- So it begins. The flashes of light in the night sky,
the distant explosions, the appearance of a "relentless" George
Bush talking command and control. We slowly remember what war is like;
but we need to remember, too, that truth is the first casualty of conflict,
that the briefers, bureaucrats and politicians who act as reasonably
sources" in peace are operating now under different house rules. That
they have become wholly unreliable by design.
- Sit back and apply commonsense to the tales of the first
26 days. Troops massing at this or that frontier post. Air strikes
(three weeks ago) or "within 48 hours" (eight days ago). SAS
teams already staging search-and-destroy missions inside Afghanistan.
asks a difficult question. Would anyone with braid on his shoulders, anyone
who really knows, tell a journalist such things if they were true? Why
not send Osama bin Laden a postcard instead?
- Those of us who yomped through the Ministry of Defence
in the Falklands soon got the changed hang of things. Top chaps in dark
suits would summon up the full authority of their office and lie like
Who, on reflection, could blame them? General Galtieri took the Guardian
and the Telegraph on subscription. If journalists needed scoops, they'd
better be fed some duff ones.
- The Falklands war was more than a distant side-show.
It hugely impressed the Pentagon. Ensure that reporters are cooped up
on aircraft carriers or minded by MoD male nurses far from the front and,
as long as you keep decent clamps on back at the political ranch, there
is total information control. Grenada and Panama proved the point and the
Gulf was its apotheosis, war watched from afar by video screen.
meant being further away from, not nearer, the action. More space, less
- How, then, will this latest, very curious conflict be
played out? Pull down the handbooks from their dusty shelves and start
pondering. For we are going by the book.
- The start of the horror - the destruction of the twin
towers - was uncontrolled disaster: for the thousands of innocents who
died, for dreams of security and illusions of intelligence. The world
in stunned fascination. The world was out of control. One task in the days
since September 11 has been to regain equilibrium.
- The building of this fabled international coalition
terrorism may or may not prove vital in the end. But, shuttling from summit
to summit, it has certainly filled in the time while the military mammoths
got their lugubrious act together. There's been a Gulf-style pause. Now,
as bombing begins, we can begin to sense a pattern.
- Would Galtieri pull his troops off the Falklands as the
task force sailed ever closer? He had that chance. He failed to take it.
Would Saddam quit Kuwait as billions of dollars rolled into the desert?
He had the chance. Will the Taliban give up Bin Laden and save their
That, obviously, has been the descant of the past couple of weeks. The
answer is now written in the night over Kabul.
- Meanwhile the control freaks have had their thinking
caps on. The world's correspondents (one factor) are there in force and
deployed: Uzbekistan, Quetta, Peshawar, and the Afghan enclave where the
Northern Alliance rules. But, save for the deeply unfortunate Ms Ridley
and a handful of Afghan agency reporters, they aren't in Taliban country,
let alone camped outside Bin Laden's rural retreat. Suicidal peril and
- Better still, the Taliban themselves seem to be PR mutts.
They can't field a Tariq Aziz figure looking grave, just a deputy
in Islamabad looking perplexed. They have already (losing Bin Laden, then
miraculously finding him again) blown what credibility they had. In their
self-imposed isolation, they won't be able to take western camera teams
to inspect any civilian casualties of air attack. No wrecked Baghdad
hospitals; no Serbian buses burned on a bridge. They are sitting, silent
targets. That won't stop protest waves round the Arab world today, nor
will it necessarily catch Bin Laden. But it does mean that the only clear
TV evidence of effectiveness, however carefully selected, will come from
the Americans and the Brits. Happenstance has played to the handbook
- What can go wrong? Plenty, naturally - even apart from
bombs gone astray. Bin Laden himself, as yesterday's television interview
showed, has a malign gift for PR. He could stage a dismaying series of
catch-me-if-you-can for the cameras. Proof of his death or capture will
need to be absolute before the briefers celebrate. More terrorist
are high on the agenda. More American lives in places like Saudi Arabia
lie on the line. Hostage-taking (as Jimmy Carter might add) could wreck
- Even so, because restraint equals thinking time, a
of control has returned. The war of perception, vital after September 11,
is on a more even keel. The perception is that governments still govern
and can seem to call the shots. The HQ hope must be that some finite battle
in an unseen field far away will soon be enough to end any shooting war
and, with a little help from the Pakistani secret service, leave al-Qaida
- But then the dissonances of difference begin to impinge.
The FBI and CIA, caught ludicrously short by 19 men with penknives, are
obliged to exalt the potency of Bin Laden's network. Poison gas, germ
nukes? Some or all of these visions may have a sliver of reality to them,
but they also conveniently turn a low-tech enemy into a Bond villain like
Ernst Stavro Blofeld. (Indeed, yesterday's Sunday Times did just
- You may call this reacting to a challenge, and so it
is. But it is also, in the nature of spin, the inflation of the adversary
who wounded you. Warnings of risk from Scotland Yard become as fearsome
as Met Office gale forecasts after 1987. No danger knowingly understressed.
No briefer, by training or profession, is more usually unreliable than
a secret agent covering his back, and the tale he tells is likely to be
- The trouble is that, even as the jets go in, this is
also an amorphous war of jaw-jaw. The braided ones, clutching their
may have devised a scenario they have a prospect of commanding and
We will be, as we were last night, distant spectators of this enterprise.
We can only hope it succeeds, and hope as well that we can maintain a
perspective, a balance of understanding. But that needs thought and fact
as well as cheers. Keep calm, or at least, calmer. But believe nothing
implicitly, especially from the Blofeld blowhards. Travel carefully and
carry a big waste basket.
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