppling of the Taliban may eventually prove to be the best thing to have happened in Afghanistan for a decade. But it was not an initial aim of the US-led war. In the wake of their departure from Kandahar, that point cannot be stressed enough, before the drumbeat of triumphalism deafens us all. Victory over the wrong opponent is not much of a victory. It sounds more like "collateral benefit" - provided we are sure the benefit outweighs the costs.
Remember the war's stated purpose: to bring to justice those who had helped to mastermind the atrocities of September 11, and eliminate the bases where the terrorists had learned their skills. All the information available (and it was known before the first missile was launched against Afghanistan) suggests that the 19 hijackers trained for their mission in Europe and the United States, and entered the US with legal visas. Evidence that they personally had any connection with Afghanistan has been minimal, verging on nil. No suggestion has ever been made that any of the al-Qaida network were Afghans.
That Osama bin Laden, the founder of al-Qaida, had lived in Afghanistan for over five years was well known. That he had inspired the concept of a high-profile attack on US targets of symbolic national significance - without necessarily choosing the methods, the timing or the men - was a reasonable suspicion. But where does that put the Taliban? There has been much indignant talk about "people who harbor terrorists". Unload the emotion, and this is not much more useful than describing European states which decline to deport murder suspects to the US as "people who harbor killers".
More importantly, the Taliban had no way of enforcing their will on Bin Laden. If Donald Rumsfeld, with his infrared laser-guided heat-seeking cave-buster bombs, cannot find Bin Laden after nine weeks on the job, how does he expect the Taliban to have done better? As Ahmed Rashid's excellent book on the Taliban makes abundantly clear, Mullah Mohammed Omar is no Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic. He did not run a "war machine" or a "police state". Afghanistan was an impoverished and destroyed society with minimal infrastructure, in which the concept of governance meant nothing more than the use of a few satellite telephones to issue social edicts which the so-called religious police enforced. Almost every urban service, from education to health to food, was provided by outside aid agencies or privately by Afghans on their own. Villages had to fend for themselves.
To imagine that in such a vacuum of government the Taliban could arrest Bin Laden was laughable, although Mullah Omar did, of course, ask a shura of religious leaders to consider the problem and they did recommend Bin Laden leave Afghanistan and be tried before an Islamic court elsewhere. If toppling the Taliban arrived late as a war aim (Tony Blair only stated it unequivocally on October 30, three weeks into the bombing campaign), it seems to have emerged through desperation and cynicism. Realizing that finding Bin Laden might prove impossible, the war leaders turned their sights on the Taliban instead. Politically, they were easy meat. Few in the western world, women or men, would grieve to see them go. Commie-bashing was never as simple as this.
I hold no brief for the Taliban, but I also hold no brief for an approach to politics which consists of demonizing your opponents, over-personalizing issues and evading nuanced judgments. The Taliban were not monsters. They were a wild mixture of religious fundamentalism, puritan ideology, Pashtun nationalism and the social norms of the Afghan village, common to every Afghan ethnic group. Go to the Afghan districts of Quetta in Pakistan, or watch the TV pictures of "liberated" Kabul, and you will see the burka everywhere. The total veiling of women did not begin with the Taliban, and has not ended with their demise.
In an earlier war western governments and compliant journalists demonized Afghanistan's communists, ignoring the fact that their social and gender policies throughout the 1980s were enlightened. In those days the west armed and aided the fundamentalists and those who wanted to deny women's rights. So demonizing the Taliban came naturally. Yet, as aid agencies have testified, the Taliban produced order in place of civil war. "With the Taliban there was a certain amount of security in the areas they controlled. I wouldn't say the Taliban were supportive, but a lot of aid went in - there was acceptance," says John Fairhurst, Oxfam's program director for Afghanistan. "Now we have local commanders looking to take advantage of the collapse. You also have bandits thinking they have more freedom to operate".
Legally, it is doubtful whether the two UN resolutions which preceded the military strikes permitted an attack on the Taliban, as opposed to al-Qaida. What of the costs of the bombing? Perhaps around 1,500 innocent people have been killed, if one assumes an accident rate of about 150 a week. (America's anti-Taliban allies in Jalalabad reported as many as 300 civilian victims in that one area last week.) The air strikes have driven at least 600,000 people from their homes. This is comparable with Milosevic's deportations from Kosovo during the NATO bombardment. But while he committed his crimes in springtime, with a host of agencies to help the refugees as they crossed the border, the US launched its Afghan assault in winter, in a situation where neighboring countries would only grudgingly open their gates.
Half the population of Kandahar, a third of Kabul, and thousands more from the north, fled the terror and were left wandering inside Afghanistan in cold and hunger. Not much of this has reached the world's attention. Two years ago the remote town of Kukes in Albania was host to hundreds of reporters and film crews sending daily interviews with refugees to eager editors. In this war the comparable town of Chaman in Pakistan produced few such dispatches, barely one a week per paper - the refrain became: "My desk just glazes over if I suggest another refugee story".
Finally, there is the time lost in delivering food, blankets and medicine to the hundreds of thousands people displaced by drought before the bombing started. For three months very little aid has been going in. "The politics have changed dramatically but the humanitarian situation remains dire," says Tim Pitt of Medecins sans Frontieres. "Before September 11 we were reaching upwards of one million people. Now it's less than that".
With the fall of the Taliban, Tony Blair talks of "total vindication" and supporters of the war call for apologies from those who opposed it. OK, I was wrong. On October 6, I wrote: "Missile strikes will just be the hors d'oeuvre. The main meal will be a sustained campaign to arm the Taliban's opponents, the Northern Alliance, so that they can seize Kabul and take power." I am truly sorry - I never thought the air war would be so off target, and bring so much misery to so many innocent Afghans.
Toppling the Taliban may eventually give Afghanistan the chance of good government. Many of those in the interim authority are modernizers, rather than jihadis; there is an ethnic balance; foreign governments may send in an efficient peacekeeping force to keep the warlords at bay; aid flows may be restored to pre-September levels. But these possible benefits are in the future. The costs have already been paid.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001