As spring comes to the Hindu Kush, so anxieties come to our commentators and threats come from potential enemies. Last month’s Operation Anaconda in the Shah-i-Kot Valley showed that not all Al Qaeda terrorists had vanished with the fall of their Afghan puppet state. Nor can we say with certainty that we killed all the terrorists we engaged. They retreated, across passes, to remoter hideouts in northwestern Pakistan. The Pashtun tribesmen who live there told New York Times reporters that they would resist any military prophylaxis on our part. The jihad warriors are their soul mates; they hate America; they know that Jews plotted 9/11, not Osama bin Laden, and so forth and so on.
We heard all this blusterama before, in mid-October, when our first Afghan offensive had not yet begun to rock. We have learned in the months since that the Pashtun tribesman is a complex figure. He hates his neighbor as much as he hates outsiders, and is ever ready to turn against him; a bribe will always fetch him, though he does not dependably stay bought. His courage is episodic; he hits and runs with equal skill. No countryside populated by such an enemy can ever be pacified, which is why Alexander the Great and the British never tried. But we do not covet their rocky Mars-scapes, or their harems; we only want outlaw murderers to have no safe haven among them. If the outlaws are looking for terror targets like the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut in 1983, we will not provide them. We are on a war footing, against an enemy who is no more mobile than we are.
We cannot do everything, however, and we find ourselves pinched after a decade of peace. If you have noticed a slowness in the rhetorical buildup against Iraq, this signals not irresolution, but a necessary slowness in the military buildup. Remember that the Gulf War did not happen overnight. It was five months from the deployment of the first American troops in Saudi Arabia, in early August 1990, until the launch of Operation Desert Storm in mid-January 1991; there followed five weeks of air war before the tanks rolled. And all this happened when we still had our full Cold War arsenal-everything that was meant to fight the Red Army in the Fulda Gap.
Much has been dispersed since then. Some of that hardware would now be obsolete; some of it might not be useful going into Iraq from the north, out of Turkey, instead of from the south, where our false Saudi friends wish, like Doris Day, to establish their virginity. Still we find ourselves having to scrape. Meanwhile, the march of technology threatens some of the assets we do have. Will aircraft carriers be able to operate in the Persian Gulf? A carrier in the gulf is like a dog in a badger’s burrow: no problem for a hunter if his flank is protected. But could elements in the Iranian government-or Al Qaeda terrorists harbored by them-aim small-scale missiles at carriers? One Exocet missile sank the H.M.S. Sheffield in the Falklands War, and many improvements have been made since then (which the Chinese, we may be sure, would be happy to offer to all and sundry). A carrier, to put this in perspective, carries twice as many people as died in the World Trade Center. Prepare for the worst mentally; it will at least deprive the enemy of the joy of surprise.
Delay helps Saddam Hussein, who is straining to manufacture any bomb or disease he can. His first target would probably be Israel. If he killed 100,000 Jews in one swoop, he would be the hero of the Middle East-like Osama bin Laden, only much cooler. (Even Pashtun tribesmen probably would not argue that the Israelis had killed themselves.) We know the clock is ticking; we should be ready before the digital monitor hits 00, but it will take time.
Speaking of Iran, the fissures within that country continue to widen. The hard-line mullahs who dominate the government pour resources into the terror war in Israel, and scorn upon us. At the same time, ordinary people grow openly contemptuous of the official ideology. Last month, the Zoroastrian New Year coincided with a Muslim holiday. Zoroaster, or Zarathustra, lived long before Mohammed or Christ. His religion, once the faith of the ancient Persian Empire, has shrunk to the heritage of small communities in India and Iran, and a few émigrés in the West. But some rites linger as customs, even as we hang pagan holly at Christmas. The mullah-ocracy, stern as the Puritans, forbade the old New Year to be celebrated during their holiday. But Iranians went ahead and celebrated it anyway. In a country that holds elections, but then undercuts them by giving its theocrats veto powers, the people voted with their fête. We have been burned with our Iran policies for 25 years, first with the fall of the Shah, then with Iran-contra. But we should find some way, consistent with Iranian nationalism, to help the people to finally rule themselves.
We have a full plate; why load it further with the visionary goal of brokering peace between Israelis and Palestinians? Why try, when the Palestinians are manifestly intoxicated with despair, rant and murder? We don’t know what the formula for peace is; no one does. We should not try to pry Yasir Arafat out of his office while his minions are blowing themselves up at Passover Seders.
The last burst of peace diplomacy had the bad effect, apart from its futility, of whitewashing its sponsors, the Saudis. They have much to hide besides beating their domestic help and breeding bin Ladens. On the eve of the peace push, a Saudi newspaper told its readers that the cookies given to Jewish children on the holiday of Purim are made with the blood of Gentiles. Is it possible for Americans to understand this? Here we parse the 30-year-old utterances of John Nash and Billy Graham for trace elements of prejudice, and troop to the Jewish Museum to be told that consumerism is Nazism. But Saudi Arabia has the real deal. These vicious hicks are not only, thanks to the accidents of Arabian politics, the guardians of Islam’s holy places; swollen with petrodollars, they have been pushing their weirdo brand of a great religion worldwide. Imagine if the cathedral of Saint John the Divine were run by the Ku Klux Klan, or if the Knights of Columbus signed themselves over to John Gotti and Sinn Fein. That is the state of things in Saudi Arabia, and in the Muslim world wherever Saudi money funds mosques, madrassahs and charities.
Better that we should pull General Zinni and the diplomats off the peace process and assign them the task of finding a successor regime for the Arabian peninsula. Are the Hashemites booked for this century?