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Pompous twaddle from the Family of Freedom

by Christopher Kremmer / Sydney Morning Herald Thursday, Sep. 27, 2001 at 9:20 PM

If you thought the Taliban were monsters, just wait until you meet the West's new friends.

International crises, like family ones, are great levellers. Along with the good, they bring together the dissolute, the scheming and the plain stupid.

"Welcome home! All is forgiven," the patriarch cries with gathering arms. Sometimes perfect strangers can find themselves caught up in the family embrace.

So it is with the new war on terrorism.

Take the United States's decision to lift sanctions imposed on India and Pakistan, and Australia's restoration of military ties with the latter.

Not so long ago our leaders were telling us these nuclear naughties deserved to be pitchforked out of the family. Pakistan was almost disowned, a military dictatorship to be kept out of Commonwealth forums and made to beg for loans.

Defence links with Australia, our diplomats stated, must await the holding of decent elections.

Now, with a desperation typical of policy-making on the run, all this is revealed as little more than pompous twaddle. Nuclear proliferation and dictatorship are merely the eccentricities and peccadilos one finds in every family, even the great Family of Freedom.

"Our policy imperatives have changed completely. The emphasis now is on giving General Musharraf's Government as much as possible," an Islamabad-based Western diplomat said.

With unseemly haste, the US and - by extension under the Howard Government - Australia are throwing decades of work on sensible foreign policy overboard, and getting cosy with some very unsavoury characters.

For proof of that, look no further than the Afghan opposition. According to the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, "they can be useful in a variety of ways", by which he means tracking down and killing the Taliban.

The best of them - the Tajik commander Ahmed Shah Massoud - is dead, assassinated by Osama bin Laden's agents two days before the attacks on America. But waiting in the wings to step forward are a collection of butchers and spooks that would frighten off Count Dracula.

Among the more interesting is the Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a born turncoat who ruled northern Afghanistan for years on a platform of viciousness and well-timed betrayal.

A former labourer, Dostum rose high by collaborating with the Soviet invaders, then found Allah and joined the mujahideen.

If any of his lieutenants showed too much initiative, Dostum would promptly have them killed. Tying them to two tanks headed in opposite directions was a favourite method. Eventually the Uzbeks could tolerate no more of this fratricidal behaviour and banished him to Turkey.

Now Dostum is back, leading his band of mercenaries in northern Afghanistan and looking for a place, however temporary, in the soon-to-be-announced government which will replace the Taliban.

Alongside him are the leaders of extremist Shi'ite and Sunni Muslim militias whose sole purpose in coming together will be to get within shooting range of one another.

The circus that will ensue if and when they reach Kabul will make the Taliban regime look sane. That's why Afghans, after four years under the rule of those who now call themselves the Northern Alliance, were willing to give the Taliban a chance after they seized Kabul five years ago this month.

Alas, our new brothers-in-arms resemble more a freaks' gallery than a stable family.

The British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, heads off today to Iran to ask its government - which is on an American list of countries that support terrorism - to join the war against, that's right, terrorism.

Perhaps Tehran's contribution could be to explain exactly how it's done.

The same twisted logic applies to Pakistan's Lazarus-like return from beyond the realm of civilised nations.

Islamabad has escaped sanctions - and will no doubt breeze through debt-rescheduling talks - precisely because, having sponsored the Taliban, it knows all about them and is willing to sell that information for 30 pieces of silver. As a former US envoy to Afghanistan, Peter Thomsen, noted: "In the last 15 years Pakistan has been both the fireman and the arsonist in Afghanistan."

Having drawn the US in with promises of support in principle, Pakistan will now drive a heartless bargain for a costly quid pro quo for meaningful help such as allowing American troops access to its military bases.

US help to liberate Indian-administered Kashmir might well be on the table.

Having worked dutifully to earn Washington's approval in recent years, India is now sulking in a corner over America's unfailing ability to indulge the bad boy of the regional family.

Other consequences of "coalition building" could include a free hand for the Russians in Chechnya, likewise for the Chinese in Xinjiang and Tibet, and perpetual indulgence for tyrannical regimes in Central Asia.

For the West, all that endures is the philosophy of "my enemy's enemy is my friend" - exactly the kind of opportunism which produced the crisis we now face.

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