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Blair sees last piece of the trap fall into place
AS BOMBS dropped on Kabul last night, the last piece of Tony Blairís trap fell into place. The Prime Minister spent last week carefully preparing the diplomatic groundwork for a military campaign; the attacks are the last piece in a carefully-built jigsaw of US/British strategy.
His second burst of shuttle diplomacy was more than a simple matter of signing geopolitical deals in glamorous locations - demonstrating solidarity with Moscow, Islamabad and New Delhi. Mr Blair had chosen the three countries for a specific agenda. The aim is not to destroy the Taleban, but to adjust the political climate in Central Asia so that the Taleban destroys itself.
Before the bombs, the diplomatic ground needed to be prepared. Unusually for Mr Blair, the new game plan has not been spun through the usual channels nor summarised in soundbites. It was explained in a back-of-the-aeroplane briefing to the 18 journalists who accompanied him on his 10,000-mile tour. Working parallel with Washington, he has helped to set what he refers to as a trap around the Taleban. This trap has three sides - humanitarian aid, diplomacy and - as of last night - military action. All three are needed for the trap to work.
The aim is to destabilise Mullah Mohammed Omar, the head of the Taleban - who is facing the threat of mutiny by his own lieutenants in Kabul. The plan is to make the Taleban feel isolated and feel bombs fall while all military and diplomatic escape routes are blocked off. When it implodes, or is destroyed, the West will set up a new regime friendly to London and Washington and accepted throughout Central Asia. Then the real task - finding Osama bin Laden and uprooting his al-Qetar terrorist network - can begin.
In his airborne briefing, Mr Blair laid this plan out in full. Humanitarian aid means much more than just tending to the sick. It is needed as a political weapon which protects the coalition. The millions of refugees fleeing through Afghanistanís porous borders - sped on by the start of the bombing campaign - could badly destabilise countries they arrive in. The flow of refugees was disastrous even before the military action started. Today, with the threat of military attack now made real, the flow of poverty-stricken humanity will be overwhelming. Most are heading for Pakistan - a delicately-balanced country run by a military junta which could easily fall to Islamic fundamentalism. A contagion of embittered and starving Afghan Muslims could, if not cared for, tip the small but nuclear-armed regime over the edge. Images of refugees fleeing Allied bombs could easily turn other countries against the West. Parcels of food and medical aid would, however, neutralise the political threat posed by the refugees. Tending to the sick would make the plan more palatable to countries such as Pakistan. Humanitarian aid is glue for the fragile coalition, and the three sides of the trap.
The second side is the military action. The Taleban was last night shown some steel - left in no doubt about the Westís willingness and ability to throw its collective military might against Kabul. It has been shown that President Bush was not bluffing. The president had earlier expressed his reluctance to launch a $2 million missile at an empty $10 tent and hit a camel in the butt. Yesterday, he recanted - Tomahawk Cruise missiles were fired into Afghanistan from British and American submarines.
Mr Blair can now draw attention to the 23,000 British troops which gathered for the Swift Sword II training operation - including Gurkhas currently attached to the Highland Regiment. The Nepalese soldiers need no introduction to mountainous, inhospitable countries. To highlight their ability to raid Afghan-istan, Mr Blair need only go to visit our boys in the Gulf - sending a powerful message to Kabul. Such a task could, and probably will, be done this week.
The final piece to Mr Blairís trap was the most difficult - diplomacy. This extends far beyond the "hands up if you hate terrorism" coalition building seen in the early days after 11 September. It means building a delicate consensus around which regime should replace the Taleban. This was what Mr Blair did last week. He chose Moscow, Pakistan and India as they all hold conflicting views on a successor regime in Afghanistan. Mr Blair saw the ingredients for a nasty split when the Taleban falls.
Russia supports the Northern Alliance, rebels who have claimed small pockets of Afghanistan and would love the West to help its march on Kabul. Pakistan is horrified by such a prospect - its allegiance lies with the Pashtun tribe, from which the Taleban is drawn. These people, who comprise 40 per cent of the Afghan population, could well suffer from a Northern Alliance regime in Kabul. Like China, Pakistan would happily settle for an internal coup within the Taleban. Indiaís worry is to see a regime subservient to either Moscow or Islamabad. This has heavily featured in conversations between Mr Blair and Atai Vajpayee since 11 September.
Mr Blairís solution, which he brought to Moscow, Islamabad and New Delhi last week, is for a multi-ethnic and directly-elected regime in Kabul - a model of government representing all tribes. It would not ostracise any section of the Afghan population. In a way, this is a Good Friday agreement for Kabul. Mr Blair is on familiar territory - he has spent hours in both Kosovo and Northern Ireland trying to draw up government for warring internal factions. He is hoping to project this experience on to Afghanistan.
The task last week was to sell this idea to all three countries, giving them all a say - and a stake - in a new post-Taleban regime so that they would not withdraw their support after the imminent missile strikes. Mr Blair returned home with considerable success. He has called in a favour from Mr Putin, who agreed to accept Mr Blairís plan for a multi-ethnic Kabul regime. The Prime Ministerís brief talks in Pakistan allowed him to emerge declaring mutual support for a "broad-brush regime" in Kabul "including the Pashtun".
In India, all he had to do was to explain what would happen after his trap works and the Taleban falls. The new multi-ethnic regime in Kabul will be stabilised with lots of Western cash. It will be heavily supervised by the West and Russia - geared up to detect and exterminate terrorist cells. It will, in short, be subservient to neither Islamabad or Moscow.
The Taleban is now showing all the signs of disintegration. The pleas from its ambassador in Pakistan for more time are becoming increasingly desperate. The offer at the weekend to put bin Laden on trial in an Islamic court was the latest example. Now the previously-loyal warlords in the strategically-vital East Afghanistan are talking of insurgence. Russian intelligence has been told that Mullah Omar is on the run, and never spends two nights in the same place.
The start of the bombing campaign last night did not demonstrate a shift in strategy. The aim is still for the enfeebled Taleban to collapse under the new military pressure - but for reasons of expediency, not pacifism. If the Taleban perseveres, the missile attacks will be followed by a full assault.
Mr Blair does not have long to see whether his trap proves mightier than the sword.
Fraser Nelson Monday, 8th October 2001 The Scotsman
-- Anonymous, October 08, 2001