Joan Smith: On war, naughty royals and a lovely pair of mules

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The Independent Online

If there is a peace campaign, or an anti-war movement, it is beginning to look as though some surprising people are sympathetic to it. Nearly three weeks after the terrorist attacks on the United States, no bombs have fallen on Afghanistan. Who would have imagined, in the immediate aftermath of the outrage, that the Bush administration would show such restraint?

Not that I think its patience is infinite; the pathetic stream of refugees, desperately trying to leave Afghanistan for its scarcely more hospitable neighbour, Pakistan, are clearly anticipating some form of military action. But this strange lull has provided an unexpected period for reflection. An attack still seems probable, although one of the purposes of the waiting game may be to embolden the Northern Alliance and other anti-Taliban groups operating within Afghanistan's borders.

This tactic is grimly reminiscent of the old days of the Soviet occupation when the West idolised the mujahedin as freedom fighters, regardless of their scant respect for human rights; if one thing unites the martial factions currently squabbling in Afghanistan, it is a view of women as less than human. Even so, the Taliban's behaviour last week, when it press-ganged men of military age in Kabul – an attempt, I suspect, to collect a few thousand human shields – has hardly increased its popularity with the beleaguered civilian population.

What has become clear is that the problem of international terror requires a more complex response than massive military retaliation on the one hand or a simplistic anti-war movement on the other. Language is important here – one hopeful sign last week was the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's reference to Palestine, breaking a taboo that has been respected for too long by world leaders – and those of us who oppose waves of bombing should be clear about what we are proposing. Instead of talking vaguely about peace, we should be arguing for international justice; for a concerted effort to track down terrorists, using UN forces if necessary; and for rapid ratification of the an International Criminal Court where they could be tried. We also need to think about ways of fostering democratic values in countries where civil society has collapsed or whose leaders support terror, which means that the campaign has to be explicitly linked to human rights. This involves not just hugely-increased humanitarian aid to the population of Afghanistan, as Tony Blair has already proposed, but applying the same tests to our new friends as our enemies.

What is so interesting about the delay, if that is what it is, are the reasons that lie behind it. Perhaps the Bush administration has given some thought to history and geography, and recognised that Afghanistan is just about the last place on earth anyone would choose to invade. But a little-noticed document published by the US Congressional Research Service, only two days after the 11 September atrocities, sets out the dilemmas clearly. It declares that "a non-standard brand of terrorist may be emerging: individuals who do not work for any established terror organisation and who are apparently not agents of any state sponsor". The document uses a striking phrase, "boutique" terrorists, to describe these people, who are not affiliated to any known group.

The scenario is suggestive, given the reluctance of the Bush administration to provide evidence that would stand up in court to link Osama bin Laden with the suicide hi-jackings. It also exposes the scale of the difficulties that face intelligence-gathering organisations, and the unprecedented measures that will have to be taken to combat this new type of terrorist. I am not talking about identity cards, which are useless in all respects except as a sop to public opinion, but opening up the international banking system to much greater scrutiny. Who paid for the hijackers to live in the US while they trained as pilots? With rogue states less willing than before to finance their operations, access to private funds has become vital for terrorists. Yet American politicians have been unremittingly hostile to increased transparency in the international banking system.

But the situation is even worse than that, as the Congressional document reveals. America's war against terrorism is forcing it to turn to unsavoury allies such as Pakistan, a military dictatorship which, according to a US government report on terrorism published last year, "has tolerated terrorists living and moving freely within its territory". Pakistan has supported groups that engage in violence in Kashmir and – as I pointed out last week – is "providing the Taliban with material, fuel, funding, technical assistance and military advisors". The UK is also getting drawn into this dangerous game; the Foreign Secretary was put in the invidious position last week of seeking help from Iran, a country accused by the US in April this year of being the "most active state sponsor of international terrorism".

The war on the freelance terrorists of the 21st century, in other words, apparently requires democracies to court regimes that are up to their neck in supporting old-style murder and mayhem. Well, no one said it would be easy, which is probably why we've had this unexpected period of grace. There have already been several good outcomes, including the somewhat belated political isolation of the Taliban and the widespread realisation that ordinary Afghans are being held hostage by their terrorist-supporting rulers. Most unexpected of all, after the polarised attitudes of the first few days, is the possibility that America's period of restraint has been dictated by apprehensions shared by many people who would characterise themselves as "anti-war".

If the going gets tough, the tough go shopping

It has occurred to me several times, in the last few days, that life seems to be running on parallel tracks; even in the middle of an international crisis, I can't spend every conscious moment wondering whether we are on the brink of war or vulnerable to suicide attacks. Tony Blair has urged us to carry on with normal life and go shopping, although I don't think he intended to encourage panic-buying of anti-chemical warfare suits. I have been doing my bit – the Prime Minister would be proud of me, I think – and I am planning to face Armageddon in leopard-print underwear, gold mesh mules and a black winter coat. I have a feeling I've forgotten something, but it certainly isn't a gas mask.

Let's have a docusoap on the Wessexes

Being a republican, I have never had a favourite royal, but I find myself increasingly drawn to the Earl and Countess of Wessex. The Earl's production company, Ardent, must be one of the few in the world that has a spare television crew at this moment, and was willing to send it to St Andrew's University, despite an agreement to respect the privacy of his nephew, Prince William. Ardent isn't exactly flourishing financially, but the obvious solution to its difficulties is to turn the cameras on the Wessexes themselves. As soap opera, Edward and Sophie are pretty hard to beat.

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A collection of gardening columns, handwritten by Vita Sackville-West, is up for sale at £9,000. I'm not an aristocrat, I write on a laptop, and I don't think I've ever written a word about fritillaries. But I have a very nice set of used columns, one careful lady owner and plenty of opinions. So don't hold back.

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