And now the trouble really begins

Victory? Maybe, but the humanitarian disaster continues. That's why, even in Totnes, protests go on

In the introduction to The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1918, A J P Taylor wrote that the diplomats of the great powers were generally honest by their own standards. He thought for a moment and then inserted a footnote to guide readers through the next 600 pages. "It becomes wearisome to add 'except the Italians' to every generalisation," he sighed. "Henceforth it must be assumed."

All honest comment on the current crisis should have "at the time of writing" at the start of each paragraph. To avoid being wearisome, I will type it once. Thereafter it must be assumed.

At the time of writing, the rest of the world sees Britain and America standing shoulder to shoulder, or lips to posterior, but misses the cultural conflicts over the war on terrorism. Dissent in the form of protest movements, political polarisation or a sceptical press barely exists in the United States; the British political consensus is all but identical. Only one member of Congress and 13 MPs voted against military action. But British public protest has extended from the ghettos of the left into that fuzzy territory of the concerned middle class which no label catches completely.

Meanwhile, after a poor start filled with Tory neo-Stalinist denunciations of "useful idiots", most newspapers, of the right as well as the left, have surprised themselves by providing space for debate. There are many ironies and absurdities in the coalition of doubters; their ideologies are so far apart that it may not make sense to use "coalition". But at least there is public doubt.

Everyone who crosses the Atlantic feels it. Chelsea Clinton, who was in New York when the World Trade Center was attacked, heckles British students at Oxford peace protests and sticks with her compatriots to avoid "anti-American feeling". Other Americans find the freedom from suffocating nationalism liberating. "I've been waiting six weeks to say this," Spede Earle, a left-wing country and western singer from Tennessee (such people exist), told an audience at the Barbican in London. "Bush didn't stop being an idiot on 11 September." Mike Marqusee, the American Marxist cricket writer and commentator (ditto), who is also a founder of the Stop the War movement, returned to his home in London dismayed by the "brutal determination to prove we're top dog" he found in his native New York. The signs in the windows of Manhattan jewellery shops urging passing trade to buy to defeat the Taliban pushed him to his limit.

No one predicted a strong British protest over the war. Although the "special relationship" is the desperate delusion of the political class, Britain is nevertheless closer to America culturally and economically than any other European country. London could just as easily have been the suicide bombers' target, and may yet be one day. The polls here in the aftermath of the destruction showed near-total support for the war. Blair's absolute and apparently genuine identification with America reflected the mood of a nation that holds a two-minute silence for its own dead on Remembrance Sunday but granted three minutes to the Americans.

The secular leftists who might have formed an opposition knew that al-Qaeda would happily kill them. True, the urge to romanticise third-world rebellion is an ineradicable vice of the left wing - witness the joy and undoubted relief that greeted Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, or the airbrushing of Ho Chi Minh's Stalinism in the 1960s. These are harder tricks to pull with Osama Bin Laden, and few tried.

For all that, British support for the war slipped to 60 per cent within a month. The sustained protest has proved more telling than market research, which could mean anything - dislike of Blair gallivanting round the world rather than attending to the NHS, for instance.

The first public meeting was ten days after the attacks at the Friends Meeting House, the venue for just about every left-wing rally in central London. It's a charmless, echoing building overlooking the perpetually jammed Euston Road. Its style can best be described as municipal-pharaonic. The thousands of protests that have been made within its walls - a few of which succeeded, most of which failed - give it an atmosphere of resigned duty. You walk through its doors because you know you must, but expect defeat.

The organisers of the Stop the War Coalition expected to see the usual rows of empty seats. Instead, the crowd was so great that it spilled into all the halls in the building and speakers had to move from room to room to keep the customers satisfied. Demonstrations followed in the most unlikely locations: Bradford-on-Avon, Whitstable, Totnes and Shrewsbury. Mark Seddon, the editor of Tribune, was able to go to three protests in one day - in Norwich, of all places. A national demonstration on 13 October at Hyde Park drew 20,000 according to the police, and 50,000 according to the demonstrators. Ministers were rattled and couldn't understand why so many were so angry.

Different leaders give different reasons for the emergence of the sizeable minority who decry a war waged on a theocratic dictatorship that opposes every worthwhile modern value. Some protesters are at best equivocal in their opposition to the Taliban. The media whores in al-Muhajiroun have not disappointed the media. The encouragement of British Muslims to fight and kill British soldiers is treason in ordinary language, if not in law. Racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic and misogynist, the sect was banned from campuses by the National Union of Students long before its willingness to risk the lives of young men was known.

Politicians and pundits duly denounced "dual loyalty" with the same fervour their predecessors raised against Catholics and Jews. Yet al-Muhajiroun is a tiny organisation; it managed to get only 200 demonstrators on to the streets of Jack Straw's Blackburn constituency.

Most Muslim protesters have had nothing to do with the local al-Qaeda fan club, and preferred to join CND, the leftists and the Christians. They have entered a current in the British mainstream. But because the current is ignored by official society, they have received no credit for moving from separatism and sectarianism.

Chelsea Clinton had a case when she complained that the movement they helped create was inspired by "anti-Americanism", although she forgot to add that there was much about America to oppose. Bruce Kent, the former chairman of CND, said he believed the main reason for opposition was "the astonishing hypocrisy" of an America that has sponsored terrorist regimes and movements leading a war against terrorism. Such views leave him open to the charge of relativism and changing the subject from the atrocities in Washington and New York. The criticism has its strengths, but can, I think, be made in good faith only by those who opposed American-inspired massacres in the past and will do so again.

Seddon and Marqusee cite the spectacle of the world's richest country bombing the world's poorest. "What has really got people going," said Seddon, "are the cluster bombs and daisy-cutters." Again, as critics of the critics have pointed out, this objection can be dismissed with ease. For all its wayward missiles, the US air force has not targeted civilians. The Washington Post, which once had a reputation worth losing, urged the air force to level cities. The military ignored the incitement to commit war crimes and tried to confine itself to military targets.

With the Taliban on a run that could turn into a rout, the anti-war movement can be, and I'm sure it will be, portrayed as being as wrong about Afghanistan as it was about Kosovo. There is one significant difference, however, which supporters of the war have overlooked with disgraceful casuistry. On 16 October, Christian Aid, Oxfam and others called for a pause in the bombing. If the air campaign did not stop, millions of Afghans on the edge of starvation would not be supplied before snow closed the mountain passes.

No one has been able to accuse the charities of being knee-jerk pacifists, because they begged Nato to intervene in former Yugoslavia. Their policy reversal puts at its starkest the contrast between the wars against Slobodan Milosevic and the war against the Taliban. The bombing of Kosovo was ordered to prevent a humanitarian disaster: the bombing of Afghanistan has created one.

No good reason has been given for not pausing for the month or so it would have taken to allow aid in. American firepower could have destroyed the Taliban at any time. Why not wait until agreement had been reached on an alternative government? The absence of a tribal coalition is, after all, now the greatest problem facing America and its allies, particularly Pakistan. The only conceivable excuse for fighting on was that a pause would look bad on the networks. The world did not change that much on 11 September: style still trumped substance. Those who shouted loudest that no equivocation about the innocent dead of New York was tolerable merrily went on to put PR before a preventable famine in Afghanistan.

Of all the doubting voices in Britain, the charities have had the most effect, not least because they dealt in demonstrable fact rather than Mystic Meggery about hydra-headed armies of Bin Ladens emerging from the rubble.

Tony Blair, but not, unfortunately, George Bush, felt the pressure and responded to the fall of Taliban cities by saying that food must be moved in at once.

The sentiment did the Prime Minister credit, but he may prove a tad late. In Islamabad, the aid workers are playing consequences. If the Taliban are finished, will the fighting stop? Or will there be an ethnic civil war? Or will the Pakistani army and intelligence service revive their "stab-in-the-back" paranoia and respond to the "loss of Afghanistan" by invading?

One brutal fact is that famine is best relieved when there is a stable admini- stration of any kind, even when that administration is as deranged as the Taliban; a second is the weather in central Asia. The cut-off date for getting supplies into the Afghanistan uplands is usually 15 November. About two million people are trapped in the central highlands; 400,000 are already on the edge of starvation. At the time of writing, desperate efforts were being made to clear snow a metre deep from the passes into the highlands.

Nick Cohen is an author, columnist and signatory of the Euston Manifesto. As well as writing for the New Statesman he contributes to the Observer and other publications including the New Humanist. His books include Pretty Straight Guys – a history of Britain under Tony Blair.

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