Time may tell that the bombing was the easiest part. There are high-tech instruments to guide a missile or a bomb to its target (more or less) but there are no precision instruments available to guide diplomacy to its chosen objective.

Experience, contacts, timing, judgement and luck - are needed to ensure that the conclusion of the first phase of the campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan has a positive rather than a negative result.

It is by no means clear whether the Taliban is disintegrating or simply reforming to protect the area that has always been its natural territory. Nor is it clear what effect military success will have on the Northern Alliance; will it revert to its previous barbarism or will its close association with the United States persuade it to behave with restraint?

The frequently-stated commitment of the United States and its principal coalition supporters to the creation of a “broadlybased” Afghanistan government will bring into play several other ethnic groups of which we have so far heard little, each of which has an agenda of its own.

The weightiest question may be whether the Taliban, if it survives as a recognisable entity, should be involved in the forthcoming talks.
The key negotiations are now in the hands of the United Nations which is hoping to bring the parties together for talks very soon. The foundation of the UN's strategy will probably be what is called the “six plus two group” - the six coutries bordering Afghanistan plus the United States and Russia - which will try to encourage Afghanistan's ethnic groups to find some common ground. Ironically, this approach was first tried by the UN in 1997 but abandoned because of Pakistan's unwillingness to co-operate.

Ray Fleming

Keeping the frills

BMI British Midland was unlucky that its announcement of restructuring plans on Monday coincided with the American Airlines crash in the United States and as a result was pushed out of the news. This was unfortunate because BMI's response to the general turndown in airline business since Septemeber 11 is bold and innovative. Essentially, it plans to turn itself into a “low-cost, full-frills” carrier. Although this concept may seem a contradiction in terms, Sir Michael Bishop, BMI's chairman, and Austin Reid, its chief executive, do not see it that way. The obviously difficult objective of remaining a full-service airline while also operating on low-cost principles with cheaper fares will be achieved by flying on fewer short-haul European routes, making more intensive use of aircraft and asking for greater productivity from aircrew, including pilots. Although Mr Reid did not give details of routes that will be dropped he did tell a conference in London that the number of cities BMI flies to in Europe will be cut by about 15 per cent and he added that “people flying somewhere in under two hours are looking for value for money”.

Spelling out his expectation of greater productivity, he pointed out that BMI's planes spent one-third less time in the air than easy Jet's aircraft and its pilots work 600 hours a year while Ryanair's get close to the 900 hours permitted by law. British Midland has always been a resourceful airline and its radical new approach will be watched with interest.



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