So we have come a full and bloody circle. As the American firefighters quench the flames and clear the rubble from the remains of the twin towers in Manhattan, the US military, with British assistance, creates more rubble and starts more fires all over Afghanistan. The FBI has warned of more terror attacks in the next few days. In New York and Florida people live in fear of another anthrax attack. The al-Qaida terrorist network has warned Muslims in Britain and America not to fly. Meanwhile, winter in Afghanistan promises a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions. What started at ground zero is ending up as a zero-sum game.
Even by its own standards, Operation Enduring Freedom is proving a disaster. Taking western leaders at their word, its stated aim is to defeat terrorism. A reasonable test of their war aims, therefore, would be to ask whether their actions have made a terrorist attack more or less likely. More plainly speaking: do you feel more secure today than you did last Saturday? Americans don't seem to. Police forces and armies are on the highest state of alert possible. In London on Saturday night, hundreds of people were evacuated from restaurants and pubs after a chemical scare and Canterbury Cathedral was cleared of worshippers yesterday after a man dropped some white powder.
Every plane in the sky, every police siren on the road and every bullet-proofed bobby on a beat make me think it will be our turn next. Such dark thoughts have been circling in the back of my mind since the original attacks just over a month ago; since the bombing started they are now at the forefront. The events of September 11 exposed the vulnerability of the west to an attack carried out by a few determined men. The bombing of Afghanistan merely exacerbated it. Following the atrocities people were only afraid of flying; now they are worried about opening their mail too. The system seems fragile because everyone is tense. Today any unstable individual can knock a few hundred points off the Dow Jones index, win themselves a place on prime-time TV and earn a military assisted, impromptu landing, simply by making a dash for a cockpit.
Meanwhile opposition to the bombings has destabilized a nuclear power, Pakistan, which now wavers between a military dictator and militant mullahs. This precariousness, not to mention the terrorist attacks in Kashmir, is troubling its antagonistic nuclear neighbor, India. And that is before we get to the terrified ex-pats in Saudi, the riots in Indonesia and the uneasy calm in Egypt. With every smart bomb that goes astray and hits a residential areas (how smart can these bombs really be?) we know that more people will take to the streets. We wait for al-Jazeera to broadcast the first picture of a mosque in flames and then watch the sparks fly all the way to Gaza.
True, these are early days. Bush has promised a year more of this if need be. So the short-term panic would, arguably, be worthwhile if one seriously thought that it was a long-term solution to terrorism. But nobody really does. Terrorism is not like foot and mouth which, with enough culling, quarantine and road blocks, you can snuff out. It is, depending on the time, the place and the cause in which it is committed, an expression of either the absence of dialogue, the failure of negotiation or a determination by a few to undermine the popular will - and sometimes a mixture of all three at once. It can, for short periods of time, be contained but it cannot be extinguished. Either way it is its political character that distinguishes it from other acts of social violence.
That does not make it better or worse but different and as unlikely a candidate for eradication as other political evils such as racism or corruption. That does not mean that we shouldn't try. It does mean you have to be clear in your objectives, realistic in your expectations and subtle in your means. The bombing of Afghanistan cannot lay claim to any of those attributes. If they kill Osama bin Laden they will create a martyr; if they capture him America will find itself on trial; if he remains on the loose they will have failed.
This is not just a question of the west losing the propaganda war. The problem is not with the marketing, but the product. In order to take out the al-Qaida network and get Bin Laden, America needs the full support of the Arab world. The backing has only been lukewarm, because of America's appalling record in the Middle East. Three weeks ago it was considered a mixture of heresy, naivety and plain bad taste to raise the issue of American foreign policy; now it is widely accepted that without a just settlement in the Middle East, networks like al-Qaida will always be able to prey on disaffection in the Arab world.
But the damage has, literally, largely been done. Those here who willfully confuse anti-war with anti-American, context with cause and explanation with justification in order to polarize debate and deride dissent, now have their wish. Those who did not back the bombing, they say, are appeasers or apologists for the Taliban. They laid out a choice between backing western imperialism on the one hand and Islamic fundamentalism on the other. A growing number in the Muslim world look at the record of both in their area and are opting for the latter. It is thoroughly depressing that they believe that those are the only two options available.
None the less they have been pretty much the only two presented. From the outset Bush has been putting the world "on notice" and warning: "You're either with us or you're against us." Both he, and Blair, act as though there are only two possible responses to the terrorist attacks. Either you bomb one of the poorest, most famine-stricken countries in the world to smithereens, or you do nothing. There are few who believe that those responsible for the attacks should go unpunished. But mention the United Nations or an international court of human rights and their eyeballs start rolling. They want something done "now". They talk as though "now" is its own point in time - not connected to other atrocities America committed years ago or the consequences that will endure ahead. The South Africans waited years for their truth and reconciliation committee; a million Rwandans died in the 1994 genocide yet it was a full year before the trials of the suspects began. America holds fire for 26 days before lashing out at Afghanistan and is praised for its patience. If this is restraint, define rash; if this is justice, then define revenge.
In the meantime every bomb they drop turns what was an unpopular, dangerous outsider into a hero among a significant and growing minority of the Muslim world. With the west's help Bin Laden has managed to present himself as the largest immovable object against American cultural, political and economic hegemony. This is disastrous for all of us. Not only are Bush and Blair not defeating terrorism, they are creating a generation of terrorists for the future. With enemies like these, Bin Laden does not need friends.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001