As US and British forces prepare to strike against the humanitarian disaster that is Afghanistan, the problems confronting George Bush's latter-day crusade against terror are mounting. For all the firepower and military muscle now being assembled, American options have if anything narrowed since the carnage in New York and Washington two weeks ago. Early expectations of a huge televisual fireworks display over the Hindu Kush and a shootout in Osama bin Laden's mountain lair are being hurriedly played down - even by US administration superhawks like Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. The more cautious Colin Powell seems, for the moment, to have prevailed.
While grand declarations of anti-terrorist virtue collide with the real world of stitching together an international coalition, the dilemmas for the wounded US giant are multiplying. The prospect of "surgical strikes" against a disparate and well-hidden force is now increasingly recognized as implausible. Bush has dismissed the idea of "sending a $2m missile to hit a $10 tent", and although raids on empty training camps will presumably be staged for CNN, that is unlikely to satisfy domestic demand for revenge. The embarrassing failure to produce convincing evidence of Bin Laden's responsibility for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the difficulties of tracking him down have left the US administration falling back on a more visible enemy in the form of the Taliban.
That has its own dangers. Overthrowing such a shaky regime, at least in what is left of Afghanistan's cities, should prove straightforward enough, particularly with the help of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. But the alliance is a ragbag army, based on minority ethnic groups, with its own history of massacres and large-scale human rights abuses when it ruled the country in the early 90s. A government based on it, the long-discredited king and more pliant fragments of the Taliban - the lineup currently being canvassed as the basis of a new order in Kabul - would be a pretty grim legacy for such an avowedly high-minded venture. No wonder Bush says he's "not into nation-building".
Then there is the threat to the survival of the pro- western military dictatorship and nuclear-armed Taliban-sponsor in Pakistan, now offering logistical backup to the western war effort. Even more incendiary is the demand for a full-scale assault on Iraq, which has triggered an open split in the Bush administration. War on Saddam would at least provide the US with a target serious enough to appear to match the scale of the slaughter of the innocents in New York. But, with no evidence linking Iraq to the September 11 attacks, any such move would rupture the coalition at its heart and destroy any hope of maintaining Arab support.
The fragility of that support was highlighted by the refusal of the Saudi regime, most dependent of all American client states in the region, to allow US forces to use their Saudi bases for operations against Afghanistan out of fear of a domestic backlash. A taste of the mood in Bin Laden's homeland was given this week by Mai Yamani, anthropologist daughter of the former Saudi oil minister, who was startled to find young people "very pleased about Osama because they think he is the only one who stands against the hegemony of the US".
Failure to read these signs would be the grossest irresponsibility. Those who insist that the attacks in New York and Washington had nothing to do with the US role in the Middle East - but were instead the product of existential angst about western freedom and identity - not only demonstrate their ignorance of the area. They also weaken the pressure to address the long-standing grievances fueling this rage: not only western indulgence of Israeli military occupation, but decades of oil-lubricated support for despots from Iran to Oman, Egypt to Saudi Arabia and routine military interventions to maintain US control. Moral relativism does not lie in acknowledging that link, but in making excuses for this insupportable record.
Few can seriously hope that waging war on Afghanistan or Iraq - or the death of Bin Laden, for that matter - will stamp out terrorism any more effectively than the alternative of legal, security and diplomatic action. But an end to the siege of Iraq, the use of western clout to accelerate the creation of a viable Palestinian state and the withdrawal of US troops from the Arabian peninsula would begin to relieve the political pressure cooker by tackling the most inflammatory sources of tension in the region. Conservative politicians in the US are becoming impatient for the sound of gunfire. The Bush administration has a choice: it can go further in the direction it has begun tentatively to explore while assembling its coalition, for example over the Israel-Palestinian conflict - or it can cave in to the siren voices on its right and pour an ocean of petrol on the flames.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001