There is an eerie familiarity about the scenes being played out every night, as the United States and Britain launch wave after wave of bombing and cruise missile attacks on Afghanistan. The grinning marine on the USS Enterprise, promising "to destroy a lot of things over there"; the RAF corporal, showing off his "We came, we saw, we kicked ass" T-shirt; the daily military briefings with their before-and-after images of destruction; the somber excuses offered for civilian casualties and other forms of "collateral damage"; the cheerleaders' untiring comparison of the enemy with the Nazis and the war's opponents with appeasers - they almost seem routine.
Perhaps that is scarcely surprising, as we've been here before, again and again. This is the fifth time since Tony Blair became prime minister that Britain and the US have taken military action - though not always together - without an explicit United Nations mandate: in Iraq, Yugoslavia, Sudan, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. In four cases, the attacks have consisted overwhelmingly or exclusively of aerial bombardments; in three, the targets have been Muslim states - all have been more or less impoverished and none of those under attack has been able to offer anything but token resistance. In the case of Iraq, major assaults - such as the four-day Desert Fox operation nearly three years ago - have only punctuated what has been a 10-year regime of relentless bombing raids and grinding economic sanctions.
From such a perspective, this conflict did not begin last Sunday or on September 11, but a decade ago, when the pattern of wars against developing countries under the new world order was established by the first President Bush in his campaign to drive Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. It was then that US troops were first sent to Saudi Arabia and the devastation of Iraq began - two of the three festering Muslim grievances cited by Osama bin Laden in his broadcast describing the New York and Washington atrocities as America tasting "what we have tasted".
But none of the Anglo-American onslaughts since 1991 can match the cruel absurdity of this week's bombing of one of the poorest and most ruined countries in the world by the planet's richest and most powerful state, assisted as ever by its British satrap. For all the earnest assurances about pinpoint targeting, the civilian death toll is already mounting, including the incineration of four employees of the UN's mine-clearing agency by a cruise missile as they lay sleeping in a Kabul suburb. The almost comical futility of the military overkill was epitomized by General Richard Myers, US Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, who declared yesterday that "we now have air supremacy over Afghanistan".
But this is also potentially by far the most perilous of all the western wars since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The case against the campaign now being waged against Afghanistan - with the explicitly stated prospect that it may be widened in future - does not primarily hinge on its dubious legality, lack of UN involvement or absence of convincing evidence of responsibility for the September 11 attacks.
The most serious objections are, first, that by triggering large-scale refugee movements and interrupting food supplies, the war is turning an existing humanitarian crisis into a disaster, which will cause the deaths of many more than were slaughtered in the World Trade Center, for no remotely proportional gain. Second, whatever success is achieved in killing or capturing Bin Laden and his supporters or forcing the Afghan theocrats from power, there is no reason to believe that that will stamp out anti-western terrorism, even by the al-Qaida networks, which operate across the world without assistance from their Taliban friends. In other words, it won't work. Finally, and most dangerously, the entire "crusade" in defense of civilization, as Bush the younger so sensitively described his campaign, shows every sign of creating a political backlash throughout the Muslim world and spawning even more terrorist attacks, rather than curbing them.
Few of those pressing for the alternative of legal, diplomatic and security action are the pacifists they are caricatured to be. But while Bin Laden is fast developing popular cult status across the Middle East, Bush and Blair have turned themselves into recruiting sergeants for al-Qaida and militant Islamism - and increased the likelihood of a cycle of revenge and retaliatory violence. The longer the campaign goes on and the wider it spreads, the greater the risk that many Middle Eastern governments dearest to the west will be consigned to oblivion. If the aim of the war launched last Sunday is to put an end to terrorism, it makes no sense. But if, as some in the US clearly want, this campaign becomes the vehicle for achieving wider US strategic objectives - in Iraq, central Asia or elsewhere - it risks a catastrophe.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001