The unexpectedly quick collapse of the Taliban tended to silence critics worried about the way the United States might pursue its global war against terrorism. Then suddenly the situation changed. Recent developments in Afghanistan and in the Middle East resurrected those early forebodings even more strongly.
Many started to worry again over the Bush administration’s global anti-terrorist strategy. Was it proving to be as coherent, far-sighted and objective in respect of lobby influences to succeed in such explosive parts of the world as the Middle East and South West Asia?
One result of the renewed criticism was the Bush administration’s sudden partial about-face in its Israel-Palestine policy. On April 4, amid mounting world concern, the US President finally called on the Sharon government to withdraw its tanks from Palestinian cities in the occupied territories, to pull back to former borders recognized by the United Nations, to stop constructing any provocative new settlements outside those lines, and, while retaining the right of self-defence against terrorists, to treat the Palestinian people with respect.
Bush’s dramatic policy shift came after a wave of international criticism. The U.S. was accused of not having done enough to slow the violence or prompt peace negotiations. And, as America’s PBS Online Newshour (April 4, 2002) noticed, major demonstrations in Arab countries also led to fears that the violence could spread to surrounding countries and ignite the Middle East. US Senator George Mitchell told the Newshour:
"Arab governments want, as a matter of their national interest and policy, to maintain good relations with the United States, and yet they confront very large majorities of their citizens who are angry and hostile to the United States because of what they perceive is our bias in the Middle East."
Other observers attributed Bush’s about-face partly to concern over Middle Eastern oil. Both the US and the world economy depend on Middle Eastern supplies and prices. When commenting that British Prime Minister Blair was out on his own in backing US efforts to win international support for extending the war into Iraq, the UK Guardian (March 28, 2002) stated:
"One thing Bush ‘n’ Blair have achieved so far with all their talk of war is a steep increase in the international oil price at a time of economic difficulty in Europe and the US. More sabre-rattling will certainly bring more market frights and price hikes".
The Guardian noted that unlike Blair most European heads of government were against the US escalating the war against the "axis of evil" into Iraq at this time. The prospect of British involvement had already caused a mini-revolt within Blair’s own Labour Party, threatening a cabinet split.
The Battle of Shah-i-Kot
Devastating high tech bombing and the eagerness of Afghans to rid themselves of totalitarian overlords largely quietened those who had been uneasy about the Bush administration’s capacity to wage the critical political side of the war against terrorism and the "axis of evil".
But, in the words of The Economist, (March 11, 2002), the early triumphalist boasts of American victory in Afghanistan now looked "premature", especially with the deadly Israeli-Palestinian conflict spiralling out of control.
Long after victory in Afghanistan seemed secure, American troops found themselves involved in their biggest land battle of the war. The Economist commented that, much to the surprise of US intelligence agencies, US ground troops found themselves facing a capable foe on the Shah-i-Kot ridge near the border of Pakistan:
"The discovery of so many well-armed and determined al Qaeda and Taliban troops, months after victory in Afghanistan had seemed largely assured, raises many questions. Why has it taken so long for American military leaders to discover their existence? How many others are there in the country or along the Afghan-Pakistan border? Where are Osama bin Laden and other senior al Qaeda leaders who have, as far as is known, escaped American efforts to find or kill them? For that matter, where is Mullah Omar, the former Taliban leader? Most significantly of all, how secure is the interim Afghan government established by a United Nations conference in Bonn last year?"
The battle of Shah-i-Kot lasted 12 days. US and French warplanes dropped 3,250 bombs on this area alone. US military officials at first told the media they had killed an estimated 500 enemy fighters. Later, U.S. troops were again surprised to eventually find fewer than 50 enemy bodies in the battle areas. Afghan commanders suggested that the bulk of the al Qaeda fighters had escaped across the nearby border into Pakistan.
Donald Rumsfeld, America’s Defence Secretary, warned that this battle would "not be the last such operation in Afghanistan. "I think we have to expect that there are other sizeable pockets", he said, and "that there will be other battles of this type." CIA head George Tenet and Director of US Defence Intelligence, Vice Admiral Thomas Wilson, told the US Congress that the warm spring weather would increase the danger to US forces by al Qaeda and Taliban fighters still hidden throughout Afghanistan.
Tom Daschle, leader of the Senate’s Democratic majority, expressed doubts about widening the war on terrorism into other countries too quickly. "We’re not safe until we have broken the back of al Qaeda, and we haven’t done that yet," he said. "I think the jury is still out about future success."
These and other official admissions began to resurrect memories of Vietnam in the minds of observers. Some thought that the lessons learnt in that disastrous conflict were perhaps not as totally irrelevant as some people claimed.
After more than 20 years of constant fighting, Afghanistan is in chaos. The capability of the UN-backed interim government of Hamid Karzai does not extend beyond the capital Kabul. And even that is being threatened. Impoverished Afghans are returning to the planting of opium poppies on the large scale that previously made their country the dominant force in the world’s heroin trade. The Economist (March 28, 2002) commented:
"… if, as is still a real possibility, Afghanistan fails to put the anarchy of the past behind it, America’s first big victory in its war on terrorism may come to seem hollow."
Significant numbers of fighters for Al Qaeda and the Taliban are thought to be regrouping in a mountainous stretch of eastern Afghanistan along the Pakistan border. Local Afghan militias have little incentive to risk their own lives trying to root them out.
The international scene
In the six months since September 11 police across the United States and Europe arrested nearly 1,400 people in connection with the attacks on New York and Washington. But only one of them has been charged in connection with the worst terrorist outrage in history. As the Christian Science Monitor (March 27, 2002) noted:
"No Al Qaeda cells have been uncovered in the US, while in Europe only seven men picked up since Sept. 11 have been served with formal charges related to Islamist terrorism. Seventy-eight more are in jail, pending the outcome of investigations ranging from credit-card fraud to an alleged plot to blow up the US Embassy in Paris. But only eight of those are suspected of involvement in the destruction of the World Trade Center… Only one of the men in custody on suspicion of terrorist connections – Abu Qutada, a Jordanian being held in London – is thought to be a ranking member of Osama bin Laden’s organisation, and he has not been charged with any crime. The rest are suspected of being, at most, low-level members of Al Qaeda’s loose-knit network, with little or no knowledge of future plans."
More recently in early April, a Pakistani police raid supported by FBI agents and CIA operatives did succeed in capturing one top al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah, who may "be persuaded" to provide significant details of terrorist plans and operatives. It remains to be seen whether Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer’s claim proves correct that Zubaydah’s capture represents "a very serious blow to al Qaeda."
President Bush has yet to achieve what should be its main aims: the capture of Osama bin Laden, the defeat of al Qaeda, and progress towards peace and stability in the Middle East.
- Bob Browning