Osama bin Laden, two years and three months after the New York and Washington attacks that were part of his jihad against America, appears to be winning. He has lost his base in Afghanistan, as well as many colleagues and fighters, and his communications and finances have been disrupted. He may be buried under rubble in Afghanistan or, as Washington and London assume, be hiding in Pakistan's tribal areas. But from Kandahar to Baghdad, from Istanbul to Riyadh, blood is being shed in the name of Bin Laden's jihad.
On Saturday, a Taliban bomb went off in the bazaar in Kandahar, aimed at US soldiers but wounding 20 Afghan civilians. On the same day, US planes targeted a "known terrorist" in Ghazni, also in Afghanistan, killing nine children. The deaths of the children will not help the US win hearts and minds in Afghanistan, or elsewhere; indeed, they will alienate Muslim opinion worldwide.
There is a tendency in the west to play down - or ignore - the extent of Bin Laden's success. The US and UK governments regard mentioning it as disloyal or heretical. But look back on interviews by Bin Laden in the 1990s to see what he has achieved. He can tick off one of the four objectives he set himself, and, arguably, a second.
The objectives were: the removal of US soldiers from Saudi soil; the overthrow of the Saudi government; the removal of Jews from Israel; and worldwide confrontation between the west and the Muslim world.
His success in the first is clear-cut. Bin Laden's animosity towards the US began in earnest with the arrival of tens of thousands of US soldiers in his home country, Saudi Arabia, for the war against Iraq in 1991. He objected to their presence because Saudi Arabia holds Islam's two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina.
After September 11, the US did exactly what Bin Laden wanted. It pulled almost all its troops out of Saudi Arabia and moved its regional headquarters to Qatar. Relations between Washington and Riyadh have remained strained since September 11, not surprising given that the bulk of the attackers were from Saudi Arabia.
Bin Laden has not succeeded in his second objective of overthrowing the Saudi regime. But its position is much more precarious than when he first called for it to be deposed. The US government's ambivalence towards Riyadh has created jitters in the kingdom. The Saudi authorities, after a decade in denial, are now confronting al-Qaida and cracking down on preachers regarded as too fiery. Saudi Arabia, in spite of its oil wealth, has huge economic and social problems -including a large, disgruntled pool of unemployed youths - that leave it vulnerable. Reports of firefights between the Saudi authorities and al-Qaida-related groups are now commonplace.
Bin Laden has not achieved his third objective either: the destruction of Israel. In spite of its suffering at the hands of suicide bombers, Israel is in the ascendant, with strict controls over the daily lives of Palestinians, frequent assassination of suspected bombers and other militants, and a continued land grab in the West Bank. But the one-sided nature of the conflict and the emotions it arouses beyond its boundaries have helped Bin Laden achieve the fourth and most important of his objectives: polarization.
In February 1997, he predicted such polarization. at a time when it seemed unlikely: "The war will not only be between the people of the two sacred mosques [Saudi Arabia] and the Americans, but it will be between the Islamic world and the Americans and their allies, because this war is a new crusade led by America against the Islamic nations."
Bin Laden, assuming he is alive and wired to the internet, would have enjoyed the Times on Saturday, which devoted the best part of a page to a story headlined "the new enemy within", warning of a potential bombing threat in the UK from a British-born sleeper from the Muslim community. That such a possibility is no longer regarded as unlikely shows the extent to which the world has changed.
Tony Blair and the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, have repeatedly argued that the "war on terrorism" is aimed at a small group of Muslim terrorists and the failed states that harbor them. They will, rightly, deny that it is a crusade against Muslims.
Last week, for the first time, the Foreign Office published a list of its policy objectives, of which the war against terrorism was top, and acknowledged the danger of polarization. Looking at the next 10 years, the Foreign Office said the battle of ideologies between market economics and Marxism that dominated 20th-century Europe appears to be giving way to battles over religion.
"T he possible confrontation of ideas most likely to affect the UK and other western democracies in the early 21st century stems from religion and culture," according to the Foreign Office strategy document, UK International Priorities. "Religious belief is coming back to the fore as a motivating force in international relations; in some cases it is distorted to cloak political purposes. The question will arise most obviously in relations between western democracies and some Islamic countries or groups."
Bin Laden's September 11 attacks are mainly to blame for this polarization. But the responses of George Bush have exacerbated this, with his two wars and the failure to tackle the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Two years after the occupation of Afghanistan, US control is patchy. Outside cities, travel is risky, and even within them, life can be dangerous, as the Kandahar bombing demonstrated. The Taliban have regrouped and are returning in strength.
Perhaps the war on Afghanistan was necessary - but the war on Iraq was not. There was no link between Saddam Hussein and Bin Laden. The US is fighting on two fronts, in control of neither country. Much of the resistance in Iraq to the US is from Saddam loyalists or criminal or tribal groups. But the US and British claim there are also elements of al-Qaida.
Instead of the war on Iraq, Bush would have been better, as Blair continually advised him, to deal first with Israel-Palestine. Although the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, last week showed interest in the Geneva accord, the work of the Israeli-Palestinian peace camp, Bush has dropped any pretence of a US that acts as an independent arbitrator in the conflict. He has placed himself alongside Sharon. He has said he supports the creation of a Palestinian state, but shows no desire to use America's political and financial power over Israel to try to bring it about. The resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, however, is the only immediate way of reversing the dangerous polarization. of the world that Bin Laden seeks.
· Ewen MacAskill is the Guardian's diplomatic editor
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003