by Seumas Milne
On the streets of Baghdad yesterday, it was Kabul, November 2001, all over again. Then, enthusiasts for the war on terror were in triumphalist mood, as the Taliban regime was overthrown. The critics had been confounded, they insisted, kites were flying, music was playing again and women were throwing off their burkas. In parliament, Jack Straw mocked Labour MPs who predicted US and British forces would still be fighting in the country in six months' time.
Seventeen months later, such confidence looks grimly ironic. For most Afghans, "liberation" has meant the return of rival warlords, harsh repression, rampant lawlessness, widespread torture and Taliban-style policing of women. Meanwhile, guerrilla attacks are mounting on US troops - special forces soldiers have been killed in recent weeks, while 11 civilians died yesterday in an American air raid - and the likelihood of credible elections next year appears to be close to zero.
In Baghdad and Basra, perhaps the cheering crowds have been a bit thinner on the ground than Tony Blair and George Bush might have hoped - and the looters and lynchers more numerous. But it would be extraordinary if many Iraqis didn't feel relief or euphoria at the prospect of an end to a brutal government, 12 years of murderous sanctions and a merciless bombardment by the most powerful military machine in the world. Afghanistan is not of course Iraq, though it is a salutary lesson to those who believe the overthrow of recalcitrant regimes is the way to defeat anti-western terrorism. It would nevertheless be a mistake to confuse the current mood in Iraqi cities with enthusiasm for the foreign occupation now being imposed. Even Israel's invading troops were feted by south Lebanese Shi'ites in 1982 - only to be driven out by the Shi'ite Hizbullah resistance 18 years later.
Nor does the comparative ease with which US and British forces have bombed and blasted their way through Iraq in any way strengthen the case for their war of aggression, as some seem to have convinced themselves. Not even the smallest part of the anti-war argument rested on any illusion that a broken-backed third world regime could win a set-piece military confrontation with the most technologically advanced fighting force in history. Rather, the surprise has been the extent of the resistance and bravery of many fighters, who have confronted tanks with AK 47 rifles and died in their thousands.
In reality, the course of the conflict has strengthened the case against a war supposedly launched to rid Iraq of "weapons of mass destruction" - but which has now morphed into a crusade for regime change as evidence for the original pretext has so embarrassingly not materialised. Not only have US and British forces so far been unable to find the slightest evidence of Saddam Hussein's much-vaunted chemical or biological weapons. But the Iraqi regime's failure to use such weapons up to now, even at the point of its own destruction, suggests either that it doesn't possess any - at least in any usable form, as Robin Cook suggested - or that it has decided their use would be militarily ineffective and politically counter-productive.