We are witnessing this weekend one of the most epic events since the Second World War, certainly since Vietnam. I am not talking about the ruins of the World Trade Centre in New York and the grotesque physical scenes which we watched on 11 September, an atrocity which I described last week as a crime against humanity (of which more later). No, I am referring to the extraordinary, almost unbelievable preparations now under way for the most powerful nation ever to have existed on God’s Earth to bomb the most devastated, ravaged, starvation-haunted and tragic country in the world. Afghanistan, raped and eviscerated by the Russian army for 10 years, abandoned by its friends – us, of course – once the Russians had fled, is about to be attacked by the surviving superpower.
I watch these events with incredulity, not least because I was a witness to the Russian invasion and occupation. How they fought for us, those Afghans, how they believed our word. How they trusted President Carter when he promised the West’s support. I even met the CIA spook in Peshawar, brandishing the identity papers of a Soviet pilot, shot down with one of our missiles – which had been scooped from the wreckage of his Mig. “Poor guy,” the CIA man said, before showing us a movie about GIs zapping the Vietcong in his private cinema. And yes, I remember what the Soviet officers told me after arresting me at Salang. They were performing their international duty in Afghanistan, they told me. They were “punishing the terrorists” who wished to overthrow the (communist) Afghan government and destroy its people. Sound familiar?
I was working for The Times in 1980, and just south of Kabul I picked up a very disturbing story. A group of religious mujahedin fighters had attacked a school because the communist regime had forced girls to be educated alongside boys. So they had bombed the school, murdered the head teacher’s wife and cut off her husband’s head. It was all true. But when The Times ran the story, the Foreign Office complained to the foreign desk that my report gave support to the Russians. Of course. Because the Afghan fighters were the good guys. Because Osama bin Laden was a good guy. Charles Douglas-Home, then editor of The Times would always insist that Afghan guerrillas were called “freedom fighters” in the headline. There was nothing you couldn’t do with words.
And so it is today. President Bush now threatens the obscurantist, ignorant, super-conservative Taliban with the same punishment as he intends to mete out to bin Laden. Bush originally talked about “justice and punishment” and about “bringing to justice” the perpetrators of the atrocities. But he’s not sending policemen to the Middle East; he’s sending B-52s. And F-16s and AWACS planes and Apache helicopters. We are not going to arrest bin Laden. We are going to destroy him. And that’s fine if he’s the guilty man. But B-52s don’t discriminate between men wearing turbans, or between men and women or women and children.
I wrote last week about the culture of censorship which is now to smother us, and of the personal attacks which any journalist questioning the roots of this crisis endures. Last week, in a national European newspaper, I got a new and revealing example of what this means. I was accused of being anti-American and then informed that anti-Americanism was akin to anti-Semitism. You get the point, of course. I’m not really sure what anti-Americanism is. But criticising the United States is now to be the moral equivalent of Jew-hating. It’s OK to write headlines about “Islamic terror” or my favourite French example “God’s madmen”, but it’s definitely out of bounds to ask why the United States is loathed by so many Arab Muslims in the Middle East. We can give the murderers a Muslim identity: we can finger the Middle East for the crime – but we may not suggest any reasons for the crime.
But let’s go back to that word justice. Re-watching that pornography of mass-murder in New York, there must be many people who share my view that this was a crime against humanity. More than 6,000 dead; that’s a Srebrenica of a slaughter. Even the Serbs spared most of the women and children when they killed their menfolk. The dead of Srebrenica deserve – and are getting – international justice at the Hague. So surely what we need is an International Criminal Court to deal with the sorts of killer who devastated New York on 11 September. Yet “crime against humanity” is not a phrase we are hearing from the Americans. They prefer “terrorist atrocity”, which is slightly less powerful. Why, I wonder? Because to speak of a terrorist crime against humanity would be a tautology. Or because the US is against international justice. Or because it specifically opposed the creation of an international court on the grounds that its own citizens may one day be arraigned in front of it.
The problem is that America wants its own version of justice, a concept rooted, it seems, in the Wild West and Hollywood’s version of the Second World War. President Bush speaks of smoking them out, of the old posters that once graced Dodge City: “Wanted, Dead or Alive”. Tony Blair now tells us that we must stand by America as America stood by us in the Second World War. Yes, it’s true that America helped us liberate Western Europe. But in both world wars, the US chose to intervene after only a long and – in the case of the Second World War – very profitable period of neutrality.
Don’t the dead of Manhattan deserve better than this? It’s less than three years since we launched a 200-Cruise missile attack on Iraq for throwing out the UN arms inspectors. Needless to say, nothing was achieved. More Iraqis were killed, and the UN inspectors never got back, and sanctions continued, and Iraqi children continued to die. No policy, no perspective. Action, not words.
And that’s where we are today. Instead of helping Afghanistan, instead of pouring our aid into that country 10 years ago, rebuilding its cities and culture and creating a new political centre that would go beyond tribalism, we left it to rot. Sarajevo would be rebuilt. Not Kabul. Democracy, of a kind, could be set up in Bosnia. Not in Afghanistan. Schools could be reopened in Tuzla and Travnik. Not in Jaladabad. When the Taliban arrived, stringing up every opponent, chopping off the arms of thieves, stoning women for adultery, the United States regarded this dreadful outfit as a force for stability after the years of anarchy.
Bush’s threats have effectively forced the evacuation of every Western aid worker. Already, Afghans are dying because of their absence. Drought and starvation go on killing millions – I mean millions – and between 20 and 25 Afghans are blown up every day by the 10 million mines the Russians left behind. Of course, the Russians never went back to clear the mines. I suppose those B-52 bombs will explode a few of them. But that’ll be the only humanitarian work we’re likely to see in the near future.
Look at the most startling image of all this past week. Pakistan has closed its border with Afghanistan. So has Iran. The Afghans are to stay in their prison. Unless they make it through Pakistan and wash up on the beaches of France or the waters of Australia or climb through the Channel Tunnel or hijack a plane to Britain to face the wrath of our Home Secretary. In which case, they must be sent back, returned, refused entry. It’s a truly terrible irony that the only man we would be interested in receiving from Afghanistan is the man we are told is the evil genius behind the greatest mass-murder in American history: bin Laden. The others can stay at home and die.