There's one sure bet about the statement to be made to the UN Security Council today by the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell – or by General Colin Powell as he has now been mysteriously reassigned by the American press: he won't be talking about Afghanistan.
For since the Afghan war is the "successful" role model for America's forthcoming imperial adventure across the Middle East, the near-collapse of peace in this savage land and the steady erosion of US forces in Afghanistan – the nightly attacks on American and other international troops, the anarchy in the cities outside Kabul, the warlordism and drug trafficking and steadily increasing toll of murders – are unmentionables, a narrative constantly erased from the consciousness of Americans who are now sending their young men and women by the tens of thousands to stage another "success" story.
This article is written in President George Bush's home state of Texas, where the flags fly at half-staff for the Columbia crew, where the dispatch to the Middle East of further troops of the 108th Air Defence Artillery Brigade from Fort Bliss and the imminent deployment from Holloman Air Force Base in neighbouring New Mexico of undisclosed numbers of F-117 Nighthawk stealth bombers earned a mere 78-word down-page inside "nib" report in the local Austin newspaper.
Only in New York and Washington do the neo-conservative pundits suggest – obscenely – that the death of the Columbia crew may well have heightened America's resolve and "unity" to support the Bush adventure in Iraq. A few months ago, we would still have been asked to believe that the post-war "success" in Afghanistan augured well for the post-war success in Iraq.
So let's break through the curtain for a while and peer into the fastness of the land that both President Bush and Prime Minister Blair promised not to forget. Hands up those who know that al-Qa'ida has a radio station operating inside Afghanistan which calls for a holy war against America? It's true. Hands up again anyone who can guess how many of the daily weapons caches discovered by US troops in the country have been brought into Afghanistan since America's "successful" war? Answer: up to 25 per cent.
Have any US troops retreated from their positions along the Afghan-Pakistan border? None, you may say. And you would be wrong. At least five positions, according to Pakistani sources on the other side of the frontier, only one of which has been admitted by US forces. On 11 December, US troops abandoned their military outpost at Lwara after nightly rocket attacks which destroyed several American military vehicles. Their Afghan allies were driven out only days later and al-Qa'ida fighters then stormed the US compound and burnt it to the ground.
It's a sign of just how seriously America's mission in Afghanistan is collapsing that the majestically conservative Wall Street Journal – normally a beacon of imperial and Israeli policy in the Middle East and South-west Asia – has devoted a long and intriguing article to the American retreat, though of course that's not what the paper calls it.
"Soldiers still confront an invisible enemy,' is the title of Marc Kaufman's first-class investigation, a headline almost identical to one which appeared over a Fisk story a year or so after Russia's invasion of Afghanistan in 1979-80. The soldiers in my dispatch, of course, were Russian. Indeed, just as I recall the Soviet officer who told us all at Bagram air base that the "mujahedin terrorism remnants" were all that was left of the West's conspiracy against peace-loving (and Communist) Afghans, so I observed the American spokesmen – yes, at the very same Bagram air base – who today cheerfully assert that al-Qa'ida "remnants" are all that are left of Bin Laden's legions.
Training camps have been set up inside Afghanistan again, not – as the Americans think – by the recalcitrant forces of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's anti-American Afghans, but by Arabs. The latest battle between US forces and enemy "remnants" near Spin Boldak in Kandahar provinceinvolved further Arab fighters, as my colleague Phil Reeves reported. Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami forces have been "forging ties" with al-Qa'ida and the Taliban; which is exactly what the mujahedin "terrorist remnants" did among themselves in the winter of 1980, a year after the Soviet invasion.
An American killed by a newly placed landmine in Khost; 16 civilians blown up by another newly placed mine outside Kandahar; grenades tossed at Americans or international troops in Kabul; further reports of rape and female classroom burnings in the north of Afghanistan – all these events are now acquiring the stale status of yesterday's war.
So be sure that Colin Powell will not be boasting to the Security Council today of America's success in the intelligence war in Afghanistan. It's one thing to claim that satellite pictures show chemicals being transported around Iraq, or that telephone intercepts prove Iraqi scientists are still at their dirty work; quite another to explain how all the "communications chatter" intercepts which the US supposedly picked up in Afghanistan proved nothing. As far as Afghanistan is concerned, you can quote Basil Fawlty: "Whatever you do, don't mention the war.”
Robert Fisk is an award winning foreign correspondent for The Independent (UK), where this article first appeared. He is the author of Pity Thy Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon (The Nation Books, 2002 edition)