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As Britain prepares to host the Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow next month, it is pursuing two contradictory policies that undermine its chances of success. On the one hand, it is seeking a unified global response to the climate crisis with nations agreeing to targets for the reduction of their coal and petroleum emissions. But at the same time, it has joined the US in escalating a new cold war directed at confronting China and Russia at every turn.

The two policies have polar opposite objectives in trying to persuade China, responsible for 27 per cent of global carbon emissions, to cut back on building new coal-fuelled power stations, but at the same time demonising China as a pariah state with whom political, commercial and intellectual contacts should be as limited as possible.

In practice, this means deciding which threat is the greatest. Is it the reported thawing of the permafrost that covers 65 per cent of Russia that could release toxic quantities of methane gas? Or is it Vladimir Putin’s annexation of the Crimea, support for insurgents in eastern Ukraine, military intervention in Syria and building a Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany?

Is the risk stemming from China’s claim to the Spratly Islands, and the possibility that it might invade Taiwan, greater than that posed by Beijing building hundreds more coal power stations under its next five year plan – and thereby making the planet less habitable?

Viewed like this the balance of risks is weighted decisively towards giving priority to limiting climate change when comparing it to more traditional security threats originating in state competition. Put it another way, the greatest menace to the west is not the unlikely prospect of president Xi Jinping invading Taiwan or Putin doing the same in Ukraine, but the disappearance of ice in the Arctic bringing about a global sea rise.

Anatol Lieven caustically points out in his ground-breaking book, Climate Change and the Nation State, that the tension between the US and China over the Chinese fortification of reefs and sandbanks in the South China Sea may be ended, if the two nations fail to limit climate change, not by military conflict but by rising sea levels and typhoons that “put the sources of these tensions under water again”.

It should be obvious that the degree of cooperation essential to stall and, if possible, reverse the warming of the world’s atmosphere will be impossible in the context of an escalating cold war between the leading nations. Unfortunately, the two issues of the climate crisis and a revived cold war remain separate in the minds of both political elites and the public, a self-destructive blindness that is driven by diverse but powerful forces.

These include the difficulty people in general have in taking on board that mega-disasters, of a kind which they previously have had no experience of, may happen to them. A recent example of this was the calamitous delay in Europe and the US in 2020 in understanding the seriousness of the coronavirus epidemic and that it would not be confined to east Asia.

The most dreaded consequences of the climate crisis are still in the future, even if there may be signs of disasters to come in the wildfires in Australia and California and the increasing desertification of countries in the Middle East and North Africa from Iraq to Chad. People may speak of making sacrifices for their grandchildren and for future generations, but they seldom expect to do so in practice. “Do it for posterity,” urges the old joke often attributed to Groucho Marx, but in fact much older. “But what has posterity every done for me?” comes the reply.

People may worry about the climate crisis, but this does not mean that they are willingly assent to higher fuel taxes. Political leaders in both democratic and authoritarian states understand that people do not like governments of any stripe which preside over a reduction in their standard of living, unless they are frightened by a great threat like a war or a pandemic, and possibly not even then.

At the government level, another strong impulse is simply that the political, bureaucratic and military powers feel comfortable in the cold war world of great power confrontation. It was this confrontation that gave them huge influence and vast budgets during the original Cold War against Communism and the Soviet Union, and there is no reason it should not do so again. “This helps explain the enthusiasm with which western security elites have embraced the idea of a new cold war against Russia and China – an analogy that is both largely false and wholly unnecessary,” writes Lieven.

To point this out is not a defence of the authoritarian nationalist regimes in Moscow and Beijing, or, more specifically, of Putin’s repression of his critics and fixed elections or of Xi Jinping’s persecution of the Uyghurs and jailing of opponents in Hong Kong.

In terms of realpolitik, Russia and China are smaller players than they are portrayed by themselves or by their enemies. Russia may still be a nuclear superpower, but in Europe it is territorially weaker than at any time since the 17th century. China may have the world’s second largest economy, but to pretend that it now has the world’s biggest navy by counting every patrol boat in coastal waters is misleading threat-inflation.

America’s fixation on China as a rival is shared by Donald Trump and Joe Biden, but it has an additional input. Hostility to China is a bi-partisan issue in Congress, about the only serious one on which Republicans and Democrats are agreed. This is very different from the vaccine campaign and other anti-Covid measures that have produced only rancorous division. In such a bifurcated political scene, it is not surprising that an embattled Biden is boosting China as the enemy at the gate and calling for Americans to rally around the flag with some expectation that they will do so.

Belief and disbelief in the climate crisis is one of the most envenomed dividing lines in American politics. Conviction that it is not happening or is grossly exaggerated has become part of Republican identity. The hundred or so world leaders gathered in Glasgow in November will know this and that the shaky Democratic control of Congress may soon end, stymying any further climate control measures, so why should they do what America cannot or will not do? They know also that Trump, or a Republican sharing his opinions, could well be back in the White House in 2024.

An international jamboree like Cop26 will be full of rhetorical appeals for global action and solidarity. As during the pandemic, real action, if it happens at all, will be by nation states acting in their own interests. Despite all the apocalyptic predictions of climate catastrophe, the moment when these countries really believe that they face an existential threat has yet to arrive.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: China, Global Warming, NATO, Russia 

The singer Justin Bieber is promoting pre-rolled cannabis joints that he calls “Peaches”, the name of a song from an album. He is doing so in association with a Los Angeles-based company, Palms Partners, that specialises in selling seven-joint packs for \$32 (£24) in California and Nevada. “I’m a fan of Palms and what they are doing by making cannabis approachable and helping to destigmatise it – especially for the many people who find it helpful for their mental health,” he says.

Bieber is one of a strange coalition seeking to legitimise cannabis (marijuana) for its health-giving properties or because they believe that criminalisation has failed and proved counter-productive. Online advertising for recreational cannabis in the US claims that it is an antidote for depression. Amazon, the largest delivery company in the world, is reportedly lobbying in Washington for marijuana’s legalisation at the federal level.

In Britain, the former Conservative Party leader William Hague argues in a newspaper column for a move “from seeing drug use as a criminal issue to a health issue, achieving a crucial change in culture”. He praises Portugal for reclassifying as a misdemeanour the possession and purchase of drugs for individual consumption.

Legalising and commercialising cannabis is well under way from Uruguay to Canada and in at least 10 states in the US. Paradoxically, this shift towards the toleration of cannabis as more or less harmless is taking place just as scientists conclusively prove the link between cannabis and psychosis (a less shocking word than “madness” or “insanity”, but the meaning is the same). Cause and effect is today as well established as it is between cigarette smoking and lung cancer.

“Numerous prospective studies have shown that cannabis use carries an increased risk of later schizophrenic-like psychosis,” says an article by Sir Robin Murray of the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London and Wayne Hall of the National Centre for Youth Substance Use Research at the University of Queensland. They cite a study showing that, though Portugal is held up as a pioneer in dealing with drugs, the rate of hospitalisation for psychotic disorders has increased 29-fold since decriminalisation 15 years ago. Another study calculates that between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of new cases of psychosis in London and Amsterdam would not have occurred if the individual affected had not been smoking high-potency cannabis.

Personal observation confirms this: doctors in mental hospitals have told me that they scarcely bother anymore to ask patients if they have taken cannabis, but simply assume it is the case. The situation has deteriorated as the proportion of THC, the psychoactive substance in cannabis producing the “high”, has risen precipitately. Once as low as 3 per cent, it has risen to 10 to 15 per cent in Europe and North America, though in Colorado, the first state to legalise recreational use, the THC can reach as high as 70 per cent. Those taking cannabis daily, particularly if they are young, face an escalating risk of permanent mental breakdown.

But if cannabis has already had its “tobacco moment”, when the damage it does is scientifically proven, why do celebrities like Justin Bieber want to destigmatise it and persuade consumers that it will improve their mental health?

Part of the boosterism in favour of cannabis plugs into its old association with a bohemian lifestyle and “the swinging Sixties”. But it is commercial pressure that is becoming far more important in lobbying for its legalisation. Businesses see they can make money out of it: projected legal sales of cannabis will be worth \$66.3bn by 2025, according to a report. Big profits will pay for advertising and lobbying campaigns lauding the drug’s virtues and seeking to put in doubt or divert attention from the harm it causes.

The cigarette industry did this a century ago, funding “independent” experts who sought to blur or discredit evidence that smoking caused cancer. Governments were seduced by high tax revenues from tobacco sales and reluctant to do anything to curtail them. Hollywood stars such as John Wayne, Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy happily – and profitably – glamourised cigarettes, much as is happening to cannabis now.

Businesses seeking to emulate the tobacco companies at the height of their profitability have formed a bizarre de facto alliance with liberals and progressives, who are appalled by the disastrous mess created by government drug policy. The so-called “war on drugs” has demonstrably inflicted more misery in the US, certainly on the black community, than real military conflicts.

But an overreaction to government failure, provoking a dash in the opposite direction, has equal dangers. Those in favour of greater tolerance towards drugs are almost invariably thinking of cannabis as much less nasty than heroin and cocaine. But I have met psychiatrists, with long experience of dealing with drug victims of all sorts, who believe that cannabis is more dangerous than the other drugs because it has the potential to damage many more people.

About 3 million people take illicit drugs in England and Wales, of whom about 2.5 million consume cannabis, some 10 per cent on a daily basis in 2017-18, according to the review of drugs report by Dame Carol Black. Much of the cannabis is produced in the UK, sometimes by Vietnamese organised crime groups using slave labour. Most of the violence provoked by drugs is between the gangs who control the heroin and crack cocaine markets, which are worth about £5bn a year. Decriminalising drugs, notably cannabis, will not affect this sort of battle for territory and market share. Supply lines are very different between the different drug markets, with the heroin from Afghanistan wholesaled by Turkish and Pakistani gangs, and cocaine from Latin America controlled by Albanians.

The legalisation of cannabis will do nothing to hurt organised crime groups, but it will make the drug much more widely available. The idea by proponents of legalisation that the government will tightly regulate its quality and sale is naive. If the authorities cannot control it when it is illegal, they will be even less able to do so when it is legal. But legalisation – and even limited decriminalisation – will send a message that taking cannabis is a benign activity and does not do you or anybody else much harm. The deterrent effect of illegality will evaporate and the drug becomes no different than alcohol and tobacco.

Once commercially available, all the old persuasive tools formerly used by the cigarette industry swing into action as is happening unstoppably in the US. Celebrities like Justin Bieber will “destigmatise” the drug and give it the gloss of youth and fashion. Once, the victims of the tobacco companies coughed up their lungs unnoticed by the wider community, and this time round the victims of cannabis will disappear into mental hospitals without anybody taking much notice.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Britain, Drug Laws, Marijuana 

Three years ago, on 2 October 2018, a team of Saudi officials murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The purpose of the killing was to silence Khashoggi and to frighten critics of the Saudi regime by showing that it would pursue and punish them as though they were agents of a foreign power.

It was revealed this week that a year before the Khashoggi killing in 2017, the CIA had plotted to kidnap or assassinate Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, who had taken refuge five years earlier in the Ecuador embassy in London. A senior US counter-intelligence official said that plans for the forcible rendition of Assange to the US were discussed “at the highest levels” of the Trump administration. The informant was one of more than 30 US officials – eight of whom confirmed details of the abduction proposal – quoted in a 7,500-word investigation by Yahoo News into the CIA campaign against Assange.

The plan was to “break into the embassy, drag [Assange] out and bring him to where we want”, recalled a former intelligence official. Another informant said that he was briefed about a meeting in the spring of 2017 at which President Trump had asked if the CIA could assassinate Assange and provide “options” about how this could be done. Trump has denied that he did so.

The Trump-appointed head of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, said publicly that he would target Assange and WikiLeaks as the equivalent of “a hostile intelligence service”. Apologists for the CIA say that freedom of the press was not under threat because Assange and the WikiLeaks activists were not real journalists. Top intelligence officials intended to decide themselves who is and who is not a journalist, and lobbied the White House to redefine other high-profile journalists as “information brokers”, who were to be targeted as if they were agents of a foreign power.

Among those against whom the CIA reportedly wanted to take action were Glenn Greenwald, a founder of the Intercept magazine and a former Guardian columnist, and Laura Poitras, a documentary film-maker. The arguments for doing so were similar to those employed by the Chinese government for suppressing dissent in Hong Kong, which have been much criticised in the West. Imprisoning journalists as spies has always been the norm in authoritarian countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, while denouncing the free press as unpatriotic is a more recent hallmark of nationalist populist governments that have taken power all over the world.

It is possible to give only a brief precis of the extraordinary story exposed by Yahoo News, but the journalists who wrote it – Zach Dorfman, Sean D Naylor and Michael Isikoff – ought to scoop every journalistic prize. Their disclosures should be of particular interest in Britain because it was in the streets of central London that the CIA was planning an extra-judicial assault on an embassy, the abduction of a foreign national, and his secret rendition to the US, with the alternative option of killing him. These were not the crackpot ideas of low-level intelligence officials, but were reportedly operations that Pompeo and the agency fully intended to carry out.

This riveting and important story based on multiple sources might be expected to attract extensive coverage and widespread editorial comment in the British media, not to mention in parliament. Many newspapers have dutifully carried summaries of the investigation, but there has been no furore. Striking gaps in the coverage include the BBC, which only reported it, so far as I can see, as part of its Somali service. Channel 4, normally so swift to defend freedom of expression, apparently did not mention the story at all.

In the event, the embassy attack never took place, despite the advanced planning. “There was a discussion with the Brits about turning the other cheek or looking the other way when a team of guys went inside and did a rendition,” said a former senior US counter-intelligence official, who added that the British had refused to allow the operation to take place.

But the British government did carry out its own less melodramatic, but more effective measure against Assange, removing him from the embassy on 11 April 2019 after a new Ecuador government had revoked his asylum. He remains in Belmarsh top security prison two-and-a-half years later while the US appeals a judicial decision not to extradite him to the US on the grounds that he would be a suicide risk.

If he were to be extradited, he would face 175 years in prison. It is important, however, to understand, that only five of these would be under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, while the other 170 potential years are under the Espionage Act of 1917, passed during the height of the patriotic war fever as the US entered the First World War.

Only a single minor charge against Assange relates to the WikiLeaks disclosure in 2010 of a trove of US diplomatic cables and army reports relating to the Iraq and Afghan wars. The other 17 charges are to do with labelling normal journalistic investigation as the equivalent of spying.

Pompeo’s determination to conflate journalistic enquiry with espionage has particular relevance in Britain, because the home secretary, Priti Patel, wants to do much the same thing. She proposes updating the Official Secrets Act so that journalists, whistle-blowers and leakers could face sentences of up to 14 years in prison. A consultative paper issued in May titled Legislation to Counter State Threats (Hostile State Activity) redefines espionage as “the covert process of obtaining sensitive confidential information that is not normally publicly available”.

The true reason the scoop about the CIA’s plot to kidnap or kill Assange has been largely ignored or downplayed is rather that he is unfairly shunned as a pariah by all political persuasions: left, right and centre.

To give but two examples, the US government has gone on claiming that the disclosures by WikiLeaks in 2010 put the lives of US agents in danger. Yet the US Army admitted in a court hearing in 2013 that a team of 120 counter-intelligence officers had failed to find a single person in Iraq and Afghanistan who had died because of the disclosures by WikiLeaks. As regards the rape allegations in Sweden, many feel that these alone should deny Assange any claim to be a martyr in the cause of press freedom. Yet the Swedish prosecutor only carried out a “preliminary investigation” and no charges were brought.

Assange is a classic victim of “cancel culture”, so demonised that he can no longer get a hearing, even when a government plots to kidnap or murder him.

 

Isaiah Berlin once denounced somebody for being “that rare thing – a genuine charlatan”. He pointed out that few people, even quacks and imposters, deceive and manipulate all the time. Boris Johnson is a prime example of Berlin’s rare breed, who does just that with his boosterism, false promises and lying. This is attested to by everybody from newspaper editors like Max Hastings, who knew him during his days as a journalist, to his former chief adviser Dominic Cummings.

For a proportion of the public, the fact that their prime minister is a charlatan (or a mountebank – a useful word that has largely gone out of fashion) is an accepted if regrettable feature of the political landscape. But dismissive contempt and furious hostility both serve to prevent proper analysis of the real-life consequences of having somebody as frivolous as Johnson, along with his lightweight appointees, in charge of the country.

The result is not automatically negative, since their very incapacity may undermine their ability to do real harm. But of course one should not bet on a happy outcome. As Cummings showed, giving chapter and verse, Johnson’s chaotically poor judgement over the Covid-19 pandemic last year led to the unnecessary deaths of tens of thousands of people.

More often, Johnson escapes criticism because people do not take him seriously but see him as a comic turn. The price to be paid for this tolerance of his antics was on show this week, as Johnson, bursting with servile bonhomie, sat beside President Biden in the White House, claiming that British-American relations were better than ever. Biden, for his part, made it humiliatingly clear that an Anglo-American trade deal was dead in the water, and that the US would resist Johnson’s bid to torpedo the Northern Ireland protocol.

The balance of power between the US and the UK has been weighted heavily towards the Americans since 1940, but Britain’s room for manoeuvre in the wake of Brexit is more minimal than ever. Predictably, the real failure in Washington was masked by the claim that Britain might join the US, Mexico and Canada in the North American free-trade pact, a fantasy trumpeted by the pro-Tory media as a sign that “global Britain” was on the march, though bemused trade experts denied that any such thing was likely to happen, adding that it would do Britain little good even if it did.

Like most political leaders, Johnson is addicted to both giving and attending conferences that are billed as decisive for the fate of the world and forgotten a few months later. Already we have had Johnson in full after-dinner-speaker mode at the G7 summit in Cornwall, and then in front of the UN general assembly this week. He will shortly be performing at the UN climate change conference in Glasgow.

Having attended many of these international jamborees over the years, I still have difficulty remembering any that changed anything for the better (or, indeed, for the worse). Usually, calls for action are in reality a replacement for action. But they are an ideal platform for a government whose meat and drink are catchy slogans and grandiose projects that are discarded after they have served their political purpose.

Such snake-oil remedies to real problems no longer even get a decent burial; they are instead handed over to Michael Gove: secretary of state in charge of “levelling up” and keeping the UK together as a nation state, as well as housing and planning.

I like to imagine Gove’s office diary:

2.30 to 3.15pm – act to level up Britain, more unequal today than any country in the EU aside from Bulgaria; 3.15 to 4pm – do something to hold together the United Kingdom, under greater threat than at any time for a century; 4 to 4.30pm – solve cladding problem; 4.30 to 5pm – resolve housing and planning crises, so damaging to the Tories among their core supporters.

In practice, Gove will be in charge of a giant political care home, where abandoned promises will be on life support, giving the government useful deniability when asked what happened to past pledges.

But this lack of seriousness and generalised ineffectuality is not entirely distressing. The Johnson government felt more menacing when it was directed, at least in part, by Cummings, as the Otto von Bismarck of Downing Street, deploying his ruthlessly authoritarian abilities to get toxic policies implemented.

The Tory party was once famously labelled by Theresa May as the “Nasty Party”, but today a more accurate description would be the “Silly Party”. Of course, Priti Patel as home secretary and Nadine Dorries as minister for culture will delight Tories by fighting high-profile culture wars, but in the UK these are largely media-inspired conflicts. Trivial incidents, such as critical graffiti scrawled on a statue of Winston Churchill, are inflated, framed as an assault on British national identity.

A paradox of the culture wars in Britain is that those waging them in supposed defence of British traditions are adopting wholesale the agenda of the Republican Party in the US, where cultural wars are fought with such venom because they plug into racial animosities. In Britain, attitudes are different, as evidenced by the counterproductive failure of Patel’s attempt to exploit opposition to footballers taking the knee, and more broadly by the Black Lives Matter movement.

More threatening would be cultural wars fought out at an institutional level, such as the appointing of a hard-right head of the communications regulator Ofcom, who would be likely to open the door to partisan television channels, possibly in the shape of Rupert Murdoch’s proposed talkTV.

Some see it as superficial to view Johnson and his government as an unlucky accident in British history, preferring to drill down and detect a new type of toxic English nationalism. They see Brexit as both a symptom and a cause of an embattled English identity under threat from globalisation.

There is something in this, but I am sceptical about the argument, since it does not quite fit the facts. After all, one of the electoral breakthroughs for Ukip was not in England but in Wales. In any case, a strong sense of English identity is scarcely new, though some of its symbols have changed. I have always liked John Betjeman’s poem “In Westminster Abbey”, in which a lady prays at the start of the Second World War:

Think of what our Nation stands for / Books from Boots’ and country lanes / Free speech, free passes, class distinction / Democracy and proper drains.

More aggressive and satirical is Flanders and Swann’s “A Song of Patriotic Prejudice”, first sung in 1956, which is full of abuse of other nations (especially those of the Irish, Scots and Welsh), and is too robust to get a hearing today. Some of the tamer lines run:

The English, the English, the English are best / I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest / The Germans are German, the Russians are red / And the Greeks and Italians eat garlic in bed!

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Boris Johnson, Britain 

Trumpism was never quite what it seemed to the rest of the world when it came to America’s actions as opposed to his words. The tone was always belligerent, but Trump went out of his way not to start any wars. As for the slogan “America First”, this was not so much about an isolationist US and more about the US acting unilaterally in what Trump saw as its own best interests.

Bidenism is turning out to be not so very different from Trumpism. Joe Biden carried out to the letter Donald Trump’s ruthless deal with the Taliban, agreed in February 2020, to abandon the Afghan government, which had been excluded from negotiations about its fate. European allies of the US learned little about the American pull-out plan from Kabul airport, even as it was under way.

Now Biden has followed up his unilateralism in Afghanistan with his surprise announcing of an agreement for the US, along with Britain, to help Australia build nuclear-powered submarines to deploy against China in the years ahead. By arbitrarily cutting out the French from their \$66bn contract to supply diesel-powered submarines, Biden behaved in the true Trump tradition of causing greater outrage to an ally than dismay to a potential enemy.

The response of China to an alliance clearly directed against it was angry, but this was still mild compared to the apoplexy among senior French leaders at their public humiliation. “This brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr Trump used to do,” said French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. “I am angry and bitter. This isn’t done between allies. It’s really a stab in the back.”

A betrayal it may have been, but the French showed a certain naivete, as well as poor intelligence, in not seeing that something like this might be on the cards. When it comes to back-stabbing an ally, there was the recent precedent in Afghanistan and, a couple of years back, another ominous pointer when Trump shocked the Saudis, with whom he was so close, when he failed to retaliate against a devastating missile attack on Saudi oil facilities in September 2019 that was clearly orchestrated by Iran.

Gulf monarchies discovered to their extreme alarm that the American protective umbrella, in which they had previously trusted, was not quite what it seemed to be. It turned out not to include going to war on their behalf, a realisation that will have been reinforced by the Afghan shock and is radically reshaping regional politics.

Complaints by those let down by the US – be they in Paris or Riyadh or in wherever the dispersed Afghan government has sought refuge – are common enough in the history of diplomacy. After all, it was President Charles de Gaulle who said that, “treaties are like young girls and roses – they last as long as they last.”

True this piece of realpolitik about the impermanency of relations between nation states may be, but the Australia-UK-US (Aukus) submarine deal – coming after the Kabul rout and the non-defence of Saudi Arabia – gives a sense that tectonic changes are shaking the way the world works. Biden, who was full of “America-is-back” rhetoric at the start of his presidency, is now treating some of his allies as cavalierly as Trump ever did.

The Aukus alliance is just the sort of Anglo-Saxon line-up most likely to infuriate the French and worry the EU. It will energise European states to try to pursue a distinct and less confrontational policy towards China than before. If they fail to do so, and the omens are not good given their impotence in successive crises in the Middle East and the Balkans, then they become even more marginalised.

But rejoicing among Brexiteers that Britain was right to leave a foundering EU vessel are premature, because British reliance on the US is greater than ever. This carries unpredictable risks as well as dubious advantages, as Britain discovered during the Iraq war, which Britain joined as America’s principal foreign military ally in 2003 and spent the following six years trying to escape without offending the Americans. The calamitous method chosen was to send British military forces to Helmand province in Afghanistan, which turned out to be an even deadlier place than Iraq.

Joining the US and Australia in upping the confrontation with China carries similar risks. It is not “a profound strategic shift”, as Boris Johnson claims, since nothing much is going to happen for over a decade. Cold war threat inflation about China having the world’s largest navy is absurd, since ships that are little more than minnows have been counted as part of the Chinese fleet.

But what Britain would do if the new cold warriors are correct in their warnings and China does indeed invade Taiwan? This is an important question for “global” Britain because it means standing tall against even taller opponents like China and Russia in the hope that they show restraint or the US gives unstinting support.

The dependency is risky because American foreign policy is determined by its domestic political agenda, and never more than at present. A motive for Biden trumpeting his new alliance against China is that it projects strength and diverts attention away from the weakness displayed during the chaotic US exit from Kabul. Dominating American TV screens over the last month, the rout sent Biden’s approval rating in the opinion polls spiralling down to 42 per cent and his disapproval rating up to 50 per cent – the first time his ratings have been negative since he took office.

Britain wants to posture as a great power, but has less and less means of doing so, except as a humble spear carrier for the US. Not all this can be blamed on Johnson and his jingoistic flag wavers in government, because they are only taking advantage of a public assumption that Britain possesses levers of power that no longer function.

Dominic Raab may have lost his job as foreign secretary because he lolled too long beside the swimming pool at his luxury hotel in Crete as the Taliban was capturing Kabul. But had Raab hastily returned to London – or drowned in the hotel pool – it would not have made the slightest difference to events in Afghanistan.

Public and media misperception of the real power of the British government gives an air of unreality to much of British political life at home and abroad. Six years ago, debate raged on whether or not Britain should launch bombing raids against Isis in Syria, with all sides ignoring the fact that Britain did not have the planes or the intelligence to do anything significant – something subsequently admitted by the RAF officer in charge.

The pretence that Britain is once again a power in the South China Sea and Pacific can only be achieved by complete reliance on the US, ignoring the lessons of the Iraq and Afghan wars.

Patrick Cockburn’s new book ‘Behind Enemy Lies: War News and Chaos in the Middle East’ will be published by Verso in October

 

Two decades after 9/11, the role of Saudi Arabia in the attack remains in dispute despite unrelenting efforts by the US and Saudi governments to neutralise it as a live political issue.

The Saudi Arabia embassy in Washington this week issued a statement detailing its anti-terrorist activities and ongoing hostility to Al-Qaeda. This was briskly rejected by the lawyers for the families of the 9/11 victims who said that, “what Saudi Arabia desperately does not want to discuss is the substantial and credible evidence of the complicity [in the attack] of their employees, agents and sponsored agents”.

Saudi Arabia claims that the 9/11 Commission Report, the official American inquiry published in 2003, cleared it of responsibility for the attacks. In fact, it found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials as individuals had funded Al-Qaeda. But this is not an exoneration since the Saudi government traditionally retains deniability by permitting Saudi sheikhs and wealthy individuals to finance radical Sunni Muslim movements abroad. A former Taliban finance minister, Agha Jan Motasim, revealed in an interview with the New York Times in 2016 that he went to Saudi Arabia several times a year to raise funds from private donors for his movement .

The evidence has always been strong that at various points the hijackers, who flew the planes into the twin towers and the Pentagon, had interacted with Saudi state employees, though how much the latter knew about the plot has never been clarified. What is impressive is the determination with which the US security services have tried to conceal or play down intelligence linking Saudi officials to 9/11, something which may be motivated by their own culpability in giving Saudis a free pass when suspicions about the hijackers were aroused prior to 9/11.

In Sarasota, Florida, the FBI at first denied having any documents relating to the hijackers who were living there, but eventually handed over 80,000 pages that might be relevant under the Freedom of Information Act. Last week President Joe Biden decided to release other documents from the FBI’s overall investigation.

A striking feature of 9/11 is the attention which President George W Bush gave to diverting blame away from Saudi Arabia. He allowed some 144 individuals, mostly from the Saudi elite, to fly back to Saudi Arabia without being questioned by the FBI. A photograph shows Bush in cheerful conversation on the White House balcony a few days after 9/11 with the influential Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan.

Senator Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee at the time, told me in an interview with The Independent in 2014 that, “there were several incidents [in which US officials] were inexplicably solicitous to Saudis”. This solicitude did not ebb over the years and it was only in 2016 that the wholly redacted 28 pages in the 9/11 Report about the financial links of some hijackers to individuals working for the Saudi government was finally made public.

I have never been a believer in direct Saudi government complicity in 9/11, because they had no motive and they usually act at one remove from events. When the Saudi state acts on its own – as with the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamil Khashoggi by a death squad at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 – the operation is commonly marked by shambolic incompetence.

Conspiracy theories about 9/11 divert attention away from two areas of Saudi culpability that are beyond dispute. The first is simply that 9/11 was a Saudi-led operation through and through, since Osama bin Laden, from one of the most prominent Saudi families, was the leader of Al-Qaeda and 15 out of the19 hijackers were Saudi nationals. The 9/11 attacks might have happened without Afghanistan, but not without Saudi participation.

Another kind of Saudi government culpability for 9/11 is more wide-ranging but more important because the factors behind it have not disappeared. A weakness of the outpouring of analyses of the consequences of 9/11 is that they treat the attacks as the point of departure for a series of events that ended badly, such as the “war on terror” and the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. This is very much a western viewpoint because what happened in New York and Washington in 2001 was not the beginning, but the midpoint in a struggle, involving both open and covert warfare, that began more than 20 years earlier and made Saudi Arabia such a central player in world politics.

This preeminent status is attributed to Saudi oil wealth and partial control over the price of oil. But more than 20 years before 9/11 two events occurred which deepened the US-Saudi alliance and made it far more important for both parties. These genuine turning points in history, both of which took place in 1979, were the overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. These together generated 40 years of conflict and war which have not yet come to an end, and in which 9/11 was but one episode and the Taliban victory in Afghanistan last month another.

Saudi Arabia and the US wanted to stop communism in Afghanistan and the rise of Iran as a revolutionary Shia power. The former motive vanished with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 (though not the permanent crisis in Afghanistan), but the Saudi aim to build a wall of fundamentalist Sunni movements in the 50 Muslim majority states in the world did not.

Saudi policy is to bet on all players in any conflict, so it can truthfully claim to be backing the Afghan government and fighting terrorism, though it is also indirectly funding a resurgent Taliban. The US was not blind to this, but only occasionally admitted so in public. Six years after 9/11, in 2007, Stuart Levy, the under secretary of the US Treasury in charge of putting a stop to the financing of terrorism, told ABC news that regarding Al-Qaeda, “if I could somehow snap my fingers and cut off funding from one country, it would be Saudi Arabia”. He added that not a single person identified by the US and the UN as a funder of terrorism had been prosecuted by the Saudis.

Most candid admissions by senior US officials were classified and are only known because of leaks. In a cable published by WikiLeaks, for instance, the then US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, wrote that, “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, LET [Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan] and other terrorist groups.”

 
• Category: Foreign Policy, History • Tags: 9/11, Saudi Arabia, Terrorism 

Two decades after 9/11, the role of Saudi Arabia in the attack remains in dispute despite unrelenting efforts by the US and Saudi governments to neutralise it as a live political issue.

The Saudi Arabia embassy in Washington this week issued a statement detailing its anti-terrorist activities and ongoing hostility to Al-Qaeda. This was briskly rejected by the lawyers for the families of the 9/11 victims who said that, “what Saudi Arabia desperately does not want to discuss is the substantial and credible evidence of the complicity [in the attack] of their employees, agents and sponsored agents”.

Saudi Arabia claims that the 9/11 Commission Report, the official American inquiry published in 2003, cleared it of responsibility for the attacks. In fact, it found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials as individuals had funded Al-Qaeda. But this is not an exoneration since the Saudi government traditionally retains deniability by permitting Saudi sheikhs and wealthy individuals to finance radical Sunni Muslim movements abroad. A former Taliban finance minister, Agha Jan Motasim, revealed in an interview with the New York Times in 2016 that he went to Saudi Arabia several times a year to raise funds from private donors for his movement .

The evidence has always been strong that at various points the hijackers, who flew the planes into the twin towers and the Pentagon, had interacted with Saudi state employees, though how much the latter knew about the plot has never been clarified. What is impressive is the determination with which the US security services have tried to conceal or play down intelligence linking Saudi officials to 9/11, something which may be motivated by their own culpability in giving Saudis a free pass when suspicions about the hijackers were aroused prior to 9/11.

In Sarasota, Florida, the FBI at first denied having any documents relating to the hijackers who were living there, but eventually handed over 80,000 pages that might be relevant under the Freedom of Information Act. Last week President Joe Biden decided to release other documents from the FBI’s overall investigation.

A striking feature of 9/11 is the attention which President George W Bush gave to diverting blame away from Saudi Arabia. He allowed some 144 individuals, mostly from the Saudi elite, to fly back to Saudi Arabia without being questioned by the FBI. A photograph shows Bush in cheerful conversation on the White House balcony a few days after 9/11 with the influential Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan.

Senator Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee at the time, told me in an interview with The Independent in 2014 that, “there were several incidents [in which US officials] were inexplicably solicitous to Saudis”. This solicitude did not ebb over the years and it was only in 2016 that the wholly redacted 28 pages in the 9/11 Report about the financial links of some hijackers to individuals working for the Saudi government was finally made public.

I have never been a believer in direct Saudi government complicity in 9/11, because they had no motive and they usually act at one remove from events. When the Saudi state acts on its own – as with the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamil Khashoggi by a death squad at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 – the operation is commonly marked by shambolic incompetence.

Conspiracy theories about 9/11 divert attention away from two areas of Saudi culpability that are beyond dispute. The first is simply that 9/11 was a Saudi-led operation through and through, since Osama bin Laden, from one of the most prominent Saudi families, was the leader of Al-Qaeda and 15 out of the19 hijackers were Saudi nationals. The 9/11 attacks might have happened without Afghanistan, but not without Saudi participation.

Another kind of Saudi government culpability for 9/11 is more wide-ranging but more important because the factors behind it have not disappeared. A weakness of the outpouring of analyses of the consequences of 9/11 is that they treat the attacks as the point of departure for a series of events that ended badly, such as the “war on terror” and the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. This is very much a western viewpoint because what happened in New York and Washington in 2001 was not the beginning, but the midpoint in a struggle, involving both open and covert warfare, that began more than 20 years earlier and made Saudi Arabia such a central player in world politics.

This preeminent status is attributed to Saudi oil wealth and partial control over the price of oil. But more than 20 years before 9/11 two events occurred which deepened the US-Saudi alliance and made it far more important for both parties. These genuine turning points in history, both of which took place in 1979, were the overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. These together generated 40 years of conflict and war which have not yet come to an end, and in which 9/11 was but one episode and the Taliban victory in Afghanistan last month another.

Saudi Arabia and the US wanted to stop communism in Afghanistan and the rise of Iran as a revolutionary Shia power. The former motive vanished with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 (though not the permanent crisis in Afghanistan), but the Saudi aim to build a wall of fundamentalist Sunni movements in the 50 Muslim majority states in the world did not.

Saudi policy is to bet on all players in any conflict, so it can truthfully claim to be backing the Afghan government and fighting terrorism, though it is also indirectly funding a resurgent Taliban. The US was not blind to this, but only occasionally admitted so in public. Six years after 9/11, in 2007, Stuart Levy, the under secretary of the US Treasury in charge of putting a stop to the financing of terrorism, told ABC news that regarding Al-Qaeda, “if I could somehow snap my fingers and cut off funding from one country, it would be Saudi Arabia”. He added that not a single person identified by the US and the UN as a funder of terrorism had been prosecuted by the Saudis.

Most candid admissions by senior US officials were classified and are only known because of leaks. In a cable published by WikiLeaks, for instance, the then US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, wrote that, “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, LET [Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan] and other terrorist groups.”

 

An ill-judged attempt to find out who is to blame for failing to predict the swift victory of the Taliban and the disintegration of Afghan government forces is masking the most significant strategic lessons of the Afghan war.

Turning points in history usually come by surprise because, if the powers-that-be of the day could see those turning points coming at them, they would take steps to avoid them. Governments and the public like to believe that there is more inevitability in history than there really is. Unexpected events of great significance, such as the fall of France in 1940, the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 were followed by inquiries into why experts did not foresee them.

These investigations dig down deep in search of root causes of historic change and always find them. But, as Lord Northcliffe said, one “should never lose one’s sense of the superficial”. Key ingredients in important historic developments may be decisions and actions occurring that could easily have gone the other way. For instance, there were long-standing reasons for Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait in 1990, but none of these would have mattered if the Iraqi leader had changed his mind at the last minute.

I argued for a decade that the Afghan government was a floating wreck and that it was its unpopularity and fragility, and not the strength of the Taliban, that was the driving force of events. Yet, unsatisfactory though this situation was, it could have gone on for a long time had not Donald Trump signed an extraordinarily one-sided US withdrawal agreement with the Taliban in February 2020. And even this might not have produced the final debacle, had Joe Biden not decided for domestic political motives to grandstand in his speech on 14 April this year confirming the American departure before the 9/11 anniversary.

He said correctly that the Afghan regime provided too rotten a branch for the US to sit on forever – and then decided to jump up and down on the very same branch and not expect it to snap. The details of just how everything fell apart on the night, and how this could have been avoided, is being venomously debated, but a far more important lesson is that the American way of war is dysfunctional and automatically generates failure.

Claims that the US might have prevented the return of the Taliban, if it had not been diverted by the Iraq war, or devoted too much time to “nation building” in Afghanistan, should be dismissed as the self-regarding nonsense that it is. Between 2001 and 2021, US administrations invariably acted in their own domestic political interests when it came to Afghanistan, these interests seldom coinciding with those of ordinary Afghans.

A curious fact is that the US had won the war by the early months of 2002, at which time the US-backed forces had overthrown the Taliban and al-Qaeda had left the country for Pakistan. But the White House continued the “war on terror” even in the absence of terrorists because of its strong appeal as a slogan and a policy to a US public badly bruised by the shock of 9/11. US forces brought back and supported old warlords, whose blood-soaked banditry between 1992 and 1996 had given birth to the Taliban by way of reaction. Big and small-time Afghan-style mafiosi used American support to win power and money, often denouncing their rivals as secret Taliban and al-Qaeda supporters.

How this process discredited the anti-Taliban forces and produced the Taliban’s return is explained in Anand Gopal’s brilliant and detailed book, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban and the War through Afghan Eyes. Based on copious interviewing, it convincingly describes how US military intervention first helped get rid of the Taliban but then replaced them with predatory local bosses who denounced as “terrorists” anybody who stood in their way.

Many in impoverished Pashtun southern Afghanistan, once the heartland of the Taliban, were glad to see the back of them, hoping that US intervention meant democratic elections and economic aid. Disillusionment began early when non-political or anti-Taliban farmers were whisked off to mistreatment and confinement in Bagram airport and Guantanamo. Among many examples, Gopal relates how in one area, “US forces assaulted the school and the governor’s house in January 2002, wiping out most of the district’s pro-US leadership in a single night.”

Such “mistakes” were integral to the way in which the US helped rejuvenate the Taliban over two decades by using assault teams to stage night raids and airpower at all times, their targets often chosen by faulty and partisan intelligence.

I was in Herat in eastern Afghanistan in 2014 writing about three villages in Farrar province bombed by the US air force, which had killed 117 villagers, 61 of them children, after the local police had called in an airstrike. Though there were cavernous bomb craters 15 feet deep, a US spokesperson initially claimed that the slaughter had been caused by Taliban tossing grenades into houses.

These atrocities grew worse in recent years as the US withdrew its ground troops and relied more on “night raids”, often carried out by US-organised Afghan assault units that were effectively death squads. The number of US troops might drop, but not the quantity of bombs and missiles being used.

Predictably, the motives for young men joining the Taliban in recent years were two-fold according to local reports and they had nothing to do with fundamentalist Islam. Fighters said that they had joined up because of the killing or injuring of civilians by airstrikes and night raids, and because of US backing for tribes and ethnic groups hostile to them.

The bottom line is that at vast expense – the figure ranges between \$1 trillion and \$2.3 trillion over 20 years, depending on how it is calculated – Washington has devised a method of fighting wars that makes sure they will never end. US airpower may have killed many Taliban, but it has recruited many more.

The US kept its own military casualties down by using drones and airstrikes whose targeting relied on difficult-to-interpret satellite images and dubious local informants. Appropriately, one of the last direct military actions by the US at Kabul airport was a drone strike aimed at suicide bombers, which killed 10 civilians including seven children.

 

The slaughter of at least 79 Afghan civilians and 13 American servicemen at Kabul airport has propelled the Afghan offshoot of Isis to the top of the news agenda, as it was intended to do. The movement showed with one ferocious assault, at a time and place guaranteeing maximum publicity, that it intends to be a player in Afghanistan under the new Taliban rulers.

President Joe Biden, echoing President George W Bush after 9/11, said: “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.”

But the self-destructive US response to 9/11 should serve as a warning about the perils of ill-directed over-reaction. Reducing complex developments in Afghanistan to another episode in “the war on terror” is misleading, counter-productive and one of the root causes of the present mess.

By viewing everything in Afghanistan through the prism of “counter-terrorism” 20 years ago, the US plugged itself into a civil war that it exacerbated and from which it has just emerged on the losing side.

Biden is now the target of a storm of criticism from all quarters for an over-hasty US exit, but Donald Trump had planned an even swifter pull-out. Moreover, he was the architect of the one-sided withdrawal agreement with the Taliban signed in February 2020, which persuaded Afghans that the Americans had switched sides and they had better do the same if they were going to survive.

Biden has been wounded politically by the present debacle, but the damage may not be lasting, as television pictures of the carnage at Kabul airport fade in the public mind – and he stresses that he has extracted the US from an unwinnable war. Who now remembers that, as recently as 2019, Trump betrayed America’s Kurdish allies who had defeated Isis in Syria by green-lighting a Turkish invasion of their territory that turned many of them into refugees?

There may even be advantages for America that world attention is wholly focused on events at Kabul airport, involving as they do some tens of thousands of people, and diverting attention away from the grim prospects facing 18 million Afghan women and the likely persecution of 4 million Shia Muslims. Another benefit for the US is the rebranding of the Taliban as the enemies of Isis, which replaces them as chief bogeymen for the US and makes defeat by the Taliban more palatable

The same thought has clearly occurred to the Taliban, which has been fighting Islamic State Khorasan, the regional franchise of Isis, since 2015. “Our guards are also risking their lives at Kabul airport, they face a threat too from the Islamic State group,” said an anonymous Taliban official before the bombing. By one account, 28 Taliban fighters were killed by the blast. Rebranded as an anti-Isis force, the Taliban will find it much easier to win legitimacy, international recognition and acquire desperately needed economic aid.

Isis itself has denounced the Taliban as collaborators with the US, saying that only an understanding between the two can explain the speed of the Taliban advance and of the Kabul government’s collapse. Here they are at one with some of the defeated leaders on the government side. The fall of Kabul was the “result of a large, organised and cowardly conspiracy,” claimed Atta Mohammad Noor, a former warlord, following his precipitous escape by helicopter.

Isis leaders do not like the fact the Taliban has succeeded in gaining control of an entire state, in contrast to the so-called caliphate they attempted to establish in western Iraq and eastern Syria in 2014, which was eradicated along with its self-declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed in 2019.

Islamic State Khorasan is not a large organisation and has between 1,500 and 2,200 fighters, according to a recent UN report. The airport bombings are not even its most horrific acts of butchery in Kabul this year – that goes to the murder of 85 Shia Hazara schoolgirls by a car bomb in May.

Isis feeds off the denunciations that follow such mass murders, be they in Kabul, Paris or Manchester, which serve to raise its profile, attracting new recruits and money. But how far does Isis really pose a physical threat inside and outside Afghanistan? Will the country once again become a haven for al-Qaeda-type groups, as it was when Osama bin Laden was based there before 2001?

The situation today differs from 20 years ago. Then, the Taliban needed an alliance with al-Qaeda, which provided it with money and fanatical fighters, such as the two suicide bombers who assassinated Ahmad Shah Massoud, the very able leader of the anti-Taliban forces in 2001. Today, the Taliban needs no such assistance and, on the contrary, will present itself as an enthusiastic new recruit to “the war on terror” whose other failings should be ignored. This is a well-worn path for authoritarian states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia whose abuses are routinely ignored or downplayed in the west.

In the wake of the airport bombing, the Taliban is well on the way to escaping isolation as a pariah state, which it experienced between 1996 and 2001.

Self-interest could propel the Taliban to fight against Isis in order to establish links with the west, but the relationship between the Taliban, al-Qaeda and Isis is more complicated than that dictated by such realpolitik. Taliban leaders previously living in comfort abroad in Pakistan and Qatar may see the advantage of showing a moderate face to the world.

But Taliban military commanders and their fighters, having won a spectacular victory against those whom they regard as heretics and traitors, will not be eager to dilute their beliefs, and instead will pursue those whom the US and its allies identify as terrorists. Many in Islamic State Khorasan are former Taliban fighters and all the fundamentalist jihadi groups share, broadly speaking, a common ideology and view of the world.

Clearly these movements fight, envy and collaborate with each other, with most welcoming the Taliban victory and a few denouncing it as the outcome a US-Taliban deal – as indeed it is. But looked at in more global terms, the overthrow of the US-backed Afghan government with at least 100,000 well-armed soldiers by the smaller less well-equipped Taliban will be taken as a sign of the strength of fundamentalist Islamist jihadi religious movements. As with the capture of Mosul in Iraq in 2014 by 800 Isis fighters pitted against three Iraqi divisions, such victories will appear to sympathisers to be divinely inspired.

The swift collapse of the Kabul government demonstrates that western-backed or installed regimes seldom achieve legitimacy or the ability to stand alone. In the case of Afghanistan, the disintegration was part psychological – the government simply could not believe that their superpower ally was going to desert them.

The debacle was also military, the Pentagon having created an Afghan army which was a mirror image of America’s and therefore could not fight without being able to call in airstrikes at will. These deep-seated failures are more important than the Isis suicide bombing at Kabul airport.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Afghanistan, ISIS, Taliban 

In 2001 the Taliban blew up the giant 1,500-year-old Buddhist statues in Bamiyan, central Afghanistan to show their defiance of the world and their contempt for all religious beliefs aside from their own fanatical version of Sunni Islam.

Another motive was to demonstrate the Taliban’s power over the Shia minority in Afghanistan, mostly members of the 4 million-strong Hazara ethnic group, in whose heartlands the statues had stood before their destruction.

Last week the Taliban blew up another statue in Bamiyan, this time of a martyred Hazara leader whom they had murdered in 1995, shortly before they captured Kabul for the first time. His name was Abdul Ali Mazari and he died when he and his senior aides were invited to a peace meeting with a Taliban leader. On their arrival, Mazari was abducted, tortured, executed and his body thrown out of a helicopter.

His mutilated remains were later handed over to his Hazara Shia followers who carried them for forty days through snow-covered mountains in Hazara territory to a funeral attended by hundreds of thousands of people. Sanctified by his life and the manner of his death in the eyes of the Hazara, he was later declared an official Martyr for the National Unity of Afghanistan by president Ashraf Ghani who fled the country last week.

The swift destruction of the statue of Mazari in Bamiyan last Wednesday is an ominous guide to the future behaviour of the Taliban once they believe that their present show of moderation is no longer necessary to impress the outside world. In May this year, the visceral hatred of the Shia as heretics by either the Taliban, or the local chapter of Isis, was horrifically displayed when 85 Shia Hazara schoolgirls were killed by a bomb as they left their school in Kabul.

The next few months will tell, once Afghanistan no longer tops the news agenda, how far the new Taliban rulers of Kabul will renew persecution of the ethnic and religious minorities outside the Pashtun community to which almost all Taliban belong.

Yet, although the Pashtun are the largest community, they are still only 42 per cent of the 38 million population of Afghanistan. A determining feature of the country’s political landscape is that all communities are minorities, creating different power centres, the relations between which will decide the country’s future.

A militarised party like the Taliban based on the Pashtun community in the south of the country may seize power through physical force for a time, but it is unlikely to hold on to it permanently or peacefully unless some authority is devolved to the Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazara – as well as to cities like Kabul, Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif.

It was Mazari, the murdered Hazara Shia leader, who advocated a federal Afghanistan with the different regions of the country enjoying extensive autonomy. His fate at the time and the immediate blowing up of his statue a quarter of a century later indicates that the Taliban are no more interested now in his solution to Afghanistan’s permanent civil war than they were when they killed him.

“I don’t think the Taliban can unite the country,” an Afghan friend told me this week. “Afghans only come together to fight obvious enemies like the Russians or the Americans. The last time around [before the overthrow of the Taliban by the US-backed invasion of 2001], the Taliban demanded that everybody speak the Pashto language.”

My Afghan friend wondered if the incoming Taliban leaders would have the sophistication to rule a country as diverse as Afghanistan with its mosaic of cultures, languages, communal identities and political interests. She recalled Taliban leaders prior to 2001 who could not read or write and, at first, employed somebody to write their signature on official documents. “Later they had their signatures inscribed on a ring they would press down on an inkpad and then on a document,” she said.

For now, it is much in the interests of the Taliban to give the impression that they have moderated their old fanatical and murderous ways. Their victory has come faster and is more comprehensive than they had expected because the high profile American pull-out convinced Afghans that a government defeat was inevitable – and this belief became self-fulfilling.

Switching sides early to that of the likely winner has always been a feature of war in Afghanistan, as it was in medieval England during the Wars of the Roses. Indeed, Shakespeare’s history plays about that period provide a good guide to the treacheries and fast-changing allegiances of Afghan politics today.

Taliban domination is more fragile than it might appear in the long term, but for the moment they have the momentum of victory behind them. Afghans and Afghanistan’s neighbours will want to see what they do with their new-found power.

Some members of the fallen regime already speak of armed resistance, such as first vice-president Amrullah Saleh. Another is Ahmad Massoud, the son of the leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was assassinated by al-Qaeda suicide bombers in 2001.

As with his father, Ahmad says he will fight from the great natural fortress of the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul, which the Taliban have not yet taken. The floor of the valley used to be littered with the remains of burnt-out Soviet tanks from battles in the 1980s. But the precedent may be misleading because the Taliban are stronger than ever and opposition to them has yet to come together.

Even when it does, it will require foreign backers in the form of money and weapons – and no foreign state is likely to provide them while they are still assessing the nature of the new regime in Kabul.

The US and its western allies say that a crucial test for them will be how far the Taliban avoids hosting terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, as they did before 9/11. It will be much in the Taliban’s interests not to do so because they want international recognition as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Unlike 20 years ago, they do not need anything from al-Qaeda such as money and fanatical recruits willing to die on the battlefield.

Foreign media coverage has focused on the threat to Afghan interpreters who were with foreign forces and the reduction of women to an inferior status within Afghan society.

Yet the decisive factor in deciding whether the 40-year-old Afghan civil war will continue or come to an end will be decided by the degree to which the Taliban will seek to monopolise power or to share it with the other Afghan communities.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy, History • Tags: Afghanistan, Taliban 
Patrick Cockburn
About Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn is the Middle East correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent. He was awarded the 2005 Martha Gellhorn prize for war reporting. His book on his years covering the war in Iraq, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (Verso) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction.


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