A daily blog on the thrills, spills, and frequent absurdities of the world's one and only 'non-imperial empire' - as Barroso himself called it - the European Union.

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Saturday, 23 April 2011

Afghan Border Police in Spin Boldak, the site of the Taliban's first armed victory

The sun expands its domain over the historic cobbles of an Afghan border fortress; the overlapping folds of sand-coloured walls rise out of a rocky outcrop. A clustered, compact urban town covered in a cloth of hazy pollution is gathered in the shade. A short distance out of town, parked in rows off of an ancient dirt track, are a fleet of Toyotas, packed with black-turbaned young students of Islamic law - taleban - with AK47s and chains of ammunition slung over their shoulders as they sit around, anxiously waiting for the sun to rise on a new Afghanistan.

The capture of the border post of Spin Boldak, and its warehouses of tanks and Stinger missiles from the Soviet era, was where the Taliban set themselves on their present collision course with the west. They numbered barely a hundred men at the time, each of them local recruits from the districts of Panjawi and Maiwand, students of the local cleric Mullah Mohammed Omar, who had grown tired of the daily assaults by brigands and drug lords, and had taken matters into their own hands. Their three main policies - Islamic law, as interpreted by Pashtun tribal clerics, disarmament of the population, and summary execution for the bandits, proved incredibly popular with the local population, and, after the town of Spin Boldak had fallen, it was a Toyota-powered blitzkrieg to Kandahar, and the rest is history.

Osama bin Laden, a Islamic jihadist and personal friend of Mullah Omar, commited an atrocity that required retribution; the Taliban refused to hand him over; the west went in pursuit of him through force of arms. Now, in 2011,almost ten years after al-Qaeda hijackers killed three thousand people on 9/11, we're still there, watching hundreds of promising lives disappear in the desert sand for no real purpose whatsoever. Ten years on, the war still has not achieved its proper recognition: as one of Anthony Blair's greatest blunders. That might sound odd; the reasoning for the Afghan war, the capture of a terrorist who would have escaped if not for western intervention, seems sound. At first glance, it is. Legally and morally, the west had a basis for military invasion and occupation of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and, according to some, it should've happened far sooner.

But there are a number of half-truths about the Afghan war that need exposing: the oft-repeated line that the Taliban were refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden is simply not true. They made several offers to extradite him, and put him on trial; first, he'd be tried in Afghanistan under shari'ah law, which probably would have resulted in his execution. Second, he'd be tried in Saudi Arabia, a nation which holds a revered place in Islamic politics, and was one of only three states to recognise the Taliban government. Third, he'd be tried before the United Nations. America rejected every single offer that the Taliban put on the table; they wanted Osama bin Laden tried in an American military court, on American soil, before an American judge. Fair enough - the crime was committed in America. But it does mean that the war itself was avoidable; no boots on the ground ever had to be committed, and it certainly doesn't warrant British involvement. If America wanted an American trial, then American forces should have secured one.

Two, the infamous opium claim. Afghanistan was the source of most of the world's heroin in 2001, just as it is today. But between 2000 and 2001, the Taliban, through a combination of disarmament of the drug lords and limited compensation, managed to eradicate over 90% of the crop. Whether this was out of a genuine commitment to an anti-drugs campaign or simply to drive the prices to over $400 per kilogramme remains unclear, but the output of Afghanistan - of opium, heroin, and other narcotics - was drastically reduced in under a year. Compare that to the west's occupation, where heroin production has risen every year, and it is clear who would have been more successful in stamping out the drugs trade which so blights our inner-city streets.

Three, the idea that the Taliban exported terrorism. In short, the Taliban never exported terrorism beyond their own borders before 2001, and have never committed a terrorist atrocity on western soil. Their allegiance with al-Qaeda is also overstated; the two are both fundamentalists, but that's where the similarities end. Al-Qaeda wants the destruction of the state of Israel and the re-establishment of the Islamic caliphate, and an interpretation of shari'ah law based strictly on Saudi Arabian Wahhabism. By contrast, the Taliban's goals started and ended within the borders of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan; the destruction of Israel was not on their to-do list, and an Islamic caliphate was anathema. Their shari'ah law is also more loosely based on Pashtun custom - similar on the outside to foreign observers, but an entirely different beast when it is examined more closely. Differences which the Taliban and their Arabic military allies and Pakistani paymasters would have been too aware of, and too proud of, to reconcile.

The Taliban were reluctant to oust al-Qaeda because of the sheer amount of money that Osama bin Laden could bring in through the oil sheikhs. Their budget for the whole of Afghanistan never exceeded three hundred and thirty million pounds - America puts more into the country every day - and most of that evaporated on the northern front lines where the fight continued against the Northern Alliance. Al-Qaeda were simply invaluable. Their expertise in a relatively new tactic, suicide bombing, was also useful in Afghanistan, where it was not yet standard practice. The assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud on September 10 2001 highlights the worth of al-Qaeda's presence from a Taliban military standpoint. It is true that Mullah Omar referred to Osama bin Laden as his 'honoured guest,' under the Pashtun tradition of hospitality, malmastia, but in order to qualify for protection, the guest has to submit to his host, something which Osama bin Laden singularly failed to do. Omar could have deported Osama bin Laden with a clear conscience: the divergent goals of their two organisations would have eventually made it impossible for him not so do so.

In short, the war in Afghanistan was unnecessary. A little more patience - one more day - would have left Osama bin Laden in western hands; what that would mean for al-Qaeda and the War on Terror is open to a lot of speculation, but international jihad would have been denied its figurehead, and a cause. Most importantly, thousands of British, American, Canadian, and other assorted western and international soldiers would still be alive. The war itself has achieved nothing. The coalition allies are contributing more to Afghanistan in a day than the Taliban spent in a year; Osama bin Laden is still free; the Taliban leadership is known to be in Quetta, in Pakistan, beyond the reach of western bombs. The failure of American and British diplomats to take any of the opportunities available to them to prevent war - at a time when the latter knew that it was cutting the defence budget - surely ranks among one of the greatest failures in foreign policy, one of many that can be attributed to Tony Blair, and is a needless waste of soldiers, and other treasures, that the country would have done well to keep.

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