A professional writer with an international reputation once told me that the best way to get a reader hooked is to start with a joke or a gripping scene. Despite the fact that the phrase: "It was a dark and stormy night" has been depicted as the worst start to a work, it has always appealed to me in terms of a mental state.
Recently stricken with illness, I have had far too much time to read and reflect because daytime TV is banned under my roof. However, for one reason or another, I started to consider the effectiveness of some of my own sayings such as: "he has a chip on his shoulder that make Sherwood Forest looks like a box of matches." But if I haven't got a reader interested in the first few lines, the fault is mine.
During the course of a long career in intelligence, I soon discovered that it didn't pay to be right: the Australian phrase is "no one likes a smart arse." And much as I hate to say it, the current situation in South Asia is pretty much a case of I-told-you-so.
When I had completed my last article on this subject, it appeared that there had been something of a sea change on the battlefield. In any conflict, there is always something the German military refer to as der springende punkt - it does not translate precisely, but we might call it a critical or turning point. In Pakistan, it came when the Taliban took the Swat Valley, instituted Shar'ia law, and let the world know just how ghastly that is: with public stonings, beheadings, not allowing men to shave, and enforcing a strict dress code on women, who except when they are carrying bombs to commit suicide are second-class citizens.
The Taliban had broken out of the Swat Valley and taken the town of Buner at the end of April; they were 70 miles from the capital of Islamabad. I read of graffiti supporting them on the walls of buildings in Islamabad but curiously little bloodshed: it was as though graffiti was there only to remind the government of impending threat.
The major assault came instead on the Police Academy in Lahore, something about which I have written previously because it appeared to be the work of Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and was followed by a threat from one of the ringleaders Baitullah Mehsud to take the war to Washington. Around that time, the Taliban and other anti-government forces stated they had united to become a Muslim army hoping to overthrow the President.
As an acquaintance of mine who worked for the UKSIS (more popularly known as a MI6) once said to me: "Never believe what you read in the newspapers, old boy." It was with a sense of scepticism that I read the foreign press. They were running stories about the insurgents (and being politically correct, they were not referring to them as terrorists) making common cause with the Pakistani poor and engaging in class warfare.
I cannot regard myself as an expert on Pakistan, having been there only on two occasions, but one thing stands out: like India and unlike Afghanistan, there it is a burgeoning middle class. While they would be quite happy to call themselves Muslims, they have nothing in common with fundamentalists like the jihadists and Taliban. They were concerned about the possibility of the "Talibanization of Pakistan" and indeed, there were headlines to that effect. The US press dutifully recorded that the Pakistani middle-class was very much opposed to the jihadists and as a consequence, there was more support for the war effort.
The Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is known in some quarters as Mr 10-Per-Cent as he is believed to be fundamentally corrupt. In many respects, he is "the accidental President," because his wife Benazir Bhutto, who was expected to be elected to power, had been assassinated a matter of a few months after she returned to Pakistan from exile on December 29, 2007.
The military situation looked dire in April-May when the Taliban stormed into the town of Buner, and the drive on the capital appeared imminent. Many American experts were and still are concerned about the Pakistani nuclear arsenal and the possibility of it falling into the hands of the allies of Osama bin Laden, the fabric of nightmares.
It will be recalled that President Obama met with the Pakistan and Afghanistan Presidents at this critical time. Speculation was rife that he had told both of them that the United States was not prepared to fight on its own and local forces had to join in and not merely in a token sense.
I am perfectly prepared to admit that I was completely wrong about the preparedness of the Pakistani forces to fight. The media carried video and frontline accounts of the Pakistani counter-attack and the ferocity of the fighting in the Swat Valley. As usual, civilians were forced to flee or hide and the casualties were high, returning to their shattered homes only within the past few days.
I think I was expecting too much of some of the critics, expecting them to acknowledge that the precision-targeting weaponry used reduced total casualties. As usual the Guardian in the UK led the charge, not far ahead of American domestic media who joined their British cousins in dramatising the effect of Predator drones. Like the German V-1 flying bomb in World War II, Predators arrive unexpectedly, but unlike the V-1, targeting is surgically precise. Despite criticism of this weapons system, it has been making life very hard for the Taliban and other fundamentalist forces, especially when you realise that it is assisted by aerial and satellite reconnaissance. Sitting quietly outside a cave, eating a meal suddenly became much more than a necessity of life - rather a matter of life or death.
Did that ever stick in the throat of the liberal press and left-wing critics who are carrying out a continuing campaign against the use of drones, highlighting only the numbers of civilians killed! You expect it of the so-called Information Clearing House (ICH), Global Research Canada; The Seminal; Tom Engelhart at TomDispatch.com to say nothing of http://antifascist-calling.blogspot.com/, which though certain channels assisted the renegade CIA officer Phillip Agee. But when the "mainstream" joins these lovelies, there are grounds for concern.
I'm not sure who first said that war is hell, but there is no denying the fundamental proposition upon which it is based. It has been a problem through the ages. Despite many claims about precision bombing or targeted strikes, the innocent are sometimes killed along with the guilty; they always have been, and as much as America's professional soldiers try to minimize it, they always will be.
I have no love of the press and media generally when it comes to reporting war. The practice of "embedding" reporters in the Armed Forces is not necessarily guaranteed to ensure that the spin they put on a story is what the government would want.
Sometimes I want to scream out loud at the TV set in the vain attempt to get people to recognize that in all sorts of conflicts, especially of the asymmetrical variety, the terrorists (yes that's what they are) are usually of the people. Naturally they mix with them. They cannot easily be distinguished, let alone extinguished: that is fundamental to asymmetrical war.
Just as you cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs, it is extremely difficult to precision bomb a target if human shields are being used or facilities placed under hospitals and schools: we've seen it in the Middle East and elsewhere. By definition, terrorists don't care if civilians die; of course they are going to use Western morality and restraint against us. If hospitals and schools can never be attacked, then that's where the terrorists will always be.
I mean no great criticism of the US when I state that it went into both world wars later than other nations. I am told that, statistically, American losses were proportionate to the number of troops in the field and comparable, more or less, with other combatants. The attitude to the use of American forces in various conflicts around the world is an artefact: even before we started thinking and talking in such terms, the US was and is a superpower.
In just about every country I've visited where there has been a US presence for any period of time, there have been grumbles from the local citizenry that "the Yanks are overpaid, overfed, and over here." At the end of World War II, those remarks had little currency because of the vast industrial muscle the US brought to the conflict, making all the difference.
What's more, it was abundantly clear that the US didn't want to be over here: many prominent and famous Americans like Joseph Kennedy, sometime Ambassador to London, were basically isolationist. In many ways, Pat Buchanan is the inheritor of their views.
Of course, old Joe Kennedy had his own agenda involving far more than just keeping the US out of Europe in World War II. By all accounts, he attempted to gain an audience with Hitler without the authority of the State Department, and was such a defeatist that Roosevelt had little option but to recall him.
The much quoted and loved poem by John McCrae bears repetition (in part):
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky?
The larks, still bravely singing fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
It wasn't just Flanders Fields in World War I, but the French beaches, the hedgerows of Normandy, and slogging across Europe in World War II, to say nothing of those killed in the island-hopping against the Japanese in the Pacific against a fanatical enemy with an ideology, like that of al Qaeda, whose respect for human life is in stark contrast to the Western Judaeo-Christian ethic.
In the final analysis though, it makes very little difference whether you're fighting for your country, a religion or an ideology - every one among the fallen had a mother. The critical element is belief - and we do not believe in suicide bombing, nor other inhuman tactics used in various hot spots in the Middle East and South Asia.
Unlike the murderous Mujahedeen wherever they may be, we do not usually assassinate enemy leaders. The furore in the US press about former Vice-President Dick Cheney about in eliminating key al Qaeda figures is positively risible. A few years ago I would have balked at such actions. But balancing the head of Osama bin Laden and his comrades against 9/11 and other atrocities around the Western world such as the terrorist attack in Bali - well, I have few qualms.
Sooner or later I will be compelled to write a rather long paper on the enemy within and the forms they adopt. There have been occasions when reading the works of the distinguished Noam Chomsky, John Pilger, Robert Fisk and others that I have wished to puke. Yet at least you know where they stand ideologically-speaking.
It's quite another matter when you find out that the US government has circulated a paper with examples of the language/nomenclature to be used by the media when talking about those who are hell-bent on killing US and allied forces and destroying the Western way of life. I don't agree with pretending that jihadists are subhuman or untermenschen, but they are killers and murderers who use tactics that we dare not use for various reasons.
I do not agree with the argument that the US lost the war in Vietnam in the living rooms of America, presumably on the TV screens. However, once the media has turned against government policy en masse, the prospects of the fighting man grow bleaker by the hour if not the minute. Vietnam was also an asymmetrical war but it was quite different from Afghanistan in many respects, not the least being geographic and climatic.
Looking at the topography of Pakistan and Afghanistan, it is relatively easy to see how and why the Taliban and its allies fell back or retreated into the North-West Frontier provinces (NWFA), which have always been a problem for the central government. There is nothing new in the tactics of melting away and regrouping; thousands of words have been written on the subject.
The war has not been won and the fighting continues, but the government of Pakistan is increasing its control over the areas from which it expelled the jihadist forces. Spring and early summer are the fighting seasons and we can expect conflict to continue at various levels depending on the tactics of government and coalition forces and the strategic withdrawals by the insurgents.
There is no easy way of saying that this will be a long and bloody struggle which will continue for years. Osama bin Laden and the Taliban are relying on what they perceive to be American weaknesses, especially the dislike of keeping boots on the ground for any great period of time. They hope the Americans and their allies will get tired of fighting and may even negotiate in certain areas. As it's their soil, the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan will settle for ceasefires in certain areas especially when the weather turns colder: it's their way.
The other factor that the Taliban and its allies are relying on is the enemy on the home front of those countries engaged in fighting in the area: war fatigue and related problems like the high rate of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide among returned servicemen. I respect genuine pacifists but have little time for those who pretend to be patriotic but against war, when by their actions, they support the very people that our troops are fighting against. I have no doubt Mrs Cindy Sheehan, having lost a son in Iraq, is probably genuine in her beliefs but she is certainly being used by more sinister forces.
Today, we find "the usual suspects" actively campaigning against the war. They are the same people who preached moral equivalence during the Cold War - or, worse still, blamed the US for every ill imaginable.
They briefly were quietened after 9/11, but then went berserk after George W. Bush's speech about the axis of terror and military intervention in Iraq because those brought fighting and occupation. It makes very little difference to the critics when the last American soldier leaves Iraq as long as the US will once again have been defeated.
Far more accomplished writers than myself with access to massive amounts of material for research have noted that the extreme left has aligned itself with the Islamist cause, despite having nothing in common with their mediaeval ideology. Instances have also been noted of organised crime being involved with jihadist groups but I suspect there is little more to that involvement than the profit motive, especially in the procurement and sale of weaponry. Organized crime is so well organised that it is essentially a capitalist venture. Money is money and it does not matter whether it is bloodstained.
Over the last couple of days, I have read about the increasing US casualties in Afghanistan and also among allied forces. The British have lost some senior and experienced officers and in defence of my own country, we have put some of our best into the field; our grief for those killed is no less because of our smaller participation.
Unfortunately, what the US administration cannot seem to grasp is the fact that there can be no peace with Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and the likes of the "rising star" of the jihadists in Pakistan, Baitullah Mehsud, the man who wants to take the war to Washington. This threat was made shortly after a series of well-publicised terrorist attacks in Pakistan culminating in the attack on the Police Academy at Lahore. However, despite talk of diplomacy, President Obama appears to be slightly more circumspect about negotiating with the enemy than he was earlier this year; perhaps he is learning that it doesn't work?
There is little that I can do to influence the US government and politicians, let alone the authorities in my country, but it is time to attempt to drive home the message: we are in this battle for the long haul. In so doing, we have to look back to the very beginning to see exactly who started it and when. The most accurate comment I have are the words of Osama bin Laden in May 1998, although he is believed to have said something similar when the Soviet army left Afghanistan:
The worst thieves in the world today and the worst terrorists are the Americans. As far as we are concerned they are all targets.
That was probably his formal declaration of war though some evidence points to him having commenced preparations at least 10 years earlier. His views have not changed, nor will they, as long as he draws breath.
There are many excellent writers in the US and the UK who write consistently and well on creeping Islamization in the West; the problems of dealing with people who are determined to use our freedoms against us and the obnoxious practices they use against women and children, to say little of what we might term the theory and practice of jihad and propaganda mechanisms. I do not think for one minute that I can do better than Walid Phares, Robert Steyn, Melanie Phillips and others and as an individual, I cannot match the firepower of think-tanks designed to educate the public in America and the countries of its allies. But it is a very daunting task that needs all the help it can get.
So we go on, and I will reiterate a prediction I made some months ago about the arc of instability.
The fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan is rapidly becoming one conflict largely because of porous borders and tribal allegiances. Fighting is pushing its way into both North and South Waziristan. More disturbingly, while Bangladesh is smoldering, Baluchistan in Pakistan is seething with unrest and numerous well-armed allies of the Taliban, who are well armed and intent on separating the province from Pakistan.
The whole area is set for conflagration and no amount of talk will stop the expanding territories in dispute. It is with great sadness that I say that the US will probably bear the brunt of the fighting. Although there appears to be logistical support in place for the effort in Afghanistan via Turkmenistan and with Russian assistance, there is no substitute to more allies putting additional troops into the field.
NATO was created to defend the US, Europe and the West generally against the old Soviet Union; now there needs to be a new drive to get more of their troops on the ground alongside the Americans and the British. A very sage person once said: "Nothing doth more confound in a state than that cunning men pass for wise." The basic problem we face is that cunning men have had it too good for too long.