The sudden abandonment by the Taliban of half of Afghanistan has taken the world by surprise. There is no doubt that it is cause for satisfaction, if not, yet, celebration. It greatly diminishes the charge against the US and its allies that its response to the killing of civilians in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania has been to kill other civilians on the other side of the world. Certainly, civilians have died as a result of the bombing campaign and, presumably, in the fighting that is now raging around Kunduz and Kandahar, although we have no idea how many. It is notable, though, that reporting of civilian casualties more or less ceased when the US bombing switched from isolated targets around the country to the Taliban's front lines. If there were any civilians there, they were presumably inaccessible to journalists.
What we can be sure of, however, is that, as a result of the Taliban retreating without a fight, fewer civilians will die in Afghanistan this winter than would have died had Mullah Omar's warriors stood their ground. Before the first bomb was dropped, there was already a food crisis after years of drought. It will now be possible to get food, and help with longer-term reconstruction, to much of the country in a way that simply would not have happened if the Coalition had relied on diplomatic pressure, inserted a few special forces and waited.
In that respect, over the past week at least, the war in Afghanistan has gone better than anyone – probably including President Bush and Tony Blair – expected. There are many obvious caveats: there are the tensions between the various ethnic groups that have filled the vacuums; the Taliban may yet put up a bloody resistance when forced to take to the mountains; and they may fight a long guerrilla war against an infidel-backed occupation of what they thought was, briefly, the one true Islamic state.
Still, the point remains that the myth of the Taliban is broken. They were supposed to fight to the death; some may yet, but their foreign volunteers have so far dropped their "Teach Yourself Arabic" guides and training hand-grenades and fled.
However, it must be remembered that getting rid of the Taliban is a side-benefit of the campaign against terrorism. It was not one of the original war aims; it was merely a condition of bringing al-Qa'ida to justice. In relation to the main purpose of the campaign – to minimise the risk of extremist Islamic terrorism in future – the war in Afghanistan remains an ambiguous enterprise. Although the absence of regular US troops on the ground is helpful, the perception in much of the Arab and Muslim world is that the US has used its overwhelming military might to crush devout Muslims who oppose its values. It is sensible that predominantly Muslim forces from Turkey and Bangladesh will bear most of the burden of the UN peacekeeping operation, backed up by the French and the British. The more the US stands back from the war to finish off the Taliban and the more the UN assumes responsibility for administration in liberated Afghanistan (and preferably not from a headquarters in Florida, either), the better. It should be recalled that, despite the co-opting of Syrian and Egyptian forces in the Gulf War, fought to liberate one Arab state from another, the result in the Arab world was a feeling that the US had imposed its will on them by force.
Also, the more the coalition reminds the world that the main purpose of the military action is to stop Osama bin Laden and close down al-Qa'ida, the better.
While we should be pleased by the symbolic lifting of the burqa and the playing of music on the streets of Kabul, we should be cautious. Pushing back the Taliban takes US special forces closer to bin Laden, but extremist Islamic resentment against US power demands an intensive propaganda effort in coming years. The campaign against terrorism is far, far from being won.