The wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy. The verdict on General MacArthur's proposal to take the Korean conflict into China in 1951 also applies to Afghanistan. Bombing rubble looks increasingly like thuggery. The élite of al-Qaeda are as likely to be found in Claridge's as in Afghan camps. Air strikes, if not quite a kneejerk response, are a genuflection to public demand in the US. And Osama bin Laden is an unsatisfactory enemy. Potential winners always are.
His lead has baffled those assuming an accused murderer of thousands deserves pariah status throughout the Muslim world. We have talked up his evil brilliance, some say. The opposite is true. The mistake was to think him an unsophisticated zealot with a bad beard. No one told us that he was so clever. If only western tacticians had grasped that earlier, it would have been obvious that this is a mousetrap war.
The atrocities of 11 September were bait. For bin Laden to build a support base depended on provoking the sort of American, and British, reaction, that would disturb even Arab moderates. For a week, Afghanistan has been bombed to quarks. Each day, reports of civilian casualties build, and so does Muslim unrest. How bin Laden must glory in the folly of a West that moves to the danse macabre he choreographed. At home, there is smugness, as Tony Blair's diplomacy earns him Churchill status. Three-quarters of all British people supposedly back air strikes. It is easy to see why. We were promised a new war, but we got the old sort, only better. Looking macho without disgusting levels of civilian deaths appeals to a Western culture averse to self-blame. Sanitized war, like fat-free muffins and diet cola, offers satisfaction without guilt.
The first tests of a virtuous war are whether it is just, honest and as respectful as possible of civilian life. This one fails all three. In his conference speech, the Prime Minister enumerated the beneficiaries of British goodness. 'The starving, the wretched, the dispossessed, the ignorant, those living in want and squalor from the deserts of northern Africa to the slums of Gaza to the mountain ranges of Afghanistan; these too are our cause.'
Last year, as winter fell and the temperature dropped to 26 degrees Celsius, an Afghan aid worker watched, helpless, as 100 children died of cold. In Herat, a young UNICEF volunteer found a father, a mother and their three children huddled in a frozen embrace of death. This year, human ice sculptures will go unnoticed. As many as seven million Afghan citizens may perish in the months to come unless food convoys resume immediately. Even if the UN's pleas for a ceasefire are heeded, it will be too late for many. Last year, one in four Afghan children died before the age of five. This year, they will not be so lucky.
Scattering food parcels, whose rations are unsuitable for starving children, has been insultingly useless. Even if all the airdrops missed minefields and reached the neediest, the $320 million earmarked by the US would feed only a quarter of the hungry for one day. It would hardly be less useful to bombard starving Afghans with Jamie Oliver cookery cards. For the fate of the dying to be exploited in teary rhetoric designed to disarm the Labour Party conference is despicable.
That is not all the fault of Blair, a genuine humanitarian who must bend to the Bush agenda. But the upshot is that most people think this war means meals on wheels. 'Kick ass, Tony,' the Sun advises as ground battles loom. While foreigners have rarely triumphed in Afghanistan, there is little doubt that Genghis Blair can do it. But do what, exactly, when options for an alternative government sway between a neocolonial protectorate and a coalition involving everyone from the Garrick Club wing of the Northern Alliance to an ossified king?
Concentration on pick'n'mix government does, however, distract from bigger issues. As bin Laden knows, war has its own momentum. Malaysia and Indonesia stir. Pakistan looks increasingly fissile. The relief that Bush has, for now, backed off Iraq ignores the fact that Saddam Hussein also plays battle chess. Paul Rogers, professor of peace studies at Bradford University, believes that he will, within three to four weeks, begin air movements around Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and may move ground troops towards Kuwait. Would Bush's alliance dare do nothing in the face of such provocation?
In July 1995, the US Naval War College played out a game designed to explore the development of a major crisis in the Persian Gulf. A resurgent Iraq killed so many in the region with biological weapons that the only endgame for America's better military brains was a nuclear attack on Baghdad. It is three years since the UNSCOM inspectors left. Everyone believes Saddam's biological stockpile will now be fearsome. For the West to believe itself the sole driver of events is madness.
Saudi Arabia, the core of Bush's war, grows more febrile. There is no afternoon tea for Blair, nor any gesture that might inflame bin Laden's desire to depose a corrupt royal family and remove 5,000 US troops sullying the land of Mecca and Medina. He longs to collapse the degeneracy of its thousands of princes, with their leather-upholstered Mercedes and dinky mobile phones, into an underlying culture in which Valentine and Pokémon cards are banned, and 100 public beheadings take place every year. Beneath the veneer of lush globalization, Saudi is dying. Per capita income has halved to $7,000 over 20 years, unemployment is vast, and 10,000 half-educated graduates of Wahib apostasy have emerged from its religious schools. These are bin Laden's acolytes, bred to die and weaned on hatred; 12 of the 19 US hijackers were Saudi-born.
Until Iran and Iraq are brought back into the US fold (or the West learns to use less oil), America relies on Saudi for its survival. Should bin Laden win control of the country, Western economies would be crippled. If America has begun to work out how to deal with a nation that is now both its scourge and salvation, there is little evidence.
Instead, we get such clodhopping DIY lessons in Islam that it is not difficult to see how the mildest of mullahs despair. For Islamic scholars to be treated to the Robin Cook version of the Koran must be tiresome. For people who have never given a thought to the Taliban's take on glitter nail varnish to proclaim this a feminist war must be baffling. The treatment of Taliban women is a disgrace. But if right-wing female British commentators have a long-held desire to get Muslim women out of burkas and into Stella McCartney T-shirts with 'Bristols' emblazoned on the front, they should have said so earlier.
This war is fought for phony reasons, by protagonists who, Blair apart, rarely exude charisma or even competence. Perhaps our politicians do not have the knowledge or the insight or the moral authority to lead us through this morass. Why should they? Since Nasser's day, the Arab world has inched from socialism to secularism to nationalism to religious fundamentalism. A government that struggles to run a health service or a railway cannot be instantly expert on Islam's tussle between the modern and the arcane.
When politicians falter, it is incumbent on ordinary citizens to be wise and critical. That makes it all the more pernicious that dissent is barely possible in liberal Britain, where opponents of this war - far more than the opinion polls reflect - were derided as woolly peaceniks or callous anti-Americans, as fools, heretics or cynics. And so we get signed up to a war devoid of limit and so thin on enemies, beyond the spectral bin Laden that we are forced to invent some back-up villains. Yvonne Ridley, Kate Adie and Jo Moore are this week's baddies. Next week will produce another crop unless bin Laden strikes again, as the FBI warns he may.
Perhaps, or maybe the terrorist masterminds are too shrewd for that. Anthrax notwithstanding, the suspicion is that bin Laden waits as we, squandering the righteousness of our cause, blunder into an ugly war whose worst impact is on people who have done us no harm. Not a single Afghan citizen took part in the World Trade Center bombings.
But we had to do something, everyone says. We were entitled to strike back. Of course, but the issue is not the mandate but the method. Building on cross-cultural sympathies, dealing with the root causes of terrorism and seeking to try bin Laden in a newly-created UN court, devised with American co-operation, was the proper route. But right-wing America clamored for a war now skewered on its own crossed wires.
The battle cannot be moved outside Afghanistan without calamitous consequences. Yet global terrorism can never be defeated in the Afghan dustbowl. It is still not too late to stop the bombing, abort any ground war and pour aid into Kabul. To do so would constitute the first move that Osama bin Laden has neither planned for nor foretold. It would also acknowledge the fact, clearer by the day, that world war is so much more deliverable than world peace.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001