The New Statesman Essay - Reflections on a war of ghosts

America, once more, is fighting in a country that it barely understands. Pankaj Mishra on a conflict

I was in Delhi when the American bombing of Afghanistan began in mid-October. The word "terrorism" was not new to India; the government used it constantly to explain the deaths of tens of thousands in the militant uprisings of the past decade. But in India, most people live too close to injustice and deprivation to be able confidently to assume that the government, or the military and the police, could alone deal with terrorism. They know that these institutions of the modern state often use terror to impose their authority upon disaffected peoples. In India, an impoverished and fundamentally chaotic country, it is not difficult to slip into the rarely expressed but widely held assumption that violence is inevitable. Equally inevitable - and this is harder to admit - is injustice. Retaliation is futile because it ultimately gets in the way of living. The perfect world, where retaliation brings justice and security, exists elsewhere, and it is perhaps only one of the many illusions created by possessing great power.

Not that everyone's responses to the bombing were so matter-of-fact. An emotional Indian journalist told me that white people had ruled the world for as long as anyone could remember, mostly through force. They had broken into whole societies and cultures, killed, displaced and enslaved millions of people, and now, for the first time in history, someone from among the races they had tormented and humiliated - Osama Bin Laden - had penetrated their own territory and given them a bloody nose. Terrible things were now going to happen and they were not going to happen to the corrupt men who helped white people rule the world - the Saudi despots - but to the defenceless people of Afghanistan.

The journalist's brother studied in New York, and hoped to settle down in America after completing his education. He could have been one of the hundreds of hopeful immigrants who were inside the World Trade Center on 11 September. Though the journalist outlined, however clumsily, a brutal truth about the power of white people that most of us could not fail to recognise, I could not enter his grim racial vision of the world. Although a reverence for Mahatma Gandhi may seem naive in these times of hard realpolitik, it was still difficult for me to abandon it completely and lapse into the notion that the historical accounts of colonialism could be settled by the mass murder of civilians. It was even harder to accept the anti-imperialist credentials of a mediocre Saudi palace intriguer, to whom had been attributed a host of supernatural powers.

There are many journalists like him: inconsistent anti-imperialists, who fail to speak publicly of the cruelties of Indian rule in Kashmir. Most of the third world's intellectual elite, which draws upon a distinguished history of anti-imperial movements, either depends upon the patronage of post-colonial governments or follows mainstream western liberals in revering the modern nation state, even its corrupted eastern forms, as the desired consummation of history. Its bland endorsement of the official view on issues of national security is always dismaying. It tries to present India as the "biggest democracy in the world", and to gloss over the great violence and corruption caused by a malfunctioning political system. The post-colonial dispensation has helped the intellectual elite and many other middle-class people to achieve a financial and physical security that remains inaccessible to a majority of Indians.

All this made it easier to understand, after the initial disappointment, the high degree of support for the military action in Afghanistan among many western writers and intellectuals. The obligations of these writers outside Asia are tied up with the part of the world they belong to - a section of the globe that has known an unprecedented spell of prosperity and well-being, and that they perceive, rightly or wrongly, as facing a great threat.

Only an excess of sentimentality could have led one to expect them to abandon their basic allegiances and hold up abstract notions of truth and justice, which in any case were embodied satisfactorily, for at least some of them, by the west, which they expected to lead a social revolution in Afghanistan after overthrowing the Taliban. Perhaps one should not have been much surprised or disappointed that the morality they chose to uphold in this time of danger resembled the one that had served the empires of the past - the Romans, the British and the Moguls - and was little more than the pitiless logic of power.

In 1857, Liberal, Whig and Tory intellectuals alike had joined the British public in calling for revenge after Indian soldiers mutinied and killed hundreds of British civilians. Charles Dickens, among others, called for the extermination of the Hindus. The Illustrated London News carried pictures of Indians being hanged or shot from cannons. This is shocking now only if you forget that imperial civilisations rest on brute power, on their ability to inspire fear among the conquered races. The savagery in 1857 flowed naturally out of the desires of British men in India to hold on to the world they had inherited, and to make it safer for future generations. It is hard to see how else the British, as a tiny expansionist minority among a large and hostile population, could have survived in India for another century. For them to acknowledge then, as history does now, that their rapacity and arrogance partly caused the bloody revolt, and to act upon this realisation by withdrawing from India, would have been a step as unthinkable as the one proposed by the Greek philosopher Carneades, who in the second century BC told the Romans, then at the beginning of their expansion, to face up to the injustices inherent in their conquests and return to the shepherd huts from which they had emerged.

Perhaps people living in the heart of empire share the morality of power as instinctively as they breathe, which seems to usher even the more liberal among them into worn-out but still successfully distracting non sequiturs about Islam needing a Reformation, and makes them forget, among other things, that the rhetoric of women's rights was used throughout the 19th century to justify imperial conquest and occupation. And perhaps forgetfulness, rather than cynicism, explains the strange recent belief that the US air force, or the Afghan rebel warlords, previously known in Kabul for raping women and cutting off their breasts, could be the effective vanguard of revolution in Afghanistan.

Certainly, empires renounce their possessions only when they can no longer afford to hold on to them, as shown by the British in India and the French in Algeria. To challenge their authority is to force them to incite more fear. To advocate discreet police and legal action against the perpetrators of 11 September, or to urge the American government and public to address the political and economic causes of terrorism, was almost worthless as practical advice; the value of such alternative views lay in their being part of the moral hygiene of empire. This is also why the rhetorical question posed by the supporters of the war - what would you do if you were president? - betrayed a naivety about the workings of such large complex organisms as empires, which are never so weak as to be subverted by a mere individual conscience.

On the morning of 11 September, when a new enemy announced itself, it did not take long for the unrepentant cold warriors in the Bush administration to reach for the mantras of "bombing them back into the Stone Age" and "massive retaliation" - the mantras that had entered the US government's vocabulary in the 1950s, when the strongly felt imperatives of confronting communism subdued America's anti-imperial and isolationist instincts and pushed it into an imperial role. We now know that the Bush administration decided upon an attack on Afghanistan a few hours after the morning of 11 September, some weeks before any convincing evidence of Bin Laden's involvement had appeared. The decision was based on the presumption that Bin Laden had masterminded the attacks from Afghanistan. Thousands of Muslim militants were being trained in the use of chemical and biological weapons at his camps. He was helping the Taliban manage the drugs trade. The Taliban themselves were the most brutal regime in the world, with a penchant for throwing acid in the faces of unveiled women.

This was the description of the enemy the Bush administration presented to the world, and the obliging media disseminated it fast. Quantity at some point becomes quality. Soon it was hard to see Bin Laden mentioned without the words "evil" and "mastermind". "Fascists" was the preferred description for the Taliban. Bin Laden seemed to help out by justifying the attacks and claiming to possess nuclear and chemical weapons.

Yet the evidence against Bin Laden had not kept pace with the hectic demonising of him throughout the previous five years. In 1998, President Bill Clinton had blamed Bin Laden for the attacks on US embassies in East Africa and ordered cruise missile attacks on a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan as well as a training camp in Afghanistan. American prosecutors had worked hard to prove Clinton right during the trial of the three low-level terrorists arrested after the bombings, but the circumstantial evidence had failed to prove that Bin Laden ordered or sponsored the bombings. The investigations into the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 have been even less successful. Indeed, a few distinguished journalists - Ahmed Rashid, Mary Anne Weaver of the New Yorker and the reporters from the New York Times and Newsweek - had often wondered before 11 September if the Saudi had been built up by the Clinton administration to cover up intelligence failures.

Only now is it becoming clear how little the American intelligence agencies knew about the Muslim militants who declared war on America in the 1990s. The agencies tended to rely heavily on the fatwas and claims of Bin Laden, the most visible and articulate of these militants. But Bin Laden has been an unreliable and boastful guide to his own capabilities. He was keen to impress upon Robert Fisk of the Independent, in an interview in 1996, that his men had killed 18 American soldiers in Somalia in 1993. American prosecutors worked the claim into their indictment for the embassy bombings trial, but dropped the charge in court after witnesses established another chain of events and personalities leading to the murders of the American soldiers. There is still no evidence conclusively establishing Bin Laden as the mastermind of 11 September. There is only Bin Laden's bragging on tape, which becomes less persuasive when it is seen in the context of his publicity-seeking in the past, and his more recent false claims about possessing nuclear and chemical weapons.

That Bin Laden has been involved in some way in international terrorism has never been in doubt. But the evidence does not confirm his exalted status as indispensable mastermind; it suggests a looser network of Muslim extremists in different countries, most of whom seem to work without the help of Bin Laden's money or mind. In fact, al-Qaeda, a group that was originally composed of Muslims who had sworn personal loyalty to Bin Laden, is a relatively late arrival to the list of the extremist organisations under scrutiny. The Egyptian Islamists, and other extremist groups to which Bin Laden has lately been linked, have existed for many years and are unlikely to be affected by Bin Laden's death or capture. The origins of the 11 September hijackers, and their class and educational background, do not match the profiles of the poor and generally clueless Arab drifters presented in the past as having trained in Afghanistan and as having received orders from Bin Laden. The backgrounds of the hijackers hint at a darker and wider web of ideological and financial affiliations across the Middle East, Europe and North America. Bin Laden may have known about them - the more truthful part of the Americans' videotape may be where he speaks of having received notification of the attacks, about which he says even his closest associates knew nothing - but it seems unlikely that he gave orders to hijackers in America from his cave in Afghanistan.

One of the early, flawed assumptions behind American heavy-handedness in Vietnam was that the North Vietnamese guerrillas were taking orders from a central communist command in Moscow and Beijing - an idea encouraged by the South Vietnamese oligarchy. The all-explaining word "mastermind" and the hunt for Bin Laden seem to have their source in the peculiarly American tendency that the distinguished historian Richard Hofstadter once identified: the belief "that there is some great but essentially very simple struggle, at the heart of which lies some single conspiratorial force", and "that this evil is something that must be not merely limited, checked and controlled, but rather extirpated root and branch at the earliest possible moment".

Without such broad generalisations, it is hard to understand the official view - which, amplified by wartime propaganda, became the popular view - that Bin Laden had appropriated the Taliban into an evil monolithic alliance. More puzzling was the use of the word "fascists" to describe the Taliban, who looked very far from possessing even the means - a standing army of non-conscripts, an industrial base, a clear ideology, symbols, institutions and organisational structures - needed for totalitarian control over a large territory and population.

Hardly any of the historical associations of the word "fascists" could be matched to the dismal reality of Afghanistan, or of the Taliban, the boys from impoverished rural Pashtun families who were lucky survivors in a primitive war-ravaged country, making the best of the power arranged for them by Pakistani religious groups and intelligence officers. Ignorance, lassitude and, in some cases, the thought of Islamic virtue had led them to accept the leadership of a few semi-literate Pashtun mullahs in Kandahar. These mullahs had themselves moved during the past five years from private piety to the discovery that Islam could unify at least a part of the deprived population against corrupt and oppressive ruling elites - a political journey in which Bin Laden became, opportunistically, a fellow traveller.

The rank and file of the Taliban are now transformed into anti-Taliban Pashtuns. They strike new deals with America each day - deals that most of the Taliban men I spoke to were hoping for, a few months before 11 September. Stories in the western press before 11 September drew a convincing picture of Taliban brutality against women. Certainly, during my own time in Afghanistan, I saw no reason to discount such stories. But as always with compelling truths, there were nuances and omissions. The press reports came mostly from the cities, where less than 10 per cent of the population lives; almost all of them came from Kabul, where the rural men of the Taliban had tried vengefully to impose the ways of the Pashtun countryside upon Afghans they perceived as belonging to the privileged urban minorities - the urban elites that the Taliban hardliners in Kandahar blamed for the near-genocidal project of modernising Afghanistan.

In contrast, the Taliban were barely visible in the villages, where in any case power rested with the local mullah or tribal chief. The lack of a strong central authority in the countryside - part of the long-standing difficulty of governing Afghanistan - meant greater latitude to the Arabs, who had been running their training camps for years before the Taliban appeared on the scene. In fact, the training camps in Afghanistan had existed from the time of the CIA- sponsored anti-communist jihad - the Singaporean extremists arrested last December had trained there as early as 1991. The camps were kept open by Pakistani intelligence officers and Arab veterans of the anti-communist jihad all through the early Nineties, when Bin Laden and his associates were still in Sudan. Bin Laden, after his return to Afghanistan in 1996, had controlled only a few of them.

Perhaps people living in the highly organised societies of the west cannot help but overestimate the principle of organisation, the value of command and control structures and of hierarchy, while disregarding the very different exigencies of poor, fragmented societies. Earlier this year, a Pakistani journalist, who travelled often to Afghanistan, told me that most al-Qaeda troops in Afghanistan were Arab mercenaries left over from the anti-communist jihad of the 1980s who were unable to go home. He said their numbers and capabilities had been deliberately exaggerated by the Northern Alliance, which, defeated and demoralised by the Pakistan-backed Taliban, was eager to get money and arms from western countries.

As a journalist in a foreign country, you hear a lot of what sounds like bazaar gossip, and it is difficult to know what to make of it. I remembered the Pakistani journalist only when the news started to come in of the swift collapse of both the Taliban and al-Qaeda. From Mazar-e-Sharif, Kabul and Kunduz, the initial news was always of a long fight unto the death - and most of these descriptions came from the Northern Alliance. But surrender quickly followed; the thousands of suicide-minded Arabs, in so far as they existed, always seemed to prefer freedom over martyrdom. The line usually heard then was that the Taliban and al-Qaeda were in organised retreat in the north, and that they were saving their energies and resources for the defence of Kandahar, their spiritual capital. But Kandahar fell without much of a fight, with the help of local warlords and satellite phones and US dollars.

Finally, there was Tora Bora, which came to embody in miniature the farcical unreality of the proxy war. By then, at least some war reporters had grown more alert. One piece in the New York Times suggested that the warlords in eastern Afghanistan were looking for easy American cash and guns while broadcasting rumours that Bin Laden was holed up in Tora Bora.

But as the ghostly battle for Tora Bora went on - journalists were unable to witness the actual fighting - it seemed as if the western imagination that had previously located fascism in Afghanistan would now rest content only with the figure of the evil mastermind making one last, hopeless stand in his bunker. Scores of civilians died during the indiscriminate bombing of Tora Bora, even as the Afghan warlords complained of their stingy American sponsors. And then, abruptly, the warlords called off the hunt, and presented to the world press a few dozen frightened men in rags and plastic sandals as hard-core members of al-Qaeda.

Afghan informers looking to jump on the American gravy train, and also settle personal or tribal feuds, have since then caused the deaths of a few hundred more civilians. The training camps have revealed not so much real capability as ludicrously crude ambition, best exemplified by Richard Reid, the British convert to Islam, allegedly trained in Afghanistan, who managed to stuff explosives in his shoe but forgot to pack a lighter. It is possible that these camps produced the sophisticated hijackers of 11 September as well, but the evidence is scant, and the general ineptitude of the camps seems reassuring. Meanwhile, as Bin Laden and Mullah Omar remain elusive, an unseemly frustration appears evident in the rough treatment of what are, by the Pentagon's own admission, a few low-level Taliban and al-Qaeda functionaries in captivity.

There is little doubt, however, that the Camp X-Ray prisoners in Cuba will be much better fed and clothed this winter than the war-affected millions in Afghanistan whose hearts and minds still await conquest by the west. Neither peace nor stability at present seems possible for them. If anything, the law and order situation has worsened since the demise of the Taliban. It would be unfair, however, to reproach America or its allies for a lack of good intentions. American advisers in Saigon used to talk sincerely of imitating North Vietnam, and were full of ambitious schemes for winning over the pro-Vietcong peasants in the countryside; but they failed to take into account America's strategically unbreakable alliance with the corrupt landowning classes of South Vietnam. Such grim ironies are fully present in the American-assisted revolution in Afghanistan; they are embodied by its American-appointed leader as he pleads for the American military to protect the Afghans against the depredations of the warlords that the American military itself has installed in various parts of the country in order to fight the ghosts of the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

The sobering, if not very well-remembered, lesson of past conflicts in both Vietnam and Afghanistan is how American officials, working with defective knowledge and assumptions about the world, managed to deceive themselves long before they started to deceive any one else. They then proceeded to make other people pay for blunders that they were to acknowledge only very late, when they were in comfortable suburban retirement. It is almost as though America's military might, and its quick victories, dazzles not only the western and third world elites that learn quickly to line up behind it, but also America's own leaders, who then forget that the game in which they have played for short-term interests, and settled for easy successes so far, is very long. The cynical alliances that helped disperse the Taliban in Afghanistan today look all set to succeed brilliantly in the Philippines and Somalia tomorrow, and some other remote, poorly understood country the next month. But there is little certainty that such victories will not prove, even in the short run, as hubristic as the champagne party the CIA hosted in Virginia on the day in 1989 that the last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan - a few months before a little-known member of the Saudi plutocracy began to build al-Qaeda out of the rubble.

Irresistible power of the kind wielded at present by America seems to sweep the world clean of its enemies. But it deals not with inert matter - which vanquished countries come to resemble from afar - but with human beings possessed of will and intelligence, who can also acquire, in time and with effort, at least some of the technical secrets of power. Hence the inescapable paradox of such power, demonstrated in the past by empires more self-aware than America: that as they grow more oppressive, both internally and externally, in the hope of making the world safe for themselves, they succeed in making it a more dangerous place for everyone.

Pankaj Mishra is the author of The Romantics (Picador, £6.99)