Bin Laden is still winning

Prediction is a dangerous business, and never more so than in war, where the protagonists naturally wish to keep their true strength and their true intentions secret. The cover of the current issue of Time magazine celebrates the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif, but adds that "winning Kabul will be even tougher". Within hours of publication, the Northern Alliance had taken the capital. The early editions of Wednesday morning's British papers pontificated about the difficulties of prising the Taliban out of their Kandahar stronghold; by the morning, there were reports of anti-Taliban uprisings in the city.

In these circumstances, critics of the war should keep their eyes on the basics. It is unlikely that Osama Bin Laden will shortly emerge from a cave, hands held high in surrender, saying anything like "it's a fair cop". But suppose that, by the time you read this, Bin Laden, in handcuffs and chains, is on his way to a murder trial in the US. Do all the arguments against the war, as prosecuted over the past two months, then fall? They do not. Western leaders have insisted from the beginning that we should see things in the long term, that the aim is a decisive defeat for terrorism in all its forms. But the long view should stretch backwards as well as forwards, as it surely will in the history books.

Think back a decade ago, to the Gulf war. A few lonely critics insisted then that a purely Arab army should have been raised and equipped to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, that US intervention would end in disaster. When US forces, under UN auspices, won the war, while Cairo, Damascus and other Arab capitals remained calm, the critics looked to be completely and embarrassingly wrong. Yet it was the presence of infidel troops on the holy soil of Saudi Arabia that led to the foundation of Bin Laden's terrorist network. US sanctions and bombing against Iraq, and the advent of permanent US bases in Saudi Arabia, further strengthened the terrorists' determination and support. Take that long view, and the Gulf war critics look to have been at least partly right after all.

Thus, even an American capture of Bin Laden will not signify victory. Already, a man who was largely unknown before 11 September has become an iconic figure, his beard, his headgear, his raised finger and his staring eyes as ubiquitous as those of Ayatollah Khomeini before the Iranian revolution in 1979. Perhaps this was inevitable, given the modern media's appetite for personalising issues; but it is certainly what Bin Laden would have hoped for. And whether the Americans kill or imprison him, the terrorist leader will become the focus of more grievance and more extremes of violence in the Arab world. Those who see themselves as freedom fighters, and particularly those with an ideology based on religion, thrive on the creation of martyrs, as Ireland has shown.

None of this implies that the US should not have tried to bring Bin Laden to justice. But to do so by declaring war, pouring more troops into Muslim countries and bombing one of the world's poorest countries - even if it leads to short-term success and to the destruction of this particular terrorist network - will simply store up trouble for the future. The lack of outrage among western governments about the summary executions of Taliban fighters further highlights what many people in developing countries see as double standards.

The war on terrorism will not be won until Arab grievances in particular, and third world grievances in general, are addressed. Few western leaders seem to grasp the extent of those grievances, most of which pose no immediate threat to New York or London, but are no less urgent for that. At the World Trade Organisation talks in Doha, Europe and the US continued refusing to apply their own belief in free markets to the exports of food and clothing from developing countries (see Robert Peston, page 31). Although the US shows signs of restraining Israeli aggression against Palestinians, its stance has all the hallmarks of a temporary expedient, to be abandoned as soon as Bin Laden is smoked out of his lair. The US continues to believe that it should dominate Latin America in its own domestic interests, through financing favoured candidates in elections, as in Nicaragua, or economic sanctions against non-market regimes, as in Cuba, or support for the military suppression of insurgents, as in Colombia.

Above all, the US fails to confront the absurdity at the heart of its foreign policy. Why does it need to stomp around the Middle East, maintaining military bases and propping up corrupt regimes, at all? Purely in order to protect its supplies of oil, which allow it to continue emitting nearly a quarter of the carbon dioxide emissions that threaten to wreck the planetary climate. While the whole world implores America to sign up to Kyoto, America implores the world to help it protect the means by which it flouts the treaty. This is the true madness of our age. If the US dedicated itself to developing new sources of energy (or even to developing a more low-energy lifestyle) with a fraction of the purpose, ingenuity and money that it expends to defeat the Taliban, it could leave the Middle East to sort itself out, without provoking any more lunatics to fly aeroplanes into buildings.

For the time being, then, terrorism is winning the war, regardless of what happens in Afghanistan. What were all those fine words about protecting freedom and democracy? In the US, the Bill of Rights has been suspended to allow the FBI to eavesdrop on client-lawyer conversations (see Andrew Stephen, page 11). Here in Britain, a country that has not been attacked or even explicitly threatened with an attack, ministers want to introduce internment and other gratuitous restrictions on civil liberties, a policy that failed in Northern Ireland and will fail here. If British Muslims rise to protect a terrorist suspect from arrest (believing, as they may reasonably do, that the intelligence services have it wrong and the man is innocent), will David Blunkett send troops in to Bradford or Blackburn? The prospect shows that, even as he dies in a blaze of American guns, Bin Laden could still be the victor.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, And now the trouble really begins