Fergal Keane: The next struggle - how to save Afghanistan from its history

'I was in Kabul the last time the Northern Alliance was in power, and it was not a happy or a safe place'
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Thirty-six hours travelling and many conversations later I have yet to meet anyone who sees a happy conclusion to the war in Afghanistan.

Thirty-six hours travelling and many conversations later I have yet to meet anyone who sees a happy conclusion to the war in Afghanistan. Because I'm travelling in the Middle East and Pakistan that shouldn't be too much of a surprise; the closer you are to the epicentre of a conflict the more frightening its reverberations. "Where will it all end?" asked a Pakistani businessman in the lounge at Dubai. And I was lost for words. It simply wasn't possible to say.

A security guard at the airport in Islamabad asked me what I thought the Americans would achieve. I didn't answer, but asked a question of my own. What would happen in Pakistan? "Oh it will be all right. This is a stronger country than a lot of foreigners think," he said.

I hope he is right. Around every television in every public place people gather for the latest news from Afghanistan. The overriding impression is of nervousness and resentment – depending on where you are in the region – at the bombings. The significance of what happened on 11 September has not so much been set to one side as still not been absorbed. I listened to an Arab commentator on television the other night speaking about an atmosphere of denial across much of the Islamic world; there were, he said, huge numbers of people who were struggling to recognise that bin Laden had emerged from the religious landscape of the region.

Perhaps there is something in that, though it is a conclusion only an Arab commentator can make with any accuracy or sensitivity. The Allied leaders have been proclaiming the virtues of tolerant Islam at every opportunity, telling Muslims how much they respect the religion. The feeling among many Muslims I've spoken to is that they are being patronised. There are good reasons for Mr Blair and Mr Bush's repeated assertions about Islamic tolerance: the very real danger of a backlash against Muslims in Britain and the US and the need to preserve at least acceptance of the Allied military campaign among friendly Arab governments.

But what Arabs want is less talk about how wonderful their religion is and more of an idea about where the war is going. When they hear talk of the war being extended to include other countries there is a real nervousness. And this has a lot less to do with any overriding feeling that the Islamic world is under siege from the West, but a quite understandable reluctance to see your region and home convulsed by war. It's quite simple; people are scared and they need to know what the endgame is.

Let us leave the question of strikes against other Arab countries out of this for a moment (the British government thankfully seems to have thwarted the Washington hawks on this for the time being). What would help allay a great deal of the fear and resentment would be some hint from the Allies that they were interested in a realistic political process to raise Afghanistan from the ashes. So far we've had vague talk about bringing back the ageing king who would then summon a council of elders. This is pie in the sky.

The people who hold power in Afghanistan are those who wield the guns. And if the Northern Alliance marches into Kabul courtesy of Allied air strikes, you can bet they won't be offering seats in a multi-party and multi-ethnic democratic government. Some of the coverage of the Alliance has given the impression that they are simply a gallant band of mountain warriors set on reclaiming their country from the dark madness of Taliban. Because they are media-friendly and allow reporters up to the frontline they have inveigled themselves into the public consciousness as a serious alternative government. Forget about that. I was in Kabul when they were last in power, and it was not a happy or a safe place. Drug-running and public executions and appalling abuses of human rights were just part of the daily routine.

The main justification for supporting the Northern Alliance seems to be that nothing could possibly be worse than the Taliban. Wrong. It would be a different kind of terror. The Taliban happened because the Alliance was such a corrupt and brutal disaster. A return of the Alliance to power – in the face of bitter opposition from the Pashtun majority – could quite easily create a new monster or, more likely, a whole panoply of monsters carving Afghanistan to pieces. So with the Taliban facing defeat at some stage in the next year what might the Allies usefully do to forestall a disaster for which they will inevitably carry the historic responsibility?

Up to now Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the United Nations, has been curiously reluctant to intervene. True he can only officially do so if requested by the Security Council. But the Secretary General has the moral authority to speak out when he sees a disaster on the horizon. He did, after all, subtly warn the Americans about extending the war and was impressively forthright in the days after the 11 September atrocities. In a situation where the Islamic world is increasingly suspicious and where the coalition might at any moment be fractured, Mr Annan could propose a conference of interested parties to discuss the rule of post war Afghanistan.

The difficulties and impracticalities would make most sane people run a mile. Simply setting out who would be entitled to attend could consume endless hours and not necessarily achieve any good. Likewise the agenda, not to mention the core question of who would rule after the war.

But the alternative to trying is the rule of Mad Max with vengeance and slaughter and starvation all played out on television and all laid at the feet of the Allies who changed the military balance. A UN-sponsored conference, which would include the Northern Alliance along with credible representatives of the Pashtun people and the more moderate surviving elements of the Taliban, would have more credibility than the vague meeting proposed now.

To make any settlement work there needs to be strong pressure on the warring parties. That means Pakistan putting the arm on what is left of the Taliban or their frontmen, and the Allies, along with Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, keeping the Alliance on board. Any settlement would probably have to be accompanied by a massive aid plan and – here is the most perilous element – a peace force drawn primarily from Muslim or, at least, non-aligned nations.

No Allied army is ever going to want to occupy Afghanistan, but the Allies will want some guarantee that the country will not again become a base for terrorists. That cannot be achieved in the absence of a credible and acceptable multi-national peacekeeping force. You could have troops from Malaysia, Nigeria and South Africa, to name a few. There is no guarantee that the local warlords would accept them, but external pressure could surely play a useful role. In such a context the former king might prove a unifying figure, but without outside pressure he wouldn't stand a chance.

The military war is one that only a limited number of countries can fight. But the struggle to save Afghanistan from its history demands a universal response. Of course, a UN-sponsored reconstruction programme is fraught with hazard and I know enough of Afghanistan to see the possibility of failure. But what is the alternative?

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent