Magazine article The Spectator

Damping Down the Haystack

Magazine article The Spectator

Damping Down the Haystack

Article excerpt

THE moral imperative has rarely been clearer; the difficulty of responding to it has never been more daunting. The campaign against Osama bin Laden will be one in which the defenders start with huge advantages. We have to assume that bin Laden will shortly go to ground, if he is not there already, and he can take his choice from vast tracts of the most impenetrable terrain on earth. After all, the late Ahmad Shah Masood spent more than two decades in combat with formidable foes, all of whom wanted to kill him. He did not have bin Laden's freedom of movement. He spent most of his fighting career holed up in the Panshir valley: plenty of space, but nothing like as much as bin Laden could enjoy. It took his foes 22 years to kill him. The West cannot afford to wait that long.

But there are no easy options. By comparison with Afghanistan and bin Laden, the Kuwait campaign virtually embodied the unities of Greek drama: limited in space, action and time. Yet it was hard enough. In August and September 1990, there was considerable covert pessimism in official circles in both London and Washington. Margaret Thatcher may have been banging the war drums: Saddam threatened the West with the mother of all battles; she was happy to take on the role. The men who had to plan the battles were much less sure of themselves. Desert Storm only seems straightforward in retrospect, and that operation was simplicity itself compared to this affair.

Tony Blair has not yet obliged his Chancellor to provide enough funds for either the armed forces or the secret intelligence services. But over the past four years, the PM has come to admire and trust both those bodies; and so he should. Even so, there are likely to have been some awkward exchanges between him and Sir Michael Boyce, the new Chief of the Defence Staff. As any CDS would in the circumstances, Michael Boyce will have to highlight the difficulties. The same process will be going on in Washington; if Messrs Blair and Bush ever thought that there were easy options, they will know better by now.

Yet the military preparations may be easier than the diplomacy. In the early phase, and after an awkward start, that has gone as well as could be expected. The Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire was a diplomatic triumph for the United States, and, paradoxically, it was made easier by General Sharon's first cynical response to the World Trade Center: to send in tanks and attack helicopters when he hoped that no one would notice. Well, they did in the Arab world - and also in the US Department of Defense. Up to now, Don Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, et al. have been reluctant to concede that Israel could ever be in the wrong about anything. Now, faced with the exigencies of coalitionbuilding, they have understood the need to persuade the Israelis to show restraint.

Will it last? Even if Mr Arafat is genuine in his offer of a ceasefire, he does not control Hamas or Hezbollah. Nor does he speak for the alienated young on the street. A recent poll shows that 60 per cent of Palestinians approved of suicide bombing in Israel, and last week's events will only increase the supply of young volunteers for suicide missions. We just have to hope that they are caught or that they blow themselves up too early. Israel could be only one atrocity away from renewed conflict, a thought which will already have occurred to the Arab militants who would hate to see the intifada subside, thus lightening America's diplomatic load. …

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