While covering the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, I would, from time to time, drive down through Jalalabad and cross the Pakistan border to Peshawar to rest. In the cavernous, stained interior of the old Intercontinental Hotel, I would punch out my stories on a groaning telex machine beside an office bearing the legend "Chief Accountant" on the door. On the wall next to that office -- I don't know if it was the Chief Accountant who put it there -- was a framed piece of paper bearing four lines of Kipling that I still remember:
A scrimmage at a border station
A canter down a dark defile
Five thousand pounds of education
Felled by a five-rupee jezail
Or, I suppose today, a Kalashnikov AK-47, home-produced in Quetta, or one of those slick little Blowpipe missiles that we handed over to the mujahedin with such abandon in the early Eighties so that they could kill their -- and our -- Russian enemies.
But I've been thinking more about the defiles, the gorges and overhanging mountains, the sheer rock walls 4,000 feet in height, the caves and the massive tunnels which Osama bin Laden cut through the mountains. Here, presumably, are the "holes" from which the West is going to "smoke out" Mr bin Laden, always supposing that he's been obliging enough to run away and hide in them. For there is already a growing belief -- founded on our own rhetoric -- that Mr bin Laden and his men are on the run, seeking their hiding places.
I'm not so certain. I'm very doubtful about what Mr bin Laden is doing right now. In fact, I'm not at all sure what we -- the West -- are doing. True, our destroyers and aircraft carriers and fighter aircraft and heavy bombers and troops are massing in the general region of the Gulf. Our SAS boys -- so they say in the Middle East -- are already climbing around northern Afghanistan, in the region still controlled by the late Shah Masoud's forces. But what exactly are we planning to do? Kidnap Mr bin Laden? Storm his camps and kill the lot of them, Mr bin Laden and all his Algerian, Egyptian, Jordanian, Syrian and Gulf Arabs?
Or is Mr bin Laden merely chapter one of our new Middle Eastern adventure, to be broadened later to include Iraq, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the destruction of the Lebanese Hezbollah, the humbling of Syria, the humiliation of Iran, the reimposition of yet another fraudulent "peace process" between Israel and the Palestinians?
If this seems fanciful, you should listen to what's coming out of Washington and Tel Aviv. While The New York Times Pentagon sources are suggesting that Saddam may be chapter two, the Israelis are trying to set up Lebanon -- the "center of international terror" according to Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon -- for a bombing run or two, along with Yasser Arafat's little garbage tip down in Gaza where the Israelis have discovered, mirabile dictu, a "bin Laden cell".
The Arabs, of course, would also like an end to world terror. But they would like to include a few other names on the list. Palestinians would like to see Mr Sharon picked up for the Sabra and Chatila massacre, a terrorist slaughter carried out by Israel's Lebanese allies -- who were trained by the Israeli army -- in 1982. At 1,800 dead, that's only a quarter of the number killed on 11 September. Syrians in Hama would like to put Rifaat Al-Assad, the brother of the late president, on their list of terrorists for the mass killings perpetrated by his Defense Brigades in the city of Hama in the same year. At 20,000, that's more than double the 11 September death toll.
The Lebanese would like trials for the Israeli officers who planned the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which killed 17,500 people, most of them civilians -- again, well over twice the 11 September statistic. Christian Sudanese would like President Omar al-Bashir arraigned for mass murder.
But, as the Americans have made clear, it's their own terrorist enemies they are after, not their terrorist friends or those terrorists who have been slaughtering populations outside American "spheres of interest". Even those terrorists who live comfortably in the US but have not harmed America are safe: take, for example, the pro-Israeli militiaman who murdered two Irish UN soldiers in southern Lebanon in 1980 and who now live in Detroit after flying safely out of Tel Aviv. The Irish have the name and address, if the FBI are interested -- but of course they're not.
So we are not really being asked to fight "world terror". We are being asked to fight America's enemies. If that means bagging the murderers behind the atrocities in New York and Washington, few would object. But it does raise the question of why those thousands of innocents are more important -- more worthy of our effort and perhaps blood -- than all the other thousands of innocents. And it also raises a much more disturbing question: whether or not the crime against humanity committed in the US on 11 September is to be met with justice -- or a brutal military assault intended to extend American political power in the Middle East.
Either way, we are being asked to support a war whose aims appear to be as misleading as they are secretive. We are told by the Americans that this war will be different to all others. But one of the differences appears to be that we don't know who we are going to fight and how long we are going to fight for. Certainly, no new political initiative, no real political engagement in the Middle East, no neutral justice is likely to attend this open-ended conflict. The despair and humiliation and suffering of the Middle East peoples do not figure in our war aims -- only American and European despair and humiliation and suffering.
As for Mr bin Laden, no one believes the Taliban are genuinely ignorant of his whereabouts. He is in Afghanistan. But has he really gone to ground? During the Russian war, he would emerge, again and again, to fight Afghanistan's Russian occupiers, to attack the world's second superpower. Wounded six times, he was a master of the tactical ambush, as the Russians found out to their cost. Evil and wicked do not come close to describing the mass slaughter in the US. But -- if it was Mr bin Laden's work -- that does not mean he would not fight again. And he would be fighting on home ground. There are plenty of dark defiles into which we may advance. And plenty of cheap rifles to shoot at us. And that wouldn't be a "new kind of war" at all.