Bruce Anderson: This time the Americans are ready for the bodybags

'This bold strike was intended to convey the impression that US pressure would be relentless'
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The Independent Online

The cameras were in the front line, and footage was available almost as soon as the mission was over; paratroops produce dramatic pictures. The exercise demonstrated that the Pentagon's powers of spin-control are on a par with those of Downing Street, which has led some critics to dismiss the whole affair as a media stunt. They are wrong. It has strategic importance, for it sent two powerful signals.

The first was diplomatic. Even many pro-Westerners in the Afghan region had been urging caution on the US. Imran Khan and others have been arguing that, as the Taliban were on the point of collapse anyway, there was no need for precipitate action, which would only rally opinion behind the Taliban, while undermining General Musharraf's position in Pakistan. This diagnosis was doubly faulty.

If America had held back, the rest of the world – including the Arab world – would not have attributed this to judicious restraint, but to cowardice. Whatever was said in public, everyone would have concluded that this was a nation so traumatised by the fear of casualties that it was incapable of mounting a military operation, even in the clearest self-defence. At that moment, and whatever its armoury, America would have ceased to be a great power.

It would also have lost all its allies in the region. A country which will not defend itself is incapable of defending anyone else. Some years ago, an Arab monarch was asked whether he would rather be America's friend or its enemy. He thought deeply and answered: "An enemy. America often appeases its enemies. It always betrays its friends." That is a harsh judgement, but if the Americans had failed to take action to avenge their 6,000 dead, it would have become a commonplace one. Every previously friendly Arab ruler would have feared that if he stayed close to the Americans, he would go the way of the Shah of Iran.

Equally, Imran Khan was over-estimating Pakistan's frailty and underestimating the Taliban's ability to keep going. By all rational criteria, the Taliban government is on the verge of disintegrating – but what is the relevance of rational criteria? The infrastructure may have fallen apart while the population is starving or fleeing, but the Taliban are still able to enforce some form of central control. They could stagger on indefinitely.

As for General Musharraf, he is a good soldier who knows how to maintain order. Trouble has flared around the Afghan border, especially in Quetta. But given the number of Afghan refugees in the area, this was only to be expected. The rest of the country is merely uneasy. Fewer protests have been held than most Western observers had expected, and above all, the army's loyalty shows no sign of strain.

Pakistan may have a large and poor population which could be enticed by Moslem fundamentalism, but it also has a large middle class, whose members are aware that if the general was overthrown the result would be chaos – including the destruction of their property and savings. The general's government is not without support or resources.

That said, it is clearly in Pakistan's interests that the Afghan crisis be resolved quickly, with a broadly based government in Kabul, including Pashtun representatives who could reassure their Pakistani kinsmen. On this point, America's interests coincide with Pakistan's. The US would also like to see a friendly government installed in Kabul as rapidly as possible, so that the whole nature of the operation can change. Once Afghanistan has a broadly based administration which repudiates Osama bin Laden, the Americans could finance a large-scale humanitarian effort, which would be Moslem led.

But time is of the essence. In Washington, a recurrent nightmare over the past few weeks is that the whole affair would gradually bog down, that in six months time the US would still be bombing and the Northern Alliance would still be confronting the Taliban north of Kabul – while Mr bin Laden remained at large. If that was to happen, Western public opinion would crumble – especially on the European mainland and in the parliamentary Labour Party – while even the American populace would grow uneasy. In the Arab world, meanwhile, time and apparent American failure would only add to the pressure on uncertain regimes.

Washington policy makers agreed that momentum must not be lost. Yet there was a time-consuming difficulty. To bomb the Taliban out of the way and let the Northern Alliance march on Kabul would have been unacceptable to the Pashtun majority in southern Afghanistan and to the Pakistanis. But the need to construct a broad Afghan coalition also limited America's immediate military options.

Hence Kandahar. This bold strike was intended to convey the impression that American pressure would be relentless, throughout Afghanistan. By launching such a dramatic military operation in Pashtun territory, the Americans were also hoping that Pashtun opponents of the Taliban would be emboldened, while ordinary Afghans might conclude that the Taliban could not survive for much longer.

But the second signal that Kandahar sent was equally important: to domestic American opinion. As we discovered at Arnhem, and the Germans in Crete, paratroop operations are hazardous, and men leaping out of planes are vulnerable. By its willingness to risk the casualties, the Americans were determined to convince the doubters, at home and abroad, that the era of fearing body bags is over.

For the past 25 years, Donald Rumsfeld, who authorised this operation, has been prominent among the American conservatives who have lamented the consequences of the Vietnam war and who have insisted that spending hundreds of billions of dollars on high technology is pointless if it has no brave infantrymen willing to go in harm's way to use that technology in the frontline.

The success of this weekend's operations will have heartened Mr Rumsfeld, as will the enthusiasm with which they have been acclaimed by American public opinion. From now on, and for the first time since Vietnam, we have good grounds for believing that America once again has armed forces which are prepared to take casualties, and a public opinion which is ready to applaud their courage in doing so. As a result of Kandahar, America has vindicated its claim to superpower status – which it would have forfeited had it had taken Imran Khan's advice.

As regards casualties, Kandahar was cheap. That will not always be the case in similar operations over the days and months to come. But the grief and anger in the immediate aftermath of the World Trade Centre now appears to have been transformed into a steady resolution. In this mood, America will defeat its enemies, even if it has to pay the resulting butcher's bill.