Sunday, December 30, 2007


Causing shockwaves as far as the draughty old fen, the assassination of Ms Bhutto in Pakistan is bad news, even for those of us who agree that General Musharraf's continued leadership is best for world peace. Now chaos is crowned king in a land already so chaotic that it was unable to deal with the gestation of the group that became known as the Taliban, which did not so much cross the border to take control of Afghanistan, but rather was drawn into it by political osmosis. And the symbiotic parasite of the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, gave the world 9/11 (or 11/9) and 7/7.

The world would be a different place now if NATO's nerve hadn't failed in the wake of 9/11, when it was deciding on a proportionate response to the destruction of the Twin Towers. To be sure, the towers weren't felled by nuclear or biological means, and if the burning jet-fuel that melted the iron girders supporting the structures were to be classed as a chemical weapon, it would be by a piece of lateral thinking so prodigious that it would have left a crab wondering about the next step.

The aeroplanes, however, were definitely used as weapons of mass destruction. It would have been a terrible thing to have replied in kind, but could it have left a more terrorised world than the one we now inhabit?

What if NATO had announced that the response was to be a low-yield nuclear warhead dropped on a sparsely-populated area of Afghanistan with 48-hours notice? Hopefully the authorities would have moved the population out in time for the blast, and those countries which sponsor terrorism would have been given a clear message from large swathes of their populace - that they had no wish to be turned back into stardust. Alternatively, the Taliban might have bussed civilians into the blast area, which would have given an equally devastating message to the populations of rogue states.

Whichever way, there's no doubt that civilian lives would have been lost - but the attrition may well have been both more effective and numerically less than that suffered by British and American troops, and the foreign nationals who have died alongside them while trying to return civilisation to their countries.

I got an excellent book for Christmas called What If?, subtitled Military Historians imagine what might have Been, edited by Robert Cowley, published by Pan (in Great Britain at least). If the centenary version of this is passed by the Euroland Censor, I am sure that it will include September 2001 as the greatest hinge upon which 21st-century history never turned.

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