Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 23 November 2001

Er, sorry, folks — but I’m afraid last week’s Tribune was just a little disappointing. In the week before it went to press, nearly everything the paper had said in the previous month about the war in Afghanistan had been rendered obsolete by the turn of events. I know the difficulties of producing a weekly with limited resources. But surely the collapse of the Taliban warranted more than a news piece and a leader?

I’m not crowing about being proved right about the American military intervention. The defeat of the Taliban is a good thing in itself — the scenes of celebration in Kabul speak for themselves — but what happens next is uncertain and might be dreadful. I have no intention of following The Sun, Christopher Hitchens, Polly Toynbee, Anne McElvoy, David Aaronovitch et al in demanding grovelling apologies from opponents of the war as tribute for wobbles and misinterpretations . There is a long way to go yet; success is not guaranteed. It’s not wimpish to worry about the consequences of B-52 bombing raids. And it is still possible that Afghanistan will collapse into bloody factional feuding amid mass starvation.

Nevertheless, those who have lampooned the opponents of the war do have a point. Let’s leave aside for a moment the Trots and Stalinists, the small band of conservative peaceniks and the Muslims. The mainstream peace movement has come, predictably, from the democratic left: the Labour anti-war lobby, Tribune, the New Statesman, the Greens, CND. And that democratic left milieu has been wrong both in its analysis of what has been going on and in its prescriptions for what should happen next.

Contrary to widespread predictions, the US has not been embroiled in a “quagmire”, let alone a “new Vietnam”. The Taliban did not prove invincible warriors: they scarpered. The bombing did not result in giant civilian casualties. There have been verified massacres by the Northern Alliance, but so far nothing to compare with what hapened in 1992, let alone with the atrocities committed by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Far from preventing aid getting through to starving civilians, the military action has made it possible to feed thousands who would otherwise have been unreachable.

Of course, inadequate understanding of rapidly changing circumstances in faraway countries is nothing new. Imperfect foresight is inevitable. No one guessed that the Soviet Union would implode until it actually did. I still sometimes lie awake at night at the memory of declaring in these pages, back in 1989, that we would not see German reunification in our lifetime. Ahem, whoops, well, it happens to us all, doesn’t it?

But there is more to the peace movement’s failure than making bad predictions in good faith. As during the Gulf war in 1991, the Bosnian war of the mid-1990s and the Kosovo war in 1999, it is remarkable how far its errors of judgment have been driven by fatalism, a pessimism of the intellect uncompensated for by even a glimmer of the optimism of the will. Time and again over the past month, I have come away from meetings adressed by Labour left and CND opponents of the war with a gloomy sense that they not only thought the US military action would not work — they actually wanted it to fail.

In line with this, just as over the Gulf, Bosnia and Kosovo, the mainstream peace movement has had no qualms, in pursuit of the largest possible anti-war mobilisation, about giving new life to some of the most unpleasant parasites in the leftist pond: the Leninist advocates of “anti-imperialist” revolutionary defeatism who believe that any enemy of capitalism is a friend of the workers.

In case you missed it, the Socialist Workers’ Party refused to condemn the September 11 attacks. The committee that has organised the demos against the war is dominated by the SWP and loaded with representatives of every other Stalinist and Trotskyist sect — 57 varieties, all unfit for human consumption, as the old libertarian slogan had it. Each one of these believes in its heart of hearts that the best outcome of the war is defeat for America and its allies — in other words, victory for the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. I could only cringe at the spectacle of decent democratic socialists and Greens and liberals standing shoulder-to-shoulder with these charlatans at last Sunday’s anti-war demonstration.

So what, you think. Occasionally it is necessary to ally oneself with bad people to defeat a greater evil. That is what happened between 1941 and 1945, when Britain embraced Stalin in order to defeat Hitler. (It is also what the US has done in Afghanistan, supporting the Northern Alliance against the Taliban, but let that pass.)

When you don’t need to play that game, however, there’s no sense in doing so. And if the peace movement continues to ally itself with the revolutionary defeatists, it will lose all credibility — as it did over the Gulf, Bosnia and Kosovo. That doesn’t bother me insofar as I am a supporter of this war. But I also worry about the survival of a credible left in Britain. And on that one, right now, the optimism of the will is being sorely tested.

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