Bruce Anderson: We must hold our nerve, for it will be a very long war

'We take it for granted that US victory in the Pacific was inevitable. At the time, it seemed more uncertain'
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It had been a faltering few days, even before the really bad news. Abdul Haq was a remarkable man. Charming, witty, urbane and cosmopolitan, he was also a warrior and a patriot. Widely travelled, he had made good friends in London and Washington and been a successful businessman in the Gulf, without ever losing his Afghan roots, his love of his country or his willingness to die for it, which he now has.

But this was no fanatic. Though he had spent more than half his life fighting, Abdul Haq knew that there was much more to life than warfare. There was no question of too long a sacrifice making a stone of his heart. There had been a hideous amount of sacrifice; a wife and child murdered, many friends killed, innumerable close brushes with his own death, including the loss of a foot. To the end, however, he retained not only his courage but his sense of humour.

There may have been too much courage. A couple of weeks ago, when Abdul Haq was making the final preparations for what became his final journey, his associates in the West were keen to suppress all news of his intentions or his whereabouts. There were fears for his safety. Then, suddenly, there was an announcement that he was about to return to Afghanistan; there may have been a leak as to his route into the country. There are two unwelcome conclusions to be drawn from all this. The first concerns the ISI, the Pakistani secret service. It is probable that there are Taliban sympathisers among the ISI's lower ranks. One would assume, however, that information as to Abdul Haq's whereabouts would have been guarded by the upper ranks. If those safeguards broke down, the ISI may be fundamentally unreliable. That creates anxieties about both Pakistan's internal security and the safety of its nuclear arsenal.

The second conclusion relates to the Taliban. Abdul Haq was as brave as any man alive, but he had outgrown the recklessness which he had narrowly outlived. He would have been aware that his journey was dangerous, but he would have tried to calculate the risks, in order to minimise them. He must have assumed that he would find friends and supporters in the region where he met only a gallows rope and a hail of bullets. His miscalculation does suggest that the Taliban may be more entrenched than Western policymakers would like to believe.

This has unfortunate consequences for Western strategy. Mass desertions leading to a rapid crumble; the emergence of a broad-based anti-Taliban coalition, including Taliban defectors; the capture of Kabul, principally by the Northern Alliance, but with Pashtun support – 10 days ago, all that would have seemed fanciful, but not impossible. It does now seem pretty improbable, at least this side of Ramadan and the winter. That helps to explain the pessimistic tone of Western spokesmen's recent pronouncements; even before Abdul Haq's death, there was renewed emphasis on the long game.

To be fair, the statements to the media by both Washington and London were always vastly more cautious than the gloss placed on them by the more gung-ho sections of the press. But the damage has been done. From the outset, the public was fired-up for revenge, especially in the US. It was also aware of the West's technological superiority. So it was psychologically attuned to a brief, dramatic campaign leading to a clear-cut victory.

All that seems less and less likely. We are engaged in an open-ended conflict against an elusive foe in an unstable region. Nor is it clear what would constitute a victory. It is easy to define a set of circumstances which the West could define as victory. The death of Mr bin Laden, the destruction of al-Qa'ida and the replacement of the Taliban by an Afghan government which would not offer hospitality to terrorists; those are all desiderata. But are they enough? What would be the point of eliminating Mr bin Laden if Saddam Hussein remained in power, equally malevolent towards the West and in possession of far more dangerous weaponry?

In the immediate aftermath of 11 September, there was a widespread recognition in Washington that Saddam would have to become a target if the terrorist threat were to be eliminated. This clear-eyed view has had to be dimmed, in the service of coalition building. But there is no reason to believe that Saddam Hussein has renounced any of his evil intentions.

Confusion among policymakers has been reflected by a certain confusion in public opinion. After 11 September, the US was keyed up. Since then, nervousness has intervened. It is still probable that the anthrax attacks were the work of a lone psychopath with no links to Middle Eastern terror – but the whole affair has made Americans conscious of the dangers. Even if this anthrax outrage was not state-sponsored terrorism, the next one could be.

With every passing week, George Bush has been more sure of himself and more confident in his rhetoric. This is just as well, for the great challenges lie ahead. In strategic matters, the Americans are a restless nation who expect quick results and are unused to domestic vulnerability. This time they may have to live with slow results and a protracted vulnerability. Their political leaders will have to work to calm their fears, steady their patience and inspire their steadiness of purpose.

Oddly enough, Franklin Roosevelt had the same problem in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor. In retrospect, we all take it for granted that the American victory in the Pacific was inevitable. At the time, everything seemed much more uncertain. There was a lot of edginess, with radio stations ceasing to broadcast, lest their signals served as navigational aids to enemy aircraft. Even sport was affected, with nervous officials switching the Rose Bowl (football) game from Pasadena, near Los Angeles, to distant safety in North Carolina on the East Coast. There were calls for the mass internment of Japanese Americans, which were heeded to an unnecessary extent. It was not until well into 1942 that Americans calmed down and concluded that the West Coast was safe from the threat of invasion.

There is some comfort in that historical comparison, for it is widely assumed that the Americans of that epoch were less nervous and more stoical than their pleasure-loving descendants. Perhaps the difference is not as great as has been assumed. Americans are still unworried about the fate of the fighting forces in distant battlefields; the new anxieties relate to biological plague attacks on the US mainland. Yet there is still no significant weakening in the determination to see the business through.

But there is a renewed challenge for President Bush. In the absence of action, he can only provide words; in the absence of a quick victory, he must provide long-term reassurance without raising false hopes. He will probably succeed – as will Tony Blair in Britain – though these are hazardous weeks and months. Western forces are deployed while Western civilians are at risk. The forces may have the finest modern technology at their disposal, but there is no guarantee that this will eliminate the risk.