Fergal Keane: Don't celebrate yet - one battle doesn't win a war

'What exists now is a nervous truce; the struggle for power in Afghanistan has yet to be settled'
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The Independent Online

So the war is over and the hour of total vindication is at hand. What a comforting thought as we head into the festive season. Could it be that only four weeks ago we were all trembling on the cusp of doom, or gravely nodding as Washington warned it was a war that could last well past our lifetime? In modern war a month is indeed a long time. It would seem we have reached the hour when the hawks can crow and the sceptics wonder how they managed to be so wrong.

The Allied forces have suffered minimal casualties; at the time of writing not a single British soldier has been killed by enemy fire. The only death at the hands of Taliban or al-Qa'ida fighters was a CIA operative, killed as he was interrogating prisoners. As in Kosovo, air power appears to have done the trick. In the space of just a week, men who have spent a lifetime hating and killing each other have agreed a peace deal. We have that entity so beloved by Western diplomats – a power-sharing government. Treble goats' milk all round. Let the Kalashnikovs be beaten into ploughshares (to be used after the millions of landmines have been cleared, of course). Ring out the bells and print the Victory stamps.

And if you believe all that, then read no further. I would hate to spoil your good mood with grumpy caveats and painful realities. What has been won is not a war but a battle. In Kabul a group of warlords now sit in government together. They agree that they like power and money. As long as there is enough of this to go around, there is a chance that they may work together. But I can't help feel that the optimism of much of the reporting from Bonn is premature.

The fact that the Tajik component of the Northern Alliance (more specifically the Panjshir Valley-based Tajiks) control the three most powerful ministries (Foreign, Defence and Home) has left the Uzbek, Pashtun and Hazara leaders feeling worried. The bloodstained Uzbek leader, General Dostum – a man who has switched sides so many times he must suffer from perpetual dizziness – has publicly denounced the deal. In the western city of Herat, the local commander, Ismail Khan, has been grumbling, and many of the Pashtun tribal leaders in the south are wondering what they have to gain from the new arrangement.

The answer is peace and economic recovery. But these are never to the fore of a warlord's mind. What exists now is a nervous truce; the real struggle for power in Afghanistan has yet to be settled. I hope it will happen peacefully but I am not sanguine.

Did somebody say the war was nearing its end? Perhaps the coalition's war in Afghanistan is nearing its end, but I doubt the country's warlords have had their final say. The al-Qa'ida network has been dealt a powerful blow, but there is some way to go before it is destroyed. In cities, towns and villages across the Middle East and Central Asia there are plenty of young men still willing to wage jihad against America – perhaps more willing than ever. To borrow the words of Gerry Adams about the IRA: "They haven't gone away, you know."

The coalition has achieved two significant aims. The defeat of the Taliban will have made other fundamentalist regimes loath to offer sanctuary to al-Qa'ida, and the leadership core of the organisation has been largely destroyed (though bin Laden himself remains at large at the time of writing.) But the hatred that drives al-Qa'ida burns as fierce as ever. The danger to our cities is not from the bitter-enders fighting in the hills around Tora Bora but from educated young men in places like Cairo or Riyadh or Beirut. It was men like these who committed the atrocities in America, not the Kalashnikov-wielding militia that disintegrated under the pressure of US airstrikes.

It might be different if the societies in which they lived supported the war on terror, or at least felt they had common cause with the coalition. But public opinion in the region is largely opposed to the war and nervous about US intentions. Many in the Islamic world were horrified by the World Trade Centre atrocities, but there has been no great period of self-questioning; nor is there any evidence that radical Islam has been marginalised after 11 September. Quite the contrary. It may take a few years to become manifest but there is a profound threat to pro-Western regimes in the Middle East. This is a period of radicalisation for many young Muslims and we must prepare ourselves for the possibility of violent instability in the region.

Some still like to delude themselves that an era of secular modernity is about to be ushered in, not only in Afghanistan but across the Middle East. One newspaper speculated this week that the son of the Shah might return to power in Iran. This forecast was doubtless inspired by the return to prominence of King Zahir Shah in Afghanistan. Forget it. The Shah's son is an irrelevance, a reminder of a brutal and corrupt regime. The battle in the next decade will be to prevent even more radical Islamists taking power in the region.

As for the immediate situation in Afghanistan, the urgent imperative is to get peacekeeping forces on the ground. The grudging assent of the Northern Alliance was hard won by the diplomats in Bonn. If troops aren't deployed soon, they can kiss goodbye to that agreement. The preference is for troops from Islamic nations, but there has been no eager scramble to volunteer.

There is a Catch-22 here: if the West cannot persuade Muslim countries to supply soldiers, it will be faced with the dangerous option of deploying its own forces. Then the same Muslim countries who refused to help will mutter about Western imperialism. If Islamic forces can't be found, then states that haven't participated in the military action in Afghanistan – such as South Africa, the Scandinavians, the Irish – should be asked. These are non-aligned countries with well-trained armies and no history of involvement in the region.

That leaves the question of how much progress has been made in the overall struggle against Islamic terrorism. The fighting in Afghanistan is less significant than the intelligence war. And that is a conflict we will learn about only when our side fails. It is not in the nature of secret operatives to crow about their successes. But it is this secret war that will have the greatest impact on the security of our cities and skies.

As for the political struggle to create a more just world order, to remove the conditions in which terrorism breeds, I wait in hope. Tony Blair understands the need for a just world order, but it is harder to find evidence of such belief in Washington. Or should I say it is harder to see the US accepting that a major part of that struggle will involve American diplomatic and economic effort.

This is not demanding an altruistic crusade but pointing out what should be obvious: our security cannot be guaranteed in a world of poverty and injustice. You could write off these concerns as typical media cynicism, liberal hand-wringing or evidence of what the dear old Sun calls "war wobbling". Sorry, I am neither hawk or dove or cynic, but I think we should recognise the difference between the end of a battle and the end of a war.

The writer is a Special Correspondent for the BBC

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