French forces in Afghanistan (November 2001) - 23 November 2001

There is for the first time what you might call a quiet tumult of debate starting that besieges the warriors and the peace planner from Washington to Kabul, which can be seen as two arguments.

One, is having to do with what sort of government is to be set up in Afghanistan, how and by whom it is to be composed, of how many competing factions? And in Washington the congress is really for the first time debating (competing in a partisan way) to find out how to keep and maintain the physical safety of every single citizen, probably an impossible feet.

Meanwhile the former General now a secretary of state Colin Powell, was promising a university audience here that the United States will send another special envoy to solve the insoluble problem of Israel and Palestine. What one veteran Middle Easterner called “yet another Sisyphus to roll the bolder up the mountain and watch it roll back again”.

But in the war debate the main attitude might be summed up as a regretful glance over the shoulder, if only, if only the taking of Kabul could have been put off for maybe a coupe of weeks?

Ten days ago the White House the Pentagon and the state department were all fretted by the same problem, how to appear to be prosecuting the war as forcefully as possible, and yet somehow keep the reckless alliance from plunging into Kabul and other northern city before Mr Kofi Annan, The United States, the U.K and the other involved partners had formed a new Afghan government which would have more than a sporting chance to be stable and reasonably long lived. I said “involved” as distinct from “ interested” parties, which is a nice and embarrassing distinction. We suddenly see that a whole flock of warlords that we never knew about were involved in the war one way or another and now want to be part of the coalition government. Not to mention some defecting Taliban generals, as if Goering, Goebbels, Hets, Speyer and the rest would have consented to surrender in the second world war, only on the understanding that they could be part of the allied occupation of Germany.

But now that things look rosy we hear from a declared “interested” party, the French offering now to send in troops. We hadn’t heard about the French contribution to the famous coalition of allies, who only days after the fateful eleventh of September, appeared proud to invoke article five of the NATO charter, swearing to spring to the defence of any nation including the United States if attacked. Since the day of that noble declaration, no American official (that I know of has said) “ok fellas how about springing into action?”

Only now has there appeared here at least one bitter editorial saying “if it weren’t for the British how would we ever know that the war in Afghanistan was being fought by the coalition? What coalition?” It was added that the lack of NATO participation or at least the publicising of it, added fuel to the sense (which is raging in the Arab world) that this is a war exclusively between America and Islam. And this week we hear that the French would like to put their two cents worth into the composition of the new afghan coalition government.

Where is it in the Bible that we read of the adder’s sting and the gnashing of teeth? Well we heard it (however subdued a gnashing) in the State Department, and I have no doubt in the White House. It has not been forgotten that only a few months ago the French foreign minister bemoaned the bombing (the Kurdish protective bombing) of Iraq by the Americans and the British. He prefers “steady, trustworthy negotiation” we’ve been doing that with Saddam Hussein for ten years. Many American voices were raised to remind the Frenchman that “trustworthy negotiation” had once been the method practiced for three years on Adolf Hitler, and where did it get the French? Total conquest and occupation, the sacrifice of many thousand American, British, Canadian and Polish lives before France could be declared free again, and its untouched fair capital (unbombed by negotiation) be declared liberated.

Two months ago a United Nations observer (not temperamentally a cynical man) said nervously “let us pray that northern Afghanistan is not liberated before the United Nations preferably, can organise a stable government to step in” if it s to be done Mr. Anan and his staff and the refugee centres in Afghanistan ought to be working day and night, the alternative is an awful mess of a long and bloody civil war, and that as I speak is confronting us.

On the domestic front here in America the problems are manifold, and most of them have to do with raising the money (in a declared recession), the billions and billions of unanticipated dollars to repair the huge financial losses of September the eleventh. The refinancing of so many destroyed businesses, the actual re-insuring of the tower’s clients, the compensation of the thousands of families who lost either relatives or fortunes or both.

There is now a frenzy of complaint, that distributing the money to the suffering families is being suffocated in red tape, so that in New York City alone less than one third of the monies (already generously contributed), has reached the desperate needy.

New and vaster sums are being voted and debated in congress to set up what maybe is ultimately “un set-upable”. Namely a fool or lunatic proof system of security at the airports, at the centres of government, federal, state, city, in all the medical labs, in the post offices and throughout the twenty, thirty whatever millions of letters a day pass through the post offices.

The anthrax puzzle alone, which more and more appears to be the brain storm of some mad intelligent, chemically highly trained loony. That alone has mobilised through the centre for disease control score, maybe hundred of the best bio chemical brains in the country. If any nation could make it absolutely impossible for any rifle, missile, bomb or germ to hurt any single citizen, this is the country that could do it. It’s a matter of opinion whether it’s humanly possible. Sooner or later the Americans may have to live with the numbers, the odds on chance as every besieged population has had to do from the age of flinging diseased corpses over castle walls, to the cockney in the London blitz going about his daily work and saying “see you tonight old cock, if your luck holds!”

Talking of chance, luck and the like, I’ve heard from several listeners who have taken a sudden or maybe resumed the life long interest in the question of coincidence, and this was brought about by my offhand remark the other week, how odd that the eleventh of September the actual sight of the collapsing towers, should have sparked in my memory another September the eleventh that evidently impressed me as a little boy, the date of the Battle of the Marne. I’d have made no more mention of this if it had not then been that I had that letter from my old friend Arthur C. Clarke. Wondering too with a shiver why twenty eight years ago he should have conceived a novel in which a meteorite fell and destroyed northern Europe on the eleventh of September two thousand and seven.

This combination of meditations stirred one listener to say “tell us again about the amazing series of coincidences that have to do with the assassinations of presidents Lincoln and Kennedy. You said that you’d taken it up with mathematicians, psychiatrists, gamblers, soothsayers, ladies who stare into globes, all to no satisfactory effect. Alright let us try once more here it goes.

Lincoln was elected to congress in eighteen forty six, Kennedy exactly one hundred years later in nineteen forty six, Lincoln was elected president in November eighteen sixty, Kennedy in November nineteen sixty. Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy who urged him not to go to the theatre, Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln who advised against his going to Dallas. Booth shot Lincoln in a theatre and ran off into a warehouse; Oswald shot Kennedy from a warehouse and ran off into a theatre. Lincoln was succeeded by a southerner named Johnson, Kennedy was succeeded by a southerner named Johnson, the first Johnson was born in eighteen hundred and eight, the second in nineteen hundred and eight.

Well no soothsayer has helped. I have however, a favourite theologian (my only favourite theologian) Dr Frederic Beckner. He has written among many books a small book called “an alphabet of grace”. His ideas about the pervasion of what he calls “The Grace of God” are wide and ranging, funny and imaginative and may amuse or enlighten the irreligious as well as the devout.

Under “C” we find coincidence. Here it is “I see in a letter the name of a woman I haven’t seen or thought of for twenty years, next morning I run into her in a grocery store in our town. I look out the window, a solitary car passes its license plate combines my initials and those of my wife, we chuckle. Perhaps somebody is saying “stay the course” somebody may keep reminding you that they have you in mind”.

THIS TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING OF THE ORIGINAL BBC BROADCAST (© BBC) AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.

Letter from America audio recordings of broadcasts ©BBC. Letter from America scripts © Cooke Americas, RLLP. All rights reserved.