Ladies and Gentlemen!

In the red corner: the world's sole superpower with the most powerful military arsenal in human history. In the green corner: a bunch of semiliterate bearded guys with AK-47s and rocket propelled grenades. It should be a no-contest, right? Wrong. I'm not saying the bearded guys are winning, but they are the ones upping the ante. I know a lot of you must be thinking it's easy to be an armchair critic when you're not the one out there facing the bullets. I agree - except that I'm not criticizing. Just trying to understand what's going on. Neither am I passing any moral judgment. In a war, the distinctions between right and wrong get blurred very rapidly. One side believes it is fighting to save the world for democracy; the other that some divine power is directing its actions. Wars have always sought justification of some sort: but, in the final analysis, it is just people killing other people. So what is going on in Afghanistan? The US and NATO military forces have been swatting the Taliban like bothersome flies for five years now; but they keep swarming around. They even seem to be breeding. There are a lot more of them now than there were two years ago. They are like the proverbial serpent. You keep cutting off its tail and it keeps growing back. And therein lies the problem. I'm sure the US is smart enough to realize that if they want to permanently eliminate the Taliban monster, they have to decapitate it. Trouble is, they can't get at the head. It resides in the home of that noble US ally, Pakistan. All the monster needs to do is flick out its forked tongue devour some of the infidel and any Afghans who happen to be in the way and safely withdraw it. The good general in Pakistan, who, not so long ago, embarked on a charm offensive in America (mainly to promote probably the most megalomaniacal tripe Simon & Schuster has ever published), has the USA by the unmentionables and he knows it. Sure, everybody knows his country is the fountainhead of terrorism, but Mush is indispensable in the fight against Al Qaeda - or so he says. For a general who boasts that he is in total control of his country, it seems strange that he cannot find OBL, who has been hiding in plain sight for the past five years. Sure, he rounds up his sidekicks from time to time, but his motives are hardly altruistic. He reportedly receives a substantial bounty for each head delivered. As for the Taliban, let us not forget they are Pakistan's creation. Pakistan has nurtured them, armed them, and then let them loose. They are the general's trump card. They unsure that old-enemy India don't get a foothold in Afghanistan; they keep that pesky Hamid Karzai, across the border, from getting ahead of himself. They make sure Mush remains "indispensable" to Bush. So why isn't the US military getting it right? In theory, the Taliban are a much easier target than the insurgents in Iraq. They don't hide themselves among the civilian population. Afghanistan has vast, sparsely populated mountainous tracts and deserts. The US could bomb the crap out of them, without incurring too much collateral damage. So why are they stronger now than they've been in the recent past? One reason could be that the Americans are conducting conventional warfare against an unconventional enemy. Might is not necessarily right in this case. The usual scenario goes something like this. A US convoy or platoon is ambushed by the bad guys. The Americans get mad as hell and go after them with guns blazing. Usually, it's a case of overkill. It has been estimated that US forces, on an average, expend 300 bullets and a hundred pounds of bombs on a single enemy combatant - and most of them have already slipped back to their sanctuary in Pakistan anyway. Ideally, The US should have commando teams, which can pursue the nasties all the way back to their hideouts - and then eliminate them. However, they would need to

cross the border for that - and that would offend Musharraf's delicate sensibilities. And so the stalemate continues. It has been recently reported that, immediately after 9/11, the general was given a "you're either with us or against us" ultimatum. Maybe, it's time he got another one. Then there is this "winning hearts and minds" business. Admittedly, the Americans are doing a lot better in this department in Afghanistan than in Iraq, but some of the locals still appear to be pissed off. Why? Ignoble as it seems, sometimes doing the "right thing" needs to take a back seat to political expediency. The main grouse of the locals against the Americans and NATO is that they are pressurizing the Karzai government to destroy their poppy fields. Sure, opium is bad: it gets converted into drugs that ruins American lives and so on. No argument there. But look at it from the Afghan farmer's point of view: (a) he has been cultivating poppies for centuries and (b) it fetches him a damn good income. If someone asks him to destroy his means of livelihood and reduces him to penury, do you think he's going to be pleased about it? What do you expect him to do? There aren't a whole lot of employment opportunities in Afghanistan at the moment. The basic dilemma of the Bush administration is that it trying to take the high ground and wage war at the same time. There is nothing moral about war. It's a dirty business. Bush can either worry about public opinion and ratings (they are going South anyway) or he can allow his military to finish the job. He cannot have it both ways.