For three years we've been fighting the wrong war

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For the past three years the world has been at war. It is a war that was declared by 19 mostly Saudi Arabian nihilists as they flew hijacked aircraft into their symbolic American targets. That declaration was foolishly accepted at face value by George W Bush, who responded by declaring "war on terror".

For the past three years the world has been at war. It is a war that was declared by 19 mostly Saudi Arabian nihilists as they flew hijacked aircraft into their symbolic American targets. That declaration was foolishly accepted at face value by George W Bush, who responded by declaring "war on terror".

Since then, two wars have been fought simultaneously. First, there is the common effort of governments around the world to minimise the threat to their peoples from various groups of terrorists, using war as a metaphor for their determination. Then there is the political war, an effort by the US to project its power around the globe and crush an abstract noun - terrorism - by force. This war, which resembles a crusade, has been understood by too many Americans to mean a clash of civilisations, in which Saddam and Muslims in general are assumed to have been responsible for 9/11.

The second war has been profoundly damaging to the first and, as a result, both are being lost. On this third anniversary of the day the world changed, we need to accept that the clock cannot be turned back. Yet it is worth asking: "What if?" We should try to learn from the mistakes that have been made.

What if a wiser US leader had used the unprecedented unity of global purpose after 9/11 to constructive ends? What if the worldwide coalition, including most Arab and Muslim nations, had been drawn into dialogue instead of being alienated by the early decision, come what may, to go to war in Iraq? What if our leaders' attention had not moved on from Afghanistan? What if economic pressure had been brought to bear on Israel to withdraw from the Gaza Strip as a prelude to starting to pull out of the West Bank?

In each case, different choices could have been made. The Russians have choices in the way they respond to the horror of Beslan. The Australians and Indonesians have choices in how they deal with Jemaah Islamiah. The whole world still has choices in how it meets the continuing threat from al-Qa'ida. As we report today, as many as 70,000 people may have been through al-Qa'ida camps. Most of them will have decided that Osama bin Laden's apocalyptic cult is not for them, but rooting out a perverted religious ideology requires more than simply dismantling al-Qa'ida's "infrastructure" in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Responding to terrorist atrocities with indiscriminate force is counter-productive, a truth of which Iraq is the classic demonstration. Mr Blair says that the anti-Western terrorists pouring into Iraq make his case because they understand, "sometimes better than we do", what is at stake. Unfortunately for him, Iraq is not a seminar on the virtues of democracy; it is a dangerous and unstable country slipping into civil war.

In the wider struggle against the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, the war in Iraq has also been not simply a distraction but counter-productive. As we try to anticipate the threats from Iran and North Korea, the lesson they are likely to take from Iraq is that America strikes at those who do not possess weapons of mass destruction.

John Kerry understands that America has been fighting the wrong war for the past three years. Mr Blair probably understands it too, but has chained himself to Mr Bush in public ever since promising to stand "shoulder to shoulder with our American friends". But unless Mr Bush loses the election in November, the prospect of breaking the cycle of meeting misdirected violence with misdirected violence remains bleak.

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