It must now be obvious, even to those who would like us to think otherwise, that the war on terror is failing. This is not to say that the terrorists are winning. Their prospects of constructing the medieval pan-Islamic caliphate of their fantasies are as negligible today as they were four years ago when they attacked America. It is simply to point out that their ability to bring violence and destruction to our streets is as strong as ever and shows no sign of diminishing. We may capture the perpetrators of Thursday's bombings, but others will follow to take their place. Moreover, the actions of our leaders have made this more likely, not less. It's time for a rethink.
The very idea of a war on terror was profoundly misconceived from the start. Rooted in traditional strategic thought, with its need for fixed targets and an identifiable enemy, the post-9/11 response focused myopically on the problem of how and where to apply military power. Once the obvious and necessary task of tackling Bin Laden's presence in Afghanistan had been completed, those charged with prosecuting the war needed a new target to aim at.
In his book Against All Enemies, the former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke chronicles the inability of senior administration officials to grasp the nature of the threat directed against them. Even before 9/11 they were fixated with the notion that behind a successful terrorist network like al-Qaida must be state sponsorship; destroy the state, destroy the threat, ran the theory. In this environment it was easy for the neoconservatives to win approval for their prefabricated plan to attack Iraq.
But al-Qaida has never depended on state sponsorship, except in the wholly unintended sense that the US-funded campaign against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan brought its members together and gave them their first taste of jihad. Indeed it is a mistake even to regard al-Qaida as an organization in the traditional sense of the term. At most it is now little more than an idea, fusing ideology with operational method, both of which can be accessed freely via the internet. It is quite meaningless to talk about destroying the "terrorist infrastructure", unless we propose to carpet bomb Microsoft. We have entered the era of do-it-yourself terrorism.
Bin Laden must be brought to justice, but he has become a strategic irrelevance in the struggle against terrorism. Wherever he is - on the run in the badlands of Waziristan or holed up in someone's cellar - he is not directing operations. He doesn't need to. He has provided the inspiration and example for a new generation of terrorists who have never been to his training camps in Afghanistan and whose only connection to al-Qaida is a shared desire to lash out at the west.
It should be clear by now that we cannot defeat this threat with conventional force alone, however necessary that may be in specific circumstances. Even good policing, as we have found to our cost, will have only limited effect in reducing its capacity to harm. The opposite response - negotiation - is equally futile. How can you negotiate with a phenomenon that is so elusive and diffuse? And even if you could, what prospect would there be of reaching a reasonable settlement? The term "Islamofascism" may be a crude political device, but those who coined it are right to see in Bin Ladenism a classic totalitarian doctrine that accepts no limits in method or aim. What they want, we cannot give.
An effective strategy can be developed, but it means turning our attention away from the terrorists and on to the conditions that allow them to recruit and operate. No sustained insurgency can exist in a vacuum. At a minimum, it requires communities where the environment is permissive enough for insurgents to blend in and organize without fear of betrayal. This does not mean that most members of those communities approve of what they are doing. It is enough that there should be a degree of alienation sufficient to create a presumption against cooperating with the authorities. We saw this in Northern Ireland.
From this point of view, it must be said that everything that has followed the fall of Kabul has been ruinous to the task of winning over moderate Muslim opinion and isolating the terrorists within their own communities. In Iraq we allowed America to rip up the rule book of counter-insurgency with a military adventure that was dishonestly conceived and incompetently executed. Tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis have been killed by US troops uninterested in distinguishing between combatant and noncombatant, or even counting the dead. The hostility engendered has been so extreme that the CIA has been forced to conclude that Iraq may become a worse breeding ground for international terrorism that Afghanistan was. Bin Laden can hardly believe his luck.
The political dimensions of this problem mean that there can be no hope of defeating terrorism until we are ready to take legitimate Arab grievances seriously. We must start by acknowledging that their long history of engagement with the west is one that has left many Arabs feeling humiliated and used. There is more to this than finding a way of bringing the occupation of Iraq to an end. We cannot seriously claim to care for the rights of Arabs living in Iraq when it is obvious that we care so little for Arabs living in Palestine. The Palestinians need a viable state, but all the indications suggest that the Bush administration is preparing to bounce the Palestinians into accepting a truncated entity that will lack the basic characteristics of either viability or statehood. That must not be allowed to succeed.
At its inception post-9/11, the war on terror was shaped by the fact that it was American blood that had been shed. This gave President Bush the moral authority to tell the world "you're either with us or against us". Having stood with America, and paid a terrible price for doing so, it is now time to turn that demand back on Bush. We have a vital national interest in defeating terrorism and we must have a greater say in how that is done. The current approach is failing and it's time for a change. If Tony Blair cannot bring himself to say this, he owes it to his country to make way for someone who can.
David Clark is a former Labour government adviser.
© 2005 Guardian Newspapers, Ltd.