Bush's war is the new Great Game
But it looks a lot less fun when bombs fall from a clear night sky
July 4, 2002
By Simon Tisdall
How goes the war on terror? President George Bush, America's commander-in-chief, is in no doubt it is going swimmingly - and will say so today. "Our fine servicemen and women are fighting and winning the war on terror," Mr Bush will proclaim in his Independence Day address. "They deserve the gratitude of all people who cherish freedom."
Gratitude will come hard to relatives of the 40 Afghan civilians "liberated" from the Taliban yoke only to be killed by the US air force this week north of Kandahar. A Pentagon spokesman admitted a bomb had gone astray. But "it's unclear whether those [Afghan] casualties were the result of our errant bomb or from falling anti-aircraft artillery rounds," he said. In other words, the Afghans may have bombed themselves. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has meanwhile flatly declined to offer an apology.
Such cold-hearted prevarication will be familiar to the relatives of four Canadian soldiers killed by US forces in April in another "friendly fire" incident. The Pentagon finally admitted in late June that this "sad event" was caused by "the failure of two pilots to exercise appropriate flight discipline which resulted in ... an inappropriate use of lethal force".
These two incidents, like several similar tragedies in Afghanistan, are routinely attributed to the fortunes of war. In time of strife, it is said, accidents happen. But if the US were to stop throwing its weight around in an increasingly (and literally) aimless way, such horrors might be avoided.
Many wonder what the US military thinks its objective is. After last winter's Tora Bora and Operation Anaconda failures it must be clear even to them that all the al-Qaida and Taliban fugitives who matter have long since absconded, to Pakistan and beyond.
With the Afghan front stalemated, Pentagon attempts to extend its "global" war into new theatres have proved problematic. US troops on Basilan island in the Philippines appear only to have precipitated a shootout that ended in a long-held American hostage being killed. On the other hand, there have been telling civilian intelligence coups in Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Italy against al-Qaida.
So should the US military in Afghanistan pack up and go home, leaving the anti-terror campaign to the spooks and Afghanistan to the peacekeepers? That is a difficult proposition for Mr Bush. The Afghan campaign has become a showcase for his administration's post-September 11 international coalition. As the US is attacked on all sides for arrogant unilateralism, the coalition represents the White House's one attempt at multilateralism. US-dominated, deeply unequal, arm-twisting multilateralism perhaps, yet multilateralism all the same. But as Britain withdraws its combat troops from Afghanistan for want of anything meaningful to do, Washington's need to demonstrate global support is verging on the desperate.
A recent Pentagon "fact sheet" noted with pride that Bulgaria had made available "two heavy mechanised bridges, two bulldozers and six Zil trucks". Plucky Estonia has unleashed "two explosive-detection dog teams" and France has come up with a"deployable weather bureau". The German contingent is paying special attention to "Afghan war widows" while Norway's contributions include "personal items" for a 700-man battalion.
"Malaysia has provided access to Malaysian intelligence," the Pentagon reports mysteriously. While Italy's war effort includes a forklift and some road-menders, Russia has chipped in with some second-hand vehicles - one careful Red Army lady owner, low mileage, taxed and tested, it's all yours in the cause of international solidarity, comrade. Canada's navy, meanwhile, has distinguished itself by seizing 4,500lbs of hashish in the north Arabian sea valued at $60m. Little has since been heard of the jolly matelots of HMCS Toronto.
Looking through the Pentagon "fact sheet", it becomes ever clearer that the war on terror in Afghanistan is turning into something quite different from the tough, bloody struggle initially envisaged. It is becoming a quasi-permanent, multinational military jamboree. Afghanistan is the Pentagon's new playing field and parade ground, and everybody who calls himself a friend is joining in.
Quite what President Hamid Karzai makes of all this, sitting impotently in Kabul, is anybody's guess. But who's asking him anyway? In effect, the "Great Game" of old empire days has entered a new round, more akin to bingo than diplomacy. Everybody has a hand to play; all want a stake. Post-Taliban Afghanistan is a fun outing for military top brass.
Fun, that is, until "errant bombs" fall unannounced from a clear night sky and Mr Bush's heroes get bored or frightened and suddenly let fly. Then Afghanistan is something quite different; then it is once again an occupied country that, as before, may one day turn against its occupiers.