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WAR ON TERROR: CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS on why peace-lovers must welcome this war.

Byline: CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS

AT a recent press conference in Washington, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked a truly stupid question, which appeared to ask why it was that the United States was employing cluster bombs on the front-line positions of the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Looking over his glasses with a combination of patience and mild exasperation, he replied: "To kill them".

Now, Mr Rumsfeld has quite properly avoided making any gloating or bombastic remarks during these rather trying two months past. So we can be fairly sure that he was only being pedantic.

And it does indeed seem to be the case that many observers require instruction in the ABC of warfare.

In a properly conducted war, the enemy side takes the casualties while your own side does not.

Indeed, until quite recently the horrific fact was that the Taliban and al-Qaeda could claim that this ancient motto worked in THEIR favour.

Not any more. The mistake they made was to use kidnapped civilians and hijacked civil airliners as weapons with which to kill other civilians. This had to be expiated. There was no choice in the matter.

But it was also very important to ensure that civilian deaths were not the signature of the coalition's response. Quite justifiably, many people worried that certain weapons were indiscriminate by nature.

B-52 bombers fly at altitudes where they cannot be seen or heard from the ground.

Cluster bombs detonate into lethal secondary bomblets, some of which fail to explode and are left lying about for children to find.

In Indochina in particular, both methods fell into widespread discredit because of the random and excessive ways that they were used.

But many critics might be surprised by the extent to which their criticisms were absorbed at the Pentagon. New methods of targeting have enormously "smartened" the way in which an objective can be selected and taken out.

So even if we took all the Taliban's claims of civilian casualties at their face value (which some journalists rather shamefully did) the total is still not a disproportionate one.

And nobody would dare allege that civilians were ever targeted by design.

Cliche has a terrible grip on some minds.

"Bombing Afghanistan back into the Stone Age" was quite a favourite headline for some wobbly liberals.

The slogan does all the work. But an instant's thought shows that Afghanistan is being, if anything, bombed OUT of the Stone Age.

The effect of the bombardment has been to allow whole cities to throw off the medieval rule of the Taliban and to resume a life where their choices in even the most private matters are once again their own.

Not bad for a month or so of concentrated military effort. It deserves to be remembered that for almost a month after the obscene attack on its civilian population, the United States took no measures at all. Nor were bloodthirsty cries for precipitate action encouraged on the home front.

Tony Blair has been right to tell George Bush that he cannot indefinitely postpone a commitment of his own ground troops.

It is ignoble to use proxies, mercenaries and bombers exclusively.

There will be a great need to prevent vendetta and to begin a colossal humanitarian effort.

But it needs to be remembered what the "war aim" was in the first place.

The justification for attacking positions inside Afghanistan was that these positions were safeguarding and sheltering the subhuman riff-raff of al-Qaeda.

The main energy of the Pentagon this morning is still the capture or the elimination (I hope for the former) of Osama bin Laden.

The sudden implosion of the Taliban regime has actually surprised all the military and political people who I know in Washington.

It has even disconcerted one or two of them, who worry that fratricide may disfigure this victory.

But it is a second-order consideration. The liberation of the Afghan people from Stone Age rule is a welcome side-effect.

A few weeks ago, all the moaners were united in saying that coalition policy would turn the whole Muslim world against us.

The film of jubilation in Kabul has now been seen all over the world. It should be screened and rescreened.

Not even the most paranoid fanatic will be able to allege that the Jews have faked these scenes as well. Meanwhile, the supposedly messianic bin Laden is scuttling pathetically from cave to cave, occasionally recording a video on which, it is easy to see, his personality is disintegrating at an alarming rate. These, too, should be screened and re-screened.

In the worst possible or imaginable outcome, Afghanistan will emerge with a government no better than the gang that has just abandoned the capital and run away (without, apparently, even saying goodbye).

How probable is that? Even the most pessimistic view allows us to hope that we can improve on the Taliban.

But, whatever the result, it is an absolute certainty that no future Afghan regime will openly harbour or sponsor death squads who murder far-off civilian families.

This is a demand that the coalition was perfectly justified in first making and then, receiving no reply, in enforcing.

The means employed were proportionate to the ends.

War is hell, as some people are fond of saying. And so it is.

But religious fascism is hell as well. Not only is it hell, but it also demands and guarantees war. Thus a victory over it is something that peace-lovers should actively welcome.

How strange and how sad that so few of them do.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Nov 15, 2001
Words:926
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