Friday, 23 November 2001


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 23 November 2001

Er, sorry, folks — but I’m afraid last week’s Tribune was just a little disappointing. In the week before it went to press, nearly everything the paper had said in the previous month about the war in Afghanistan had been rendered obsolete by the turn of events. I know the difficulties of producing a weekly with limited resources. But surely the collapse of the Taliban warranted more than a news piece and a leader?

I’m not crowing about being proved right about the American military intervention. The defeat of the Taliban is a good thing in itself — the scenes of celebration in Kabul speak for themselves — but what happens next is uncertain and might be dreadful. I have no intention of following The Sun, Christopher Hitchens, Polly Toynbee, Anne McElvoy, David Aaronovitch et al in demanding grovelling apologies from opponents of the war as tribute for wobbles and misinterpretations . There is a long way to go yet; success is not guaranteed. It’s not wimpish to worry about the consequences of B-52 bombing raids. And it is still possible that Afghanistan will collapse into bloody factional feuding amid mass starvation.

Nevertheless, those who have lampooned the opponents of the war do have a point. Let’s leave aside for a moment the Trots and Stalinists, the small band of conservative peaceniks and the Muslims. The mainstream peace movement has come, predictably, from the democratic left: the Labour anti-war lobby, Tribune, the New Statesman, the Greens, CND. And that democratic left milieu has been wrong both in its analysis of what has been going on and in its prescriptions for what should happen next.

Contrary to widespread predictions, the US has not been embroiled in a “quagmire”, let alone a “new Vietnam”. The Taliban did not prove invincible warriors: they scarpered. The bombing did not result in giant civilian casualties. There have been verified massacres by the Northern Alliance, but so far nothing to compare with what hapened in 1992, let alone with the atrocities committed by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Far from preventing aid getting through to starving civilians, the military action has made it possible to feed thousands who would otherwise have been unreachable.

Of course, inadequate understanding of rapidly changing circumstances in faraway countries is nothing new. Imperfect foresight is inevitable. No one guessed that the Soviet Union would implode until it actually did. I still sometimes lie awake at night at the memory of declaring in these pages, back in 1989, that we would not see German reunification in our lifetime. Ahem, whoops, well, it happens to us all, doesn’t it?

But there is more to the peace movement’s failure than making bad predictions in good faith. As during the Gulf war in 1991, the Bosnian war of the mid-1990s and the Kosovo war in 1999, it is remarkable how far its errors of judgment have been driven by fatalism, a pessimism of the intellect uncompensated for by even a glimmer of the optimism of the will. Time and again over the past month, I have come away from meetings adressed by Labour left and CND opponents of the war with a gloomy sense that they not only thought the US military action would not work — they actually wanted it to fail.

In line with this, just as over the Gulf, Bosnia and Kosovo, the mainstream peace movement has had no qualms, in pursuit of the largest possible anti-war mobilisation, about giving new life to some of the most unpleasant parasites in the leftist pond: the Leninist advocates of “anti-imperialist” revolutionary defeatism who believe that any enemy of capitalism is a friend of the workers.

In case you missed it, the Socialist Workers’ Party refused to condemn the September 11 attacks. The committee that has organised the demos against the war is dominated by the SWP and loaded with representatives of every other Stalinist and Trotskyist sect — 57 varieties, all unfit for human consumption, as the old libertarian slogan had it. Each one of these believes in its heart of hearts that the best outcome of the war is defeat for America and its allies — in other words, victory for the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. I could only cringe at the spectacle of decent democratic socialists and Greens and liberals standing shoulder-to-shoulder with these charlatans at last Sunday’s anti-war demonstration.

So what, you think. Occasionally it is necessary to ally oneself with bad people to defeat a greater evil. That is what happened between 1941 and 1945, when Britain embraced Stalin in order to defeat Hitler. (It is also what the US has done in Afghanistan, supporting the Northern Alliance against the Taliban, but let that pass.)

When you don’t need to play that game, however, there’s no sense in doing so. And if the peace movement continues to ally itself with the revolutionary defeatists, it will lose all credibility — as it did over the Gulf, Bosnia and Kosovo. That doesn’t bother me insofar as I am a supporter of this war. But I also worry about the survival of a credible left in Britain. And on that one, right now, the optimism of the will is being sorely tested.

Friday, 9 November 2001


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 9 November 2001

The most important thing about the war in Afghanistan is that, nearly five weeks in, we still don’t have much of a clue about what is really going on.

We know that things haven’t gone the way the Americans expected at the very beginning. The initial bombardment of military installations with cruise missiles and “smart” bombs did not lead to the collapse of the Taliban regime. Nor did it make possible the introduction of special forces on the ground: the first attempt to do so, apparently staged at least in part to provide uplifting TV news pictures, appears to have come close to disaster.

We also know that, since that fiasco, the US has shifted strategy to bombing the Taliban’s front lines and supporting the offensive of the Northern Alliance. We can be sure that there have been some civilian casualties, that the refugee crisis has become even worse, and that many people who at first supported the US action — most importantly various governments in the Islamic world — are now extremely apprehensive, despite the efforts of the Americans and their foremost ally, Tony Blair, to shore up support. And it is obvious that winter is now upon Afghanistan, and that this will make both military action and the supply of relief to the starving civilian Afghan population much more difficult.

But beyond this, all we have to go on is hunch. Have there been many civilian casualties from the American bombing raids? Well, there’s nobody credible who knows and is in a position to tell.

The Taliban say there have been, but their claims are suspect for obvious reasons; and so far their guided tours for foreign journalists of claimed atrocity sites have not yielded conclusive evidence of anything other than a few tragic targeting errors.

On the other hand, the US says there haven’t been many civilian casualties, but its claims are suspect too — not least because its only means of assessing the body count is satellite photography.

Does the Northern Alliance have any hope of inflicting a decisive military defeat on the Taliban? Again, there’s no trustworthy source of information. There are journalists with the Northern Alliance. But most are miles from any military action and can do nothing but relay rumours and write colour pieces. Some of their reportage is very good — but the more honest of them recognise that all they can do is provide mood music.

What about the military strength of the Taliban and morale among their troops? All we have to go on is American satellite photographs and the word of refugees and a handful of deserters. There are conflicting claims about the number of Afghan civilians facing starvation and about the ability of the aid effort to feed them. As for the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden, his vulnerability or his plans, well, no one has the faintest idea.

All of which means that — unless you believe either that there was never any justification for American military action against the Taliban or that any military action against the Taliban is justified — it is extremely difficult to come to an informed opinion about what should be done next.

So far, contrary to the claims of some prophets of doom, there is no reason to conclude from the available evidence that the American intervention has been an unmitigated disaster, with thousands of civilian casualties and no prospect of success.

It remains possible that the bombing of Taliban lines will pave the way for successful action on the ground, which in turn will lead to the collapse of the Taliban regime and perhaps even the capture of Bin Laden and destruction of his Al Qa’ida forces. It remains possible too that the relief of famine will not be unduly hampered by the military action.

But there are also no grounds for unalloyed optimism. In particular, the danger that the military action will undermine any chance of averting mass starvation is horribly real. And even though it is unrealistic to expect instant success in the military campaign, the longer the bombing goes on without significant action on the ground, the more it will appear that the US has no idea of how even a first victory in the war against terrorism will be achieved.

On balance, given that the military action still has a reasonable chance of success — and that the alternative, a victory for Bin Laden and the Taliban, would be a disaster for the whole world — the US and its allies continue to deserve the support of the left.

But that support should not be unconditional. If the campaign grinds on with no sign of a military breakthrough while making impossible the provision of aid to the starving, it should be halted, at least temporarily, and a new strategy drawn up. We are not at that point yet, we might never get to it. But it could be with us very soon.