The West’s victory is a defeat for civilisation
By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 15th November 2001
The armchair warriors have proved no more merciful in victory than the Northern Alliance. Yesterday’s Sun turned over two pages to an editorial titled “Shame of the traitors: wrong, wrong, wrong … the fools who said Allies faced disaster”. Christopher Hitchens raised the moral and intellectual tone of the debate in the Guardian yesterday with this lofty sentiment: “Well ha, ha, ha and yah, boo. It was … obvious that defeat was impossible”. Such magnanimity suggests to me that it is not Afghanistan which we have bombed into the Stone Age, but ourselves.
But almost everyone now agrees that this is the end of history, all over again. The sceptics have been routed as swiftly as the Taliban. George Bush and Tony Blair, with the help of their “daisy cutters” and cluster bombs, have ushered in a new, new world order, the long awaited golden age of democracy. But have the warriors of the West, both actual and virtual, really won? And if so, what precisely is the prize?
There’s no question that the advance of the Northern Alliance is a remarkable turnaround, which took the hawks as well as the doves by surprise. All of us — warriors and sceptics — overestimated the military difficulties of capturing Kabul. But the Telegraph’s repetition of Mrs Thatcher’s injunction — “just rejoice, rejoice” — may prove to be a little premature.
It would be rather easier to measure the success of the West’s war aims if those aims had not shifted with every presidential announcement. But a few key questions may help us to determine how much the B52s have achieved. The first and most obvious is: will the advance of the Northern Alliance lead to the overthrow of the barbarous Taliban? The answer is, almost certainly, yes; though they may persist as a guerilla force. The question this then begs is will it improve the lives of the Afghan people? Almost everyone appears to believe that it will. But we should be foolish to forget that just five years ago both Afghans and western diplomats welcomed the Taliban’s capture of Kabul, as it relieved the inhabitants of the murderous dominion of the men who now run the Northern Alliance. Yesterday the Telegraph claimed that the NA’s “fearful violence” towards Arab and Pakistani soldiers “is a shocking reminder of the fact that bin Laden’s zealots have been a hated army of occupation.” Well, perhaps. But it is also a shocking reminder of the fact that the Northern Alliance can be just as brutal as the hated regime it has displaced. To the claim Polly Toynbee made on these pages yesterday that “nothing could be worse” than the Taliban, one can only respond: don’t tempt fate.
The Alliance’s willingness to cooperate with western plans for Afghanistan is also questionable. Four days ago, we were told that its soldiers had been persuaded not to advance on Kabul, and this was judged a victory for the West. Now they have taken Kabul, and this too is hailed as a victory for the West. That the military action has not gone according to plan, in other words, is now presented as a vindication of the plan.
Given that the Northern Alliance has so far shown little interest in doing as the West requests, why should we assume it would be prepared to abandon its military gains for a “broad-based” political settlement? Countless comparisons to the outcome in Serbia have been made, as if this somehow offers proof that armed intervention leads inexorably to democracy. But Serbia, unlike Afghanistan, already possessed a mature democracy movement. Where is the Afghan equivalent? Where are the moderate leaders with which the West wants to replace the Taliban? Who among all the named credible candidates does not have blood on his hands? And will the fiercely independent Afghans accept the writ of the United Nations? Or, given that both Russia and the West have strategic and energy interests in central Asia, will it come to be seen in the same light as the Soviet occupation?
Will the advance of the Northern Alliance save people who are at risk of famine in Afghanistan? It will almost certainly save some of them. Much more aid is now entering the areas which have come under Northern Alliance control, though, like the retreating Taliban, the alliance fighters have been looting supplies and commandeering UN vehicles. But for thousands the help is likely to have arrived too late. The interruption of supplies during the eight weeks in which they should have been stockpiled for the winter means that many of those living in the valleys made inaccessible by snow will die before they can be reached.
Will it lead to the capture or killing of Osama Bin Laden? Possibly. Will it free the world from terrorism? No. Will it deliver regional or global security? Probably not. The Northern Alliance’s gains represented a bounty for Russia and a blow for Pakistan, whose government is now facing a far graver test in victory than it would have faced in defeat. Even in Britain, a new poll by the Today programme shows, 80% of Muslims are opposed to the West’s war.
But, as well as asking what this war has done to Asia, we must also ask what it has done to us. And here, it seems to me, the bugles sounding victory for civilised values are also sounding retreat.
The first and most obvious loss is our willing repudiation of the very basis of civilisation: human rights. The new terrorism bills in America and Britain have required the suspension of both the US constitution and the UK’s human rights act. Perhaps it’s because I’m writing this from inside a police cell in North Wales, but it seems to me that in trying to shut the terrorists out, we have merely imprisoned ourselves.
One of the last smart bombs deployed in Kabul destroyed the offices of Al Jazeera, the only truly independent major television station in the Arab world. Al Jazeera has consistently provided a voice for Muslims opposed to US military intervention in Afghanistan, as well as airing Bin Laden’s inflammatory videos. A few weeks ago Colin Powell sought to persuade the emir of Qatar to close it down, without success. Its destruction suggests that free speech and dissent have now joined terrorism as the business of “evil-doers”.
The second loss to the West is the triumph of war-war over jaw-jaw. The partial victory in Afghanistan appears to have convinced both governments and commentators that we can blast our way to world peace. No serious attempt was made, before the bombing began, to differentiate between just and unjust war. Justice in war, as almost every philosopher since Thomas Aquinas agrees, requires that the peaceful alternatives should first have been exhausted. There is plenty to suggest that the initial aim — to capture Bin Laden — could have been achieved without recourse to arms. The Taliban twice offered to hand him over on receipt of evidence pointing to his guilt: a much lower barrier to extradition than western governments would have raised. We appear to have made no attempt to discover whether or not they could have been taken at their word. Neither was a serious attempt made to remove the Taliban by diplomatic pressure exercised through Pakistan. Now justice appears to have been redefined as success, and war as the only route to peace.
This new triumphalism is sliding effortlessly into a new imperialism. It conflates armed and ethical success, mastery and morality. If this is a victory for civilisation, I would hate to see what defeat looks like.