This is the season of conkers. Behind the war over Afghanistan a pettier conflict can be discerned: a word battle amongst the commentariat, conducted on laptops and from the back benches of the House of Commons. Petty by comparison, our hostilities may matter little to you readers. But to us on the ground, fighting hand-to-hand in the opinion columns, the conflict matters terribly, professionally and from a personal point of view.
It is the battle to be right, and proved right, about that bigger war conducted by the leaders of the free world. Regrettably, I mean “right” in two senses.
Nobody should be ashamed of aiming for fairness and justice, but we want to be right in a more snotty-nosed way too. In the press no less than in the school playground, the yah-boo-sucks and chants of ha-na-na are seldom far beneath the surface.
You poor readers are incidental to this battle but you need to be wise to it, for there is a danger that in hopes of being proved right, we self-styled prophets begin unconsciously to invite the ills we prophesy. The editorialists of The Daily Telegraph, who want desperately to believe that skepticism about a war must somehow be left-wing, comb the columns of The Guardian for examples, inwardly hopeful that the Labour Left will not let them down. When they find them they offer such doubts all the oxygen they can.
And we who fear that the US President’s military crusade could lead to mayhem find ourselves, if we are not careful, hoping for mayhem. It would vindicate our warnings. Be honest, fellow doves: if the Taleban surrendered tomorrow, Osama bin Laden emerged from his cave with his hands up, al-Qaeda surrendered unconditionally, a benign government of national unity trooped in from the wings to take over Afghanistan and a fanfare of trumpets lauding Tony Blair’s world vision echoed from every Islamic capital, our first reaction (to be sure) would be immense relief; but few of us can place claw on feathered chest and say that a second reaction would not be a stifled “what a fool this makes me look”. I must speak only for myself. I have not watched the reverses which have characterized the diplomatic and military campaign so far with pleasure. But as each new shambles hits the news I do sometimes have to fight the temptation, however momentary, to yield to certain grim satisfaction.
My I-told-you-so, however, may be another man’s life; another family’s home in ruins; another young Islamic fundamentalist terrorist recruited; another blow to Western security. I am ashamed of the reaction, and it passes. Though I may not be able to believe in outright victory, I can and should want a ladder for our Prime Minister to climb honorably down. I ought to desire a way for him to save his own and our country’s reputation. An exit strategy which does not allow his enemies to gloat is a strategy he is more likely to take.
Here is one: a dignified ladder. Tony Blair could descend it without humiliation. He could look not weak but humane and wise and arguably true to the strategy he has adopted all along. He could say it proved us skeptics wrong, and I would bite my lip and accept it.
Ramadan is almost upon us. Winter will soon be on the hills of Afghanistan. Now — within the next few days — is the time to declare, what is perfectly true, that the Taleban have been lamed, bin Laden turned into a fugitive, al-Qaeda’s training camps wrecked and the elements of a potential Christian-Muslim world coalition against terrorism put in place.
With scope for military gains severely limited until at least next spring, and an urgent need to get humanitarian relief into Afghanistan before winter, the end of the first phase of the War against Terror should be announced with modest satisfaction. Quietly confident, Mr Blair could say we are on course to begin the third phase early next year.
But now, he could say, comes the second phase. During the prolonged pause in hostilities which should start with the beginning of Ramadan, and as massive supplies of food and other essentials are pumped into Afghanistan, America, Britain and our Western allies need the winter (Blair would explain) to sit down with responsible leaders in the world of Islam, to hear their views and plan with them the phase which begins next spring.
To the question whether that phase must include a resumption of the bombing, he and the allies could perfectly properly reply that time would tell: that these were among the many questions President Bush and his coalition wanted to discuss with Muslim nations worldwide.
Effectively we would then have a ceasefire until further notice.
You offer, perhaps, three objections. First, you say, this only puts off the evil day. Secondly, we may not yet have destroyed Islamic fundamentalist terrorism; a further atrocity this winter would expose the delayers to the charge of taking liberties with our security. Thirdly, Bush probably wouldn’t, and possibly cannot, agree to a delay.
To the charge of putting off the evil day I enter an enthusiastic Guilty. I’m all for putting off evil days. The lapse of time would calm the atmosphere. The present media hunger for the allies to “do” something big and new every few days would dissipate, leaving a better atmosphere for our political and military leaders to work in.
It would not stop them from launching a big new wave of bombing next year, but nor would it force them — as at present they may feel forced by popular expectations in America — into bombing.
The danger of another atrocity is real. My (unfashionable) suspicion that the New York bombers may have got “lucky” and may not be the tip of a terrorist iceberg could be wrong. But if the threat is there it is almost certainly not coming from the mountains of Afghanistan but the bedsits of Berlin or Birmingham; if madmen can strike again, they will — pause or no pause in the bombing.
The third objection, that Washington would take no notice of us anyway, may well have force. But if a headstrong and heedless America is a fact, the Prime Minister should think through the consequences of that fact. Let us assume that Washington is oblivious to the tremendous efforts Blair has made on its behalf and determined to carry on bombing. If so, then the quicker we detach ourselves from a campaign over which we have bought no influence, the better.
For this will not be the last crunch-point for Britain. The longer we build the assumption that London will support Washington whatever the Americans do, the greater will be the diplomatic ruin when the assumption falls. What may the Americans want to try next? Give the Northern Alliance a free run to rampage through southern Afghanistan? Invade Iraq? Put in troops to shore up Pakistan? Given time (if our Defense Secretary is to be believed), we shall have troops of our own involved in this. Given time (if the Pentagon does go bomb-crazy) other nations will have distanced themselves and we shall have become America’s key and lonely ally. Splitting from her then will be shattering for us and infuriating to her. America would say that if we hadn’t meant to stay the course we should never have climbed aboard.
She would be right. Now is the time to climb off, before that wagon really rolls. We are not yet so far down the road that a quiet “you go on ahead” would be the end of our friendship.
It would be deeply embarrassing, no more. The longer we leave this parting the harder it will be. Ramadan and winter offer the perfect cover, and this happy chance may not recur. If it is to be done at all, it should be done soon.
Sometimes, to wobble is the bravest thing. Sometimes, “we can’t stop now, we’ve gone too far” is the most craven advice. If only America had wobbled earlier in Vietnam. If only France had wobbled earlier in Algeria. Let us be thankful Britain wobbled early in India.
Looked at from this Saturday morning, the fortnight ahead may appear an agonizing time to take a difficult decision. Looked back upon from 2002, we may see it was the last, best chance. Tony Blair could survive a rethink of Britain’s Afghan role and a polite tapering off of British support for further bombing, if he does it now. Yes, it would be a wobble. And it would be one of the bravest things he has done.
Copyright 2001 Times Newspapers Ltd