SOME OF the gloss is coming off the glorious victory the United States and Britain are supposed to have won in Afghanistan. This is largely because of the prisoners of Guantanamo Bay. Liberals who supported the war are discovering that defending civilisation means humiliating captives, imprisoning them in cages and denying them a fair trial. But doubts are also growing about the war itself.
As both the Daily Mirror and the Guardian pointed out last week, the bombing campaign continues in Afghanistan. The foreign secretary, Jack Straw, got very cross when his claims of victory were queried by John Humphries on the Today programme. Thanks to the war, Straw expostulated, 'democrats' are in government in Kabul. Who does he think he's kidding?
Ahmed Rashid, a leading expert on Afghanistan, wrote recently in the Daily Telegraph about the difficulties facing interim prime minister Hamid Karzai. Karzai has limited support among his own ethnic group, the Pathans (or Pashtuns). His government is based on the largely non-Pashtun Northern Alliance. According to Rashid, 'The eastern Pathans who dominate southern and eastern Afghanistan warned Mr Karzai that their loyalty to the government was being stretched to the limit if the US bombing of Al Qaida, which has killed hundreds of civilians, continued.'
Secondly, the warlordism that ripped Afghanistan apart before the Taliban took power in 1996 has returned. Rashid writes, 'The warlords and tens of thousands of followers who were armed by the Americans to run down the Taliban have become a powerful destabilising factor. 'Unwilling to disarm or accept the writ of the central government, they are even defying the US.' Among those restored to power are Gul Agha Shirzai in Kandahar, Ismail Khan in Herat, and General Rashid Dostum in the north.
These centrifugal pressures are being reinforced by the outside powers that backed and armed the Northern Alliance. Russia and Turkey support Dostum, while Ismail Khan is close to neighbouring Iran. American and British leaders claim the war has liberated Afghan women. US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld defended hooding prisoners on the flight to Cuba on the grounds that they were not 'permanent-unlike the burqas' that the Taliban made Afghan women wear.
This is hypocrisy twice over. In the first place, all reports from Kabul-more lawless than it was under the Taliban thanks to the rapes, robberies, and murders committed by Northern Alliance soldiers-indicate that most women still wear the burqa.
Secondly, any visitor to Saudi Arabia, one of Washington's closest allies, would find many of the main features of Taliban rule there-for example, shrouded women and Islamic sharia law imposed by religious police. This isn't very surprising, since the Taliban belonged to the same Muslim sect as the Saudi royal family, and therefore copied many of the latter's institutions.
Anyway, the talk of liberated Afghanistan represents a shifting of the goalposts by Washington and Whitehall. The US didn't go to war because the Taliban were a rotten government, and indeed made some efforts to court them.
There is plenty of evidence to show that the Clinton administration was quite happy to live with the Taliban in its early years. It was the alliance between the Taliban and the Al Qaida network that, maybe even before 11 September, made Afghanistan a target. George W Bush declared a global 'war against terrorism'. Has the threat of Al Qaida been removed?
On the basis of the disinformation coming out of the Western security establishment, it is impossible to say. Osama Bin Laden has vanished into thin air. Maybe, as some reports suggest, he was literally vaporised during the intensive American bombing of the caves at Torah Bora-but who knows? I doubt if the FBI and MI5 do.
Last Saturday's Financial Times carried a piece on 'part two' of the war. This will involve US military deployments to a number of countries-the first of 650 American soldiers have been dispatched to the Philippines. There seem to be plans to establish a network of US bases in central Asia. This could provoke more opposition to the US.
First, the Financial Times warns of US 'dependence on regimes or armed opposition groups with abominable human rights records'-witness what is happening now in Afghanistan. Secondly, somewhere around the world the Pentagon will find itself trapped in a war that isn't such a walkover.