The Surrender Of Kandahar


The imminent surrender of Kandahar by Taliban forces, coming one day after agreement in Bonn on the appointment of a 30 member transitional executive council, indicate that the war in Afghanistan is drawing to a more rapid close than many expected. Political and military progress has been synchronised. This should enable urgent humanitarian aid and longer term redevelopment with international help to proceed - if the new administration holds together. It will allow the US-led campaign in pursuit of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organisation to go ahead unhindered and maybe successfully.

Many qualifications may validly be registered about such an optimistic scenario. The transitional executive may not cohere once it is put in place on the ground in Afghanistan - as was shown yesterday with its rejection by one major warlord, General Abdul Rashid Dostun . The country has had quite sufficient experience of - even addiction to - civil war and foreign interference to make such an agreement a naive hope. Encroaching winter and ineffective international commitment may vitiate the humanitarian and redevelopment efforts. It may prove far more difficult than envisaged to track down and capture bin Laden, his organisation and their Afghan allies. After all, the Soviet Union held the country's cities for ten years in the 1980s without securing victory over its guerrilla opponents.

Nevertheless, the broad international coalition assembled in support of the US-led military campaign (including most of Afghanistan's neighbours), together with the remarkably successful and representative outcome of the United Nations brokered talks in Bonn, certainly permit one to expect a positive outcome. This can be guaranteed only by continuing political pressure to ensure international commitments for Afghanistan's redevelopment are delivered upon. That would be much more difficult to sustain if the US were wilfully and unilaterally to broaden out its campaign against other countries such as Iraq or Somalia. European states must continue to resist that, just as they must redouble their work with the US to contain the latest dangerous tension between Israel and the Palestinians.

This military victory demonstrates the awesome effectiveness of modern US air power accurately deployed. Taliban forces were not able to withstand it from fixed positions ranged against their Afghan enemies, who were thereby crucially advantaged. It will take much more investigation to assess the true human cost of this war and whether it did indeed involve a targeted and proportionate use of force. But it has been mercifully short, even if the fall of Kandahar does not constitute a definitive victory against those who perpetrated the attacks on New York and Washington. It also remains to be seen whether the ripple effects of this outcome will spread out to restore consumer and investor confidence in the United States and elsewhere in the world economy. Just as September 11th reinforced trends already there, so may this short war.