Philip Hensher: Don't overthrow the Taliban

'They are wrong and repulsive, but some elements of the case against them should arouse a bit of worry'
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The Independent Online

By now, sides have been taken, and the West has chosen its candidates to replace the Taliban in Afghanistan. The terms of the war have definitely moved on from one week ago, and there is no doubt in the minds of the coalition that we are at war with the Taliban government.

Of course, this makes the task simpler; a war with a government is easier to pursue than a war with a shadowy figure such as Osama bin Laden, of whose whereabouts nobody is certain. The conduct of the discussion was not, in itself, particularly edifying; it seemed to proceed in the following way. 1. We declare war on the perpetrators of this deed, and will attack those who actively shelter him. 2. We demand that the Taliban produce bin Laden. 3. We consider that the fact that the Taliban have failed to produce bin Laden amounts to sheltering him, and from this point we are at war with the regime in Kabul.

The question of whether it was within the Taliban's power to extract bin Laden from his hiding place – if, indeed, they even knew where he was – has been skated over by both sides, and the West's understandable revulsion at the regime now ruling in Afghanistan has now turned into what seems like a very good excuse to try to interfere in internal affairs, and to impose a more enlightened rule on the country. That the Taliban were merely laying waste to the lives of the populace was not sufficient reason for international interference; if they can be shown to be responsible for the murder of 6,000 citizens of New York, such interference may be justified, and it has not taken us long to come to an assumption of guilt in this matter.

The Taliban are wrong and repulsive, and no one is in any doubt concerning that, but some elements of the case against them should arouse a certain amount of worry. The steady erosion of the distinction between bin Laden's cell, which may be demonstrated as being responsible for the atrocity, and the government of the country in which he has taken refuge, is one that is happening to enable the war to take place, and we are hoping to remove the government for reasons that are not quite solidly founded. No one can possibly wish the present state of Afghanistan to continue as it is, but the removal by violent means of the Taliban government may not prove to be the best way of improving things in the country. It may, in fact, make things rather worse.

The desperation of the allies in stating a plausible case against the Taliban in terms of international law has started to become evident; it was startling, the other day, to hear the Foreign Secretary maintain that the Taliban's rule was founded on money from the drugs trade. Considering how many things there are to say against the Taliban, it is alarming that he settled on that; the Taliban have, in fact, made serious efforts to destroy opium cultivation in line with Western requests. Those efforts have now been abandoned, of course, but it was striking that Western governments seem not entirely confident of their case in terms of terrorist attacks, and are reaching for supplementary items on which the forthcoming assault on Afghanistan can be justified.

By now it is far too late for me to go on making the argument that I've been making for some years, and to say that the Taliban are the only plausibly stable authority in Afghanistan, and that the only reasonable future for Afghanistan is to try to separate them from the terrorist cells, and to try to bribe them into some measure of civilisation. That is obviously not going to happen now, and it would be naive to go on trying to make the argument. But the consequences of deposing them by force do not, it seems, appear at all evident in the optimistic proposals of the West, and those, at least, may be worth pointing out.

In this, I can't do any better than to quote a letter from a reader that this paper printed yesterday. Andrew Simpson of Glasgow was responding to a proposal of Bruce Anderson's that the Northern Alliance should be rapidly armed by the West. "Is this not," he wrote, "what we did with bin Laden? And Saddam Hussein? And Robert Mugabe? And countless South American dictators? What happens when the fighters of the Northern Alliance, backed and trained by the West, take power, and prove to be just as brutal and incompetent as the current Taliban? Do we then train the Taliban again, in five years' time, to overthrow the 'brutal and incompetent regime' that will then be in power?"

I couldn't put it better myself. We are putting an enormous amount of trust in an alliance that can, on past record, only be relied on to split apart in violent conflict. The successors of the Northern Alliance's assassinated leader, Ahmad Shah Masood, even the moderate former president Burhanuddin Rabbani (I wouldn't rule it out in the end, and much odder things have happened), the followers of the maverick warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar ("widely reported," according to Michael Griffin's authoritative Reaping the Whirlwind "to have links with both the narcotics trade and international Islamist terrorist movements"); the many factions may find a moment of common cause in American money and the opportunity to seize power for themselves. But no one can suppose that harmony would last for many months.

Maddest of all is the proposal to unearth Mohammad Zahir Shah, the 86-year-old King of Afghanistan, from his retreat in Rome, or even his youngest son Mirwa'iz, to rule over the country. What kind of support a figure in exile since 1973 would command no one has thought to inquire. Why an attempt to found a constitutional monarchy, or some other form of democratic government, based on the figure of Zahir or his son, should succeed now when it so hopelessly failed in 1973, no one has pretended to be able to answer. By now Zahir's family are near-mythical figures to the Afghans. They would look like rulers imposed by the West without any kind of consultation, and would last about 10 seconds.

And what would happen to the Taliban? They would not quietly disappear or turn themselves into an orderly parliamentary opposition; they would restart the civil war with all the force at their disposal.

Afghan history would be set back 15 years; there would be no guarantee that it would not reach the same position that it has reached now, with a deeply wicked regime in charge; and nothing we would have done would have discouraged any insane groupuscule from launching a jumbo jet at another of our cities. Encouraged it, rather. Still, when it has all run its deeply predictable course, we will all have the comfort that we tried to do something, and acted with the very best intentions.

hensherp@dircon.co.uk

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