Pursuing The War In Afghanistan


Nearly three weeks on from the beginning of the US-led military campaign against Afghanistan it is clear that its objectives are increasingly difficult to attain. There is little sign that the Taliban regime is close to collapse. It is proving difficult indeed to assemble an Afghan coalition that might replace it. The search for Osama bin Laden and his al-Queda organisation, blamed by the United States for the atrocities in New York and Washington on September 11th, has so far proved fruitless. The bombing campaign has hit many military targets and an increasing number of civilian ones, but with what strategic success is quite unclear. The humanitarian crisis mounts daily as millions of people are displaced and hungry.

Military and political leaders in the US now admit openly that the Taliban are formidable fighters on their own terrain, like generations of their forbears. They agree that it may prove impossible to capture Osama bin Laden. They acknowledge that time is pressing hard on them to achieve results before winter closes in, to match the expectations of US citizens and to hold the international coalition supporting them together. So far that coalition has been sustained, based on solidarity with the victims of September 11th and a rejection of fundamentalist terrorism on the part of many Muslim governments. Most of the US's partners are satisfied that so far the military campaign has been targeted and proportionate within the terms of United Nations resolutions. They acknowledge the Bush administration's readiness to consult and to work with the UN in putting together a possible post-Taliban administration in Afghanistan.

This objective seems to be the most coherent aspect of the campaign. It would enable a new government to cooperate with the US-led coalition in pursuing those responsible for the atrocities, humanitarian aid to be brought in speedily and efficiently and a genuinely international effort made to repair the dreadful damage another generation of war has done to Afghanistan and its peoples. The cooperation of many antagonistic groups, factions and surrounding countries will be necessary if it is to succeed. They include Pakistan, Iran, Russia, the exiled king, the Northern Alliance and even sections of the Taliban regime.

Bringing them together will be as difficult as engineering the departure of the Taliban regime, but just as necessary. It should be recognised that this political task has priority over the military campaign, which could get in its way if many more civilians are hit or a humanitarian catastrophe breaks. In those circumstances a halt in the bombing campaign would strengthen the political cohesion of the international coalition and the potential alternative Afghan government. It would also enable food and medicine to be brought in more efficiently before winter comes.

Events far from Afghanistan will also determine the success of the campaign there. The intolerable and unacceptable Israeli operation against targets in the West Bank over recent days has gone on despite President Bush's calls for an immediate withdrawal. Unless he is seen to exert real pressure on Israel there is a constant danger that the international coalition will unravel.