Eradicating al-Qaeda is a job for the police

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 February, 2008, 12:00am

The first law of holes is, when you are in one, stop digging. If the Nato nations are honest, they have as much idea about what to do next in Afghanistan as the Soviet generals did in 1988 - the year in which Mikhail Gorbachev decided that the Red Army should cut its horrific losses, pull out and leave the Afghans to fight each other.

The Afghan tribes have an uninterrupted record of success in resisting foreign invaders - Genghis Khan, the Persians, the British and now Nato. Time, they know, is on their side. The only thing that could possibly subdue them would be a massive number of Nato boots on the ground, prepared to engage in close-up fighting. But to find such numbers would mean switching the full force of US military might from Iraq to Afghanistan and persuading America's allies to beef up their contributions, to triple or quadruple the present deployments.

While the politicians are finding it hard to come to terms with leading a retreat, given the constant pressure form Washington, they are - as German Chancellor Angela Merkel has made clear - slowly but clearly turning tail. A few thousand more troops, a better co-ordinated aid programme, an imposed western tsar, a beefed up local police force - none of these will work as long as Afghanistan has its poppies and mountains, and corruption continues to seep into almost every pore of society.

The stakes are high because the Taleban, with their tribal network spanning across a ridiculously placed border dividing Afghanistan and Pakistan, give refuge to al-Qaeda. Getting rid of al-Qaeda must be a priority on the world's common agenda. But this is not the way to do it. And developing Afghanistan, economically and socially, can only be done when the populace face down their local persecutors and oppressors and demand it.

So how should al-Qaeda be dealt with? The mistakes date from the immediate reaction to September 11: Afghanistan should never have been bombed. That immediately marked America and Britain as the enemy in the minds of a good proportion of the Afghans. But that mistake was part of a larger mistake - the determination to go to war, with modern military means, against al-Qaeda - a grouping of a few hundred at that time - even if it meant putting at mortal risk the populations of whole countries.

The Anglo-American onslaught, accompanied in Afghanistan by a 37-nation coalition, has created more al-Qaeda militants than it has killed. It has alienated most of the Muslim world and has provided a reason for tens of thousands of preachers, hundreds of thousands of enraged young men and millions of ordinary folk to talk of hitting back.

Osama bin Laden and his intimates should have been run down by careful international police work. It is probably still not too late to change tactics 180 degrees, although it will be much harder than it would have been six years ago. Who has the courage to stand up and say this, or will European and Canadian leaders just scuttle away from the mess one by one, leaving the Americans to stew in their juice?

Jonathan Power is a London-based journalist