Philip Hensher: The West must stop pretending this war has gone the way it planned

Our first priority now is to get the Northern Alliance under control
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'The Northern Alliance is now in a position to dictate terms, and these are the people we have to work with'

The thrilling pictures of the liberation of Kabul represent as moving and exciting a historical moment as the fall of the Berlin Wall. Anyone who watched will have seen the images of the Kabulis starting to enjoy their tiny forbidden freedoms once more with tears pricking their eyes. A woman's unveiled face; a man having his beard shaved; a child flying a kite. These are small things, but they are as moving as they are because they ought to presage bigger opportunities for liberty, for the return of democracy, free speech and commercial enterprise. We want to see the triumph, here, of good against evil; we want to see it so much that we are going to see it anyway.

Now what? What settlement are we going to reach to find some kind of future for Afghanistan? The question, it appears, has taken the West by surprise, and the speed of the Northern Alliance's advance has meant that Kabul has fallen at a point when the plans are still rather vague. The Northern Alliance were never going to stop short at the gates of Kabul. Of course they pressed their advantage – any army would have done the same thing. Now they are in a position to dictate terms, and, whatever the hopes of the West, these are the people we have to work with.

There is no point in pretending that the war has gone the way the West planned, and there is no reason to suppose that the West's plans for the country will be fulfilled if they clash with the ambitions of the Alliance. Let us remember that the purpose of this war was not primarily to depose the Taliban, but to flush out Osama bin Laden. In the event – anyone could have predicted this – the secondary aim has proved rather easier than the primary one.

The West is now pinning its hopes on the idea that, with a malleable government in Kabul and increasing numbers of defections from al-Qa'ida's Taliban allies, information will be received which will make it possible to track down and kill bin Laden. That may happen; but it is not such a foregone conclusion as we may think. It is not inconceivable that bin Laden may find his way through Pakistan to the sea, and then disappear like McAvity to Yemen; it is not unimaginable that, in the vast and remote mountain ranges of eastern Afghanistan, he may hide for months or even years. And the task of tackling al-Qa'ida itself seems as daunting as ever.

Regular readers will know I've been asking the question of what a stable political settlement for Afghanistan would look like since long before the 11 September atrocities, and have been arguing that the Taliban would be more damaging removed from power than within the government. Well, now we will see. From time to time in the last two months it has been proposed that an interim government could contain some moderate elements of the Taliban; Muttawakil, the Taliban's foreign minister, has sometimes looked like a plausible candidate for the role. Now, however, that just isn't going to happen. The late General Massood's brother, who is some sort of envoy in London from the Northern Alliance, has gone on record to say that the Taliban would be excluded from such a government, and you see his point: the West has backed one side in the civil war, and the Alliance has scored such success that it has no need of magnanimity.

The West's mantra for the basis of a new government, to be convened under the titular authority of the UN and the aged ex-king, is that it should represent all ethnic groups in the country. That has been decided to satisfy the demands of Afghanistan's neighbours, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran and Pakistan, who will be lobbying on behalf of their ethnic cousins. The gamble is that a familiar pattern of Afghan history will play itself out; that the political and religious alliances will reveal themselves as ephemeral, and the ethnic loyalties of Pashtun, Tajik and Dari-speaking Qizilbash will reassert themselves. The narrow factionalism of the civil war will be forgotten, and normal service resume.

That, let it be said, is quite a gamble. The Taliban have retreated speedily from Kabul, and it looks much more like a panicked flight than a tactical retreat. Many ethnic Pashtuns will find their loyalty fading; the Taliban's detested foreign volunteers will get out of the country as quickly as they can, or meet their grisly fate. But some will not. The Taliban are not a tiny group who can be captured and tried for war crimes; they are a large part of the population; and, even much diminished by defection, they will remain a formidable fighting force for some time. If they were always hated in Kabul, that is not necessarily true of other Pashtun-speaking parts of the country, and they are not going to give up yet. Excluded from the political process, they may well reduce to a fierce and inventive guerrilla force. We are a long way from an end to civil war.

The auguries presented by the lynchings and shootings as the Alliance came into Kabul were not encouraging, although anybody who knows anything of General Dostum's record would not have been at all surprised. Clearly, the Alliance now feels itself in a position to do as it chooses.

But if it can be firmly established, it may still prove a more enlightened authority than the Taliban. The West can only maintain that by a long-term commitment and by direct investment; bribery with roads and infrastructure may keep the country from falling again into brutal civil war. Withdrawal, once the primary aim of killing Osama bin Laden has been achieved, would have the effect of replacing a brutal semi-stable regime, and restarting the terrible war with renewed fury. And, again, given the well-documented history of many of the figures in the Northern Alliance, few would be surprised.

There are real reasons to be positive. The Taliban may, indeed, be run into the ground; the West may be right that Pashtun representation in the interim government may prove acceptable. The ordinary way of life in Afghanistan may start to improve. The only way, however, in which improvements can be made permanent is if the West moves fast with a substantial deal for the new rulers of Kabul.

Today, the Alliance will be feeling that it holds all the cards. What must be made absolutely plain to it is that its success, and its future prospects, rest on its securing our approval; that we are going to be there for the immediately foreseeable future; and that everything depends on the consent of the great swathes of the country which, until two days ago, were firmly behind the Taliban.