Inching our way into another quagmire in Afghanistan

October 31, 2001|By Maureen Dowd

WASHINGTON -- As Rudyard Kipling's Kim reports back to his British spymasters, from the mountainous moonscape of Afghanistan, "Certain things are not known to those who eat with forks."

After six weeks of a war at home and a war in Asia, we now understand what we do not understand.

The terrorists and Taliban have the psychological edge on three fronts: military, propaganda and bioterror.

George W. Bush was brought up to believe in Marquess of Queensberry rules. Now he is competing against combatants with Genghis of Khan rules, who hide among women and children in mosques and school dormitories, and who don't need an executive order to betray and murder.

Polo at Yale is a bit different than the Afghan version, bushkazi, a violent free-for-all with no rules in which galloping horsemen try to throw a headless goat's carcass over a goal.

President Bush has been lured through the high-altitude maze to the minotaur's lair, or as it's known in the novel Flashman, "the catastrophe of Afghanistan."

Now, like the British and Russians before him, he is facing the most brutish, corrupt, wily and patient warriors in the world, nicknamed dukhi, or ghosts, by flayed Russian soldiers who saw them melt away.

After one of the worst weeks in the capital's history last week, filled with federal confusion and deadly missteps, the question was suspended like a spore in the autumn air: Are we quagmiring ourselves again?

"Yes, it may be a quagmire," President Musharraf of Pakistan said to Peter Jennings. (Now he tells us.)

Was George Bush willing to replay the Great Game with the most sordid rules? Could the team reunited from Desert Storm, a video game triumph, fight this invisible war ruthlessly, but also with guile, the dagger sliding between the ribs?

Washington has gone to war many times, but not since Bull Run has war come to Washington. Just as the injured and dying Union troops streamed into the capital after Civil War contests, there were funerals last week of public servants felled in anthrax attacks, filled with colleagues fuming over second-class treatment.

With the Supreme Court closed for the first time since 1935, parts of Congress shuttered, the CIA and the State Department mail facilities shut down and new spores floating in government corridors every day, we can't seem to catch up to the terrorists. "It's hard to get your arms around something that's constantly moving," conceded a Bush official.

Tom Ridge, tangled in the bureaucracy, was getting tossed off by the FBI. "The FBI operates; they do not cooperate," said one Ridge ally.

The military was bogged down in questions of nation-building, Ramadan, winter, humanitarian concerns, serial bombings of the Red Cross and whether America could win a congeniality contest with Muslims.

Just as terrorists, American or foreign, cunningly used our own planes and mailboxes against us, so they used our own morality against us. We were stumbling over scruples against a foe with no scruples.

The Brits were blunt, saying we'd need serious ground troops to flush out "UBL," as Rummy calls him, or the Evil One Who Hides, as Mr. Bush says.

The Northern Alliance was looking ever more feckless, even mocking the American air strikes to a reporter, saying the gazillion-dollar bombs had had no impact on Taliban troops, except to embolden them.

The southern alliance was stillborn, after rebel commander Abdul Haq was hung, shot and/or hacked to death by the Taliban after his CIA and Pentagon pals failed to protect him as he tried to recruit anti-Taliban forces.

With Muslims, the media-savvy troglodytes in a cave were still outspinning Ari Fleischer at a podium.

And even as Rear Adm. Stufflebeem denied we were getting bogged down over there -- always a sure sign we're getting bogged down over there -- the Pentagon issued a disconcerting plea. "Pentagon Seeks Ideas on Combating Terrorism," read the press release, saying the U.S. "specifically needs help in combating terrorism ... conducting protracted operations in remote areas, and developing countermeasures to weapons of mass destruction," and soliciting ideas from any Tom, Dick & Goofball for possible defense contracts.

Six weeks into the war on terrorism, and they're putting out a suggestion box!

Maureen Dowd is a columnist for the New York Times.

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