They're feeling pretty bullish in the White House and the Pentagon. A few weeks ago Tony Blair was riding high as George W Bush's favourite adviser. But last Sunday's Observer, reporting American plans to extend the war to Iraq, quoted a 'European military source' just back from US Central Command HQ in Florida:
'The Americans are walking on water. They think they can do anything and there is nothing Tony can do about it.' Whether this euphoria is rationally founded is another matter. Take the Northern Alliance. This is a fractious coalition of warlords drawn from various ethnic groups in northern Afghanistan.
Their victory in the north has already been tainted by the massacre of Taliban prisoners of war at the Qala-i-Jhangi fortress in Mazar-e-Sharif. They were incited to carry out this war crime by US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. It was directed by British and US special forces. The butchery of the past few weeks is consistent with the Northern Alliance's track record when it dominated Afghanistan in 1992-6.
During a recent speaking tour of India, Samina Kabir of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan denounced them as no better than the Taliban:
'Do not trust the Northern Alliance. It is another criminal group with a similar ideology. In fact, [Northern Alliance] leader Burhanuddin Rabbani should be brought to the International Court of Justice for a criminal trial.'
The Taliban, after they had defeated the Northern Alliance in 1996, seem to have enforced a brutal and socially regressive form of order. The body count-50,000 dead-was much greater under the Northern Alliance's anarchic rule. Hence, as the Taliban's writ runs over an increasingly narrow strip of territory, power is slipping into the hands of men like Gul Agha, pre-Taliban governor of Kandahar.
His fighters are now resuming their old habits of murder, rape, and robbery in southern Afghanistan. Stitch The 'transitional authority' the United Nations is trying to stitch together in Bonn will be a coalition of these gangsters. This may not worry the Bush administration, which has barely bothered even to pay lip service to the idea that it is concerned with the welfare of the Afghan people.
But the geopolitical consequences of the Taliban's collapse should concern it. Rabbani blocked the dispatch of a British 'stability force' to Kabul, but Russian troops have returned to the country they devastated during the 1980s. Eric Margolis, an expert on the region, commented in the Los Angeles Times:
'While the Bush administration was busy tearing apart Afghanistan to find Bin Laden, it failed to notice that the Russians were taking over half the country. The Russians achieved this victory through their proxy-the Northern Alliance. Moscow, which has sustained the alliance since 1990, rearmed it after 11 September with new tanks, armoured vehicles, artillery, helicopters and trucks.'
Margolis wrote that, to the fury of the US and Pakistan, 'the Russians rushed the Northern Alliance into Kabul, in direct contravention of Bush's dictates. 'The Russians have regained influence over Afghanistan, avenged their defeat by the US in the 1980s war and neatly checkmated the Bush administration which, for all its high-tech military power, understands little about Afghanistan.'
That power may be deployed in two directions in coming months. Firstly, US marines and other troops will hunt down the hard core of the Taliban and Al Qaida in the mountains and caves. This is likely to be a bloody and protracted process. Rumsfeld acknowledged last week that Washington's Afghan allies are divided among themselves: 'Some of the opposition forces have had dust-ups with each other. And to the extent we have forces with both sides of those dust-ups, that's a problem.'
Secondly, an assault on Iraq seems to be rising up the US agenda, even though Bush's European and Arab allies are vehemently opposed to the idea. The latest plan is apparently to try to repeat the US 'triumph' in Afghanistan by using US air power and special forces to support a rising by the Iraqi opposition.
Attacking Iraq, which has been bled dry by the bombing and sanctions of the past decade, would provoke a huge crisis in the Middle East. One US official told the Financial Times, 'In the Gulf War we had the US and the Arab world against Saddam Hussein. This would be the US and Kuwait against the Arab world.'
The past two months have reminded us how great US military power is. But only a fool would imagine that the results have anything to do with peace or justice or even stability.