Ted Rall

What a Real Passenger Bill of Rights Should Look Like

The violent ejection of a United Airlines passenger from a flight bound from Chicago to Louisville appears to have marked a long-awaited turning point. Dr. David Dao, 69, suffered a broken nose, lost two teeth and faces reconstructive sinus surgery. At last, America’s long-suffering flying public is crying as one, have you commercial airlines no shame?

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Get Over It: Mass Shootings Are the New Normal in America

What is wrong with Americans?

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In the Old Days, When the Los Angeles Times Stood Up For Cartoonists

Nearly three weeks ago, the Los Angeles Times fired me as its editorial cartoonist at the request of powerful local interests. That request came from the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), which provided a 14-year-old audiotape to make their case that I ought to be dismissed for lying about the circumstances of my 2001 arrest for jaywalking.

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As the Country Falls Apart, It's Time for Our Revolution

The following is an excerpt from Ted Rall's book, The Anti-American Manifesto (Seven Stories, 2010).

You can feel it. Or maybe you can't.

It doesn't matter whether you feel it or not. It's happening. The story of the United States of America as we know it -- not merely as the world's dominant superpower, but as a discrete political, economic, and geographic entity -- is drawing to a close due to a convergence of emerging economic, environmental, and political crises.

Nothing lasts forever, empires least of all. And this one, which only began to expand in earnest circa the year 1900, doesn't feel like it has the staying power of ancient Rome.

Not at all.

But we're not here to talk about the vague possibility of collapse at some point in the future. We are here -- in this book and within this historical moment -- because the collapse feels as though it is currently in progress.

We are here because the U.S. is going to end soon. There's going to be an intense, violent, probably haphazard struggle for control. It's going to come down to us versus them. The question is: What are you going to do about it?

Definitions:

Us: Hard-working, underpaid, put upon, thoughtful, freedom-loving, disenfranchised, ordinary people

Them: Reactionary, stupid, overpaid, greedy, shortsighted, exploitative, power-mad, abusive politicians and corporate executives

In 2008, like the people of the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s, we put our hopes into a young new leader. He is the kind of fresh-faced reformer who just might have been able to do some good had he been put into power decades ago. "Black Man Given Nation's Worst Job," read the headline in the satirical weekly newspaper the Onion after Barack Obama won. He has failed. It is by design that internal reformers like Mikhail Gorbachev and

Obama inevitably come too late to actually accomplish anything. Even if a leader like Obama were inclined to push for the sweeping reforms that might save American late-stage capitalism from itself, as did Franklin D. Roosevelt -- and there is no evidence that the thought has crossed Obama's mind -- his fellow powerbrokers, fixated on quarterly profit statements and personal position, would never allow it.

The media talks a lot about reform. But it's too late for nips and tucks. Reform can only fix a system if the system is viable and open to change. Neither is true about the United States of America.

A veneer of normalcy slapped -- sloppily slapped -- on top of a stinking pile of obviously out-of-control unsustainability can no longer disguise the ugly truth: The United States of America is finished. Shopkeepers still take our dollars, foreigners still fear our bombs, but watching the crazy federal deficits, the wildly expanding international military presence, the putrid joke that is our healthcare/education/employment system, and a natural world in free fall (mainly due to the crap pumped into the air and water by the people and corporations of the United States) makes the debate over whether Democrats are better than Republicans feel surreal.

Government exists to serve economic power. In the U.S. and globally, economic power is concentrated in business, namely the large corporations whose profits account for more than ten percent of the nation's gross domestic product. Corporations can't operate without the government. They are codependent, yet independent of and barely responsive to the nation. A nation goes on with or without its government, with or without the big businesses we take for granted.We are not the government that serves those companies. They are parasites, vampires, hideous monsters that underpay and overcharge us and get fat on the spread. Who are we then?

We are their victims. We are weak and pathetic. But only by choice.

We can wait for the system to collapse of its own accord, for the rage of the downtrodden and dispossessed to build, for chaos of some sort to expose and destroy it. But implosion might take a long time. And when it happens, we may find ourselves even more powerless than we are now. They -- the hardcore, racist, undereducated, fundamentalist Christian, anti-civil liberties Right -- are preparing to step into the breach, to seize power. They can't wait to unleash their venomous hatred on the city-dwelling commie hipster fags they despise. They are armed. They recognize that the system is doomed. They've seen this coming. They're organized and willing to merge their disparate brands of conservatism under a common
leadership. Most importantly, they get it. They don't need to be convinced that everything is in play. They're putting it in play.

Christian fundamentalists, the millennial end-of-the-worlders obsessed with the Left Behind series about the End Times, neo-Nazi racists, rural black-helicopter Michigan Militia types cut from the same inbred cloth as Timothy McVeigh, allied with "mainstream" gun nuts and right-wing Republicans, have been planning, preparing, and praying for the destruction of the "Godless," "secular" United States for decades. In the past, they formed groups like the John Birch Society and the Aryan Nations. Now the hard Right has a postmodern, decentralized non-organization organization called the Tea Party.

Right-wing organizational names change, but they amount to the same thing: the reactionary sociopolitical force -- the sole force -- poised to fill the vacuum when collapse occurs. The scenario outlined by Margaret Atwood's prescient novel The Handmaid's Tale -- rednecks in the trenches, hard military men running things, minorities and liberals taken away and massacred, setting the stage for an even more extreme form of laissez-faire corporate capitalism than we're suffering under today -- is a fair guess of how a post-U.S. scenario will play out unless we prepare to turn it in another direction.

Although the U.S. has fascist tendencies, it is unlikely that an ascendant American right would embrace fascism in its classic form. But a post-collapse reactionary government would likely have some attributes of fascism. Robert Paxton, who was my history professor at Columbia and is widely regarded as the nation's leading expert on the field, wrote the book on the subject (The Anatomy of Fascism). As Professor Paxton told me in 1991, the United States is the nation that is the most likely to go fascist, the one that has the most of the necessary ingredients -- including distrust of parliamentary democracy, extreme militarism, and a highly industrialized society -- required for a true fascist state. As things stand, there will be no one to prevent this nightmare.

So this book is a call to arms. And an appeal to self-preservation to those who know we can do better.

If Not Now, When?

A war is coming. At stake: our lives, the planet, freedom, living. The government, the corporations, and the extreme right are prepared to coalesce into an Axis of Evil. Are you going to fight back? Will you do whatever it takes, including taking up arms?

History does not really repeat itself. No two historical moments are ever the same. The circumstances that govern a given street corner in Pittsburgh at 8:00 p.m. on December 9, 2011, will never recur.

Yet the motivations and needs of human beings remain constant. There are always parallels with the past, lessons to be learned, bits and pieces that will apply to present and future circumstances. There are even a few eternal truths.

Thinking about the present situation, the historical analogy that best seems to fit the current crisis is the collapse -- to be exact, the period shortly before the collapse -- of the Soviet Union. The parallels are instructive and scary:

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You Know Your Country Sucks When You Look Wistfully Back at Stalin

You can tell a lot about the state of a country by comparing the state of its public and private infrastructure.

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At Some Point, Progressives Need to Break Up With the Democratic Party

At a certain point, if you have any relationship with dignity, you're supposed to get sick of being used and abused. Speaking of which: liberal Democrats.

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Isn't It Time We Talk About the Skyrocketing Suicide Epidemic?

As I waited for the body of a man who jumped in front of my train to be cleared from the tracks — less than a week before another train I was riding struck a suicide victim — it occurred to me that (a) I should check whether suicide rates are increasing due to the bad economy (they are, especially among men in their 50s), and that (b) talking about suicide is long overdue.

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The Fictional War On Terrorism

We have killed thousands of Muslims and taken over two of their countries. We're spending billions of dollars to make it easier for our government to spy on us. But we haven't caught bin Laden, al-Qaeda is doing better than ever, and airport security is still a sick joke. So when are Americans going to demand a real war on terrorism?

Recent suicide bombings in Riyadh and Casablanca proved with bloody eloquence that al-Qaeda and similar extremist groups are anything but "on the run," as George W. Bush puts it. Bush's tactics are a 100 percent failure, yet his band of clueless Christian soldiers continues to go after mosquitoes with shotguns. "So far," Bush furiously spun after the latest round of attacks, "nearly one-half of al-Qaeda's senior operatives have been captured or killed," and he promised to "remain on the hunt until they are all brought to justice."

Can Bush really be this stupid? All underground organizations, including al-Qaeda, employ a loose hierarchical structure. No individual member is indispensable, so the capture of even a high-ranking official cannot compromise the group. Each lost member is instantly replaced by the next man down in his cell. It doesn't matter whether we catch half, three-quarters or all of al-Qaeda's leadership -- hunting down individual terrorists is an expensive and pointless game of whack-a-mole. Only Allah knows how many eager recruits have sprung up, hydra-like, to fill Khalid Sheikh Mohammad's flip-flops.

Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bob Graham caught heat for calling the war on Iraq "a distraction" from the war on terrorism, but he was far too kind. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have replaced a real war on terrorism, and they've vastly increased the likelihood of future 9/11's. Bombing Afghanistan scattered bin Laden, his lieutenants and their foot soldiers everywhere from Chechnya to Sudan to China's Xinjiang province; fleeing Talibs spread new anti-American seed cells while the Taliban and other radical groups retain their pre-9/11 Pakistani headquarters. With radical Shiite clerics like the Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim poised to fill the post-Saddam power vacuum, Iraq could become a Shia version of Taliban-era Afghanistan: an anarchic collection of fiefdoms run by extremist warlords happy to host training camps for terrorist organizations.

"We're much safer," Tom Ridge claims. If this is safety, give me danger. Taking over Iraq and Afghanistan didn't score us any new fans among Muslims. We could have won them over with carefully crafted occupations, but chose instead to allow the two states to disintegrate into chaos and civil war.

Rarely have incompetence and cheapness been wed with such impressively disastrous results. In Afghanistan, we paid off warlords we should have bombed. Puppet president Hamid Karzai is threatening to abdicate his Kabul city-state because "there is no money in the government treasury." One of Karzai's ministers warns The New York Times: "Very soon we will see armed conflict."

As USA Today reported on May 7, "Iraqis say they view the U.S. military with suspicion, anger and frustration. Many even say life was in some ways better under the regime of Saddam Hussein: the streets, they say, were safter, jobs more secure, food more plentiful and electricity and water supplies reliable."

"Governance is a long-term process," says Bush Administration reconstruction official Chris Milligan, but that's just another lame excuse. The truth is that we haven't even tried to restore law and order, much less govern. The Pentagon plans to leave just two divisions -- 30,000 men -- to patrol Iraq. That's significantly fewer than the 50,000 peacekeeping troops NATO stationed in Kosovo -- a nation less than one-fifth the size of Iraq. 95 percent of Afghanistan has no peacekeepers whatsoever, with fewer than 8,000 in Kabul.

We're sleeping soundly -- do you think Scott Peterson really did it? -- but the guys who hate us so much they're willing to die to make their point are industriously exploiting our stupidity to sign up new jihadis. "Since the United States invaded Iraq in March," the Times quoted top Administration honchos on May 16, "the [al-Qaeda] network has experienced a spike in recruitment. 'There is an increase in radical fundamentalism all over the world,' said a senior counterterrorism official based in Europe."

Ariel Sharon offers living proof that hard-ass tactics strengthen, rather than weaken terrorist groups. Each time Israel assassinates a Palestinian leader or demolishes an Arab home, moderates angered by those actions become radicalized. Israelis and Palestinians have suffered through this endless attack-retaliation-attack cycle for decades. Surely we can learn from their pain.

It's still early in this game. Shut down the bloated and pointless Homeland Security bureaucracy -- since it doesn't include the CIA and FBI, it didn't stop interagency squabbling -- and apply the money we'll save into a fully funded rebuilding of Iraq and Afghanistan. Stop squandering money and our civil rights on boneheaded data-mining schemes like Total Information Awareness (now renamed Terrorism Information Awareness), and recruit some old-fashioned spies to infiltrate extremist groups. Charge the Guantánamo detainees with a crime or send them home; their legal limbo is an international embarrassment. Stop fingerprinting Muslim tourists -- it's insulting and does nothing to prevent terrorists from entering the country. Quit supporting brutal anti-American military dictators like Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf, whose oppressed subjects rightly blame us for their misery.

"The only way to deal with [terrorists] is to bring them to justice," Bush says. "You can't talk to them, you can't negotiate with them, you must find them." He couldn't be more mistaken. We'll never find them all. And while we shouldn't negotiate with those who call us the Great Satan, we must talk to the millions of Muslims who watch the news every night. Their donations keep al-Qaeda going. If we want them to stop financing the terrorists, we'd better stop acting like a Great Satan.

Ted Rall is the author of "Gas War: The Truth Behind the American Occupation of Afghanistan," an analysis of the underreported Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline project and the real motivations behind the war on terrorism.

How We Lost the Victory

NEW YORK -- We wanted it to be true. It wasn't.

The stirring image of Saddam's statue being toppled on April 9th turns out to be fake, the product of a cheesy media op staged by the U.S. military for the benefit of cameramen staying across the street at Baghdad's Palestine Hotel. This shouldn't be a big surprise. Two of the most stirring photographs of World War II -- the flag raising at Iwo Jima and General MacArthur's stroll through the Filipino surf -- were just as phony.

Anyone who has seen a TV taping knows that tight camera angles exaggerate crowd sizes, but even a cursory examination of last week's statue-toppling propaganda tape reveals that no more than 150 Iraqis gathered in Farbus Square to watch American Marines -- not Iraqis -- pull down the dictator's statue. Hailing "all the demonstrations in the streets," Defense Secretary Rumsfeld waxed rhapsodically: "Watching them," he told reporters, "one cannot help but think of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain."

Hundreds of thousands of cheering Berliners filled the streets when their divided city was reunited in 1989. Close to a million Yugoslavs crowded Belgrade at the end of Slobodan Milosevic's rule in 2000. While some individual Iraqis have welcomed U.S. troops, there haven't been similar outpourings of approval for our "liberation." Most of the crowds are too busy carrying off Uday's sofas to say thanks, and law-abiding citizens are at home putting out fires or fending off their rapacious neighbors with AK-47s. Yet Americans wanted to see their troops greeted as liberators, so that's what they saw on TV. Perhaps Francis Fukuyama was correct -- if it only takes 150 happy looters to make history, maybe history is over.

Actually, they were 150 imported art critics. The statue bashers were militiamen of the Iraqi National Congress, an anti-Saddam outfit led by one Ahmed Chalabi. The INC was flown into Iraq by the Pentagon over CIA and State Department protests. Chalabi is Rumsfeld's choice to become Iraq's next puppet president.

Photos at the indispensable Information Clearing House website place one of Chalabi's aides at the supposedly spontaneous outpouring of pro-American Saddam bashing at Firdus Square.

"When you are moving through this country there is [sic] not a lot of people out there and you are not sure they want us here," Sgt. Lee Buttrill gushed to ABC News. "You finally get here and see people in the street feeling so excited, feeling so happy, tearing down the statue of Saddam. It feels really good." That rah-rah BS is what Americans will remember about the fall of Baghdad -- not the probability that Buttrill, part of the armed force that cordoned off the square to protect the Iraqi National Congress' actors, was merely telling war correspondents what they wanted to hear. In his critically acclaimed book "Jarhead," Gulf War vet Anthony Swofford writes that Marines routinely lie to gullible reporters.

ABC further reported: "A Marine at first draped an American flag over the statue's face, despite military orders to avoid symbols that would portray the United States as an occupying -- instead of a liberating -- force." Yet another lie. As anyone with eyes could plainly see, American tanks are festooned with more red, white and blue than a Fourth of July parade. And that particular flag was flying over the Pentagon at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The Defense Department gave it to the Marines in order to perpetuate Bush's lie that Iraq was involved in the 9-11 attacks.

Patriotic iconography is a funny thing. I've known that the Iwo Jima photo was fake for years, but it nonetheless stirs me every time I see it. Firdus Square's footage will retain its power long after the last American learns the truth.

The Phony War Ends, the Phony Liberation Begins

It was a fitting end for a war waged under false pretexts by a fictional coalition led by an ersatz president. Bush never spent much time thinking about liberation, and even his exploitation is being done with as little concern as possible for the dignity of our new colonial subjects.

What a difference a half-century makes! American leaders devoted massive manpower and money to plan for the occupation of the countries they invaded during World War II. What good would it do, they asked, to liberate Europe if criminals and tyrants filled the power vacuum created by the fleeing Nazis? Thousands of officers from a newly-established Civil Affairs division of the U.S. Army were parachuted into France on the day after D-Day, while bullets were still flying, with orders to stop looting, establish law and order and restore essential services.

GWB is no FDR. Three weeks after the U.S. invaded Iraq, Civil Affairs was still stuck in Kuwait. Rumsfeld's war plan didn't allow for protecting museums and public buildings from looters, or innocent Iraqi women from roving gangs of marauding rapists. At the same time thousands of irreplaceable archeological treasures from the National Museum of Iraq were being sacked by thousands of looters, dozens of American troops were hanging around the Saddam statue videotaping, trying to be quotable.

As priceless ancient Sumerian jewelry and Assyrian sculptures were being carried away on donkeys and carts, archeologist Raid Abdul Ridhar Muhammad tried to convince Marines manning a nearby Abrams tank to stop the looters. "I asked them to bring their tank inside the museum grounds," he told The New York Times. "But they refused and left."

"Stuff happens," Rummy said. "Freedom's untidy." He has the same taste in art as the Taliban.

This Administration's policy of perpetual war has become a case study in entropy, the distinctly pessimistic notion that no matter how bad things get we can figure out a way to make them worse. Entropy triumphed in Afghanistan, as the world's worst regime was replaced by dozens of thuggish warlords. The end of Saddam Hussein comes as welcome news, even if it's merely the accidental byproduct of a barely-disguised oil grab. But as Iraq's cities burn and its patrimony is hustled off into the black market and its women wail and the rape gangs rule the night, it's hard to escape the conclusion that we've lost this war as well.

Ted Rall is the author of "Gas War: The Truth Behind the American Occupation of Afghanistan," an analysis of the underreported Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline project and the real motivations behind the war on terrorism.

Totally Idiotic Americans

darpa logoThe official seal of the Pentagon's new Total Information Awareness Office (TIA) bears a spooky eye above a pyramid -- you know the one, it's on the back of the one-dollar bill -- peering at the globe. The fact that the TIA was quietly funded under the auspices of the bill creating the new Department of Homeland Security suggests that its mission is a vital part of the war on terrorism. But Europe and Asia, the two main continents of the eastern hemisphere, which appear on the TIA logo, are not in fact its principal targets. You are.

Rear Admiral John Poindexter, the scandal-scarred Iran-Contra figure who heads the $62.9 million "data mining" operation for the Defense Department, says that the TIA's mission is "to detect, classify and identify foreign terrorists -- and decipher their plans -- and thereby enable the U.S. to take timely action to successfully preempt and defeat terrorist acts." Sounds like a magnificent idea. So why do such unusual allies as the American Civil Liberties Union, The New York Times, William Safire and Republican senator Charles Grassley say it's dangerous?

According to the TIA's website, Poindexter's new office will "develop architectures for a large-scale counter-terrorism database, for system elements associated with database population, and for integrating algorithms and mixed-initiative analytical tools ... invent new algorithms for mining, combining, and [refining] ... revolutionary new models, algorithms, methods, tools, and techniques for analyzing and correlating information in the database to derive actionable intelligence."

In English: Total Information Awareness will use sophisticated computer-modeling programs to search every database they can get their hands on. They'll scan credit card receipts, bank statements, ATM purchases, Web "cookies," school transcripts, medical files, property deeds, magazine subscriptions, airline manifests, addresses--even veterinary records. The TIA believes that knowing if and when Fluffy got spayed--and whether your son stopped torturing Fluffy after you put him on Ritalin--will help the military stop terrorists before they strike.

Most of this raw data is already available to businesses trying to market their products. The TIA represents the first full-scale attempt by a government agency--the Department of Defense--to collect and analyze that information. "There has obviously been a growing problem within the private sector over collection of information for targeted marketing," says David Sobel, general counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "What's different now is the government is putting major resources into getting access to privately collected data."

Critics are understandably anxious that the TIA is merely the Bush Administration's latest effort to emulate the most unsavory aspects of Soviet society. "If the Pentagon has its way, every American--from the Nebraskan farmer to the Wall Street banker--will find themselves under the accusatory cyber-state of an all-powerful national security apparatus," warns Laura Murphy of the ACLU.

Is Poindexter more interested in digging up dirt on Bush's political foes than fighting Islamist terrorism? Should we believe him when he says that he respects the Fourth Amendment? Short of running a TIA profile on the man, there's no way to know whether he's hoping to turn the United States into a police state. For the sake of argument, let's assume that the TIA plans to respect our privacy rights and that it won't yield to the temptation to use its findings to smear political opponents.

Even if Poindexter and his domestic spying operation means well--and that's a big if--the TIA is a classic case of fighting your last battle all over again.

Like Attorney General John Ashcroft's Operation TIPS (Terrorism Information Prevention System)--the Orwellian Justice Department program that asks cable installers, postal workers and meter readers to turn in their customers if they see any suspicious behavior--the TIA assumes that the next big attack will be committed by members of Arab "sleeper cells" living in the United States. Why do we assume this? Because that is what happened on Sept. 11, 2001.

Presuming there will be an exact replay of Sept. 11 has led to long security lines at airports and no screenings whatsoever at train stations and bus depots. Which targets would you go after if you were a terrorist?

As proven by their ability to elude arrest, Osama bin Laden and his allies are no fools. As Al Qaeda operatives plot their next attack against the United States, they will exploit the weaknesses we aren't aware of or have chosen to ignore. Another plane hijacking is unlikely, at least for the foreseeable future. So are strikes carried out by illegal-immigrant operatives with a fondness for strip joints living in the United States. Terrorists are opportunists, not serial killers predictably utilizing identical methods for each act.

Whatever you least expect: expect.

Since most of the data the TIA analyzes relates to loyal American citizens, Total Information Awareness creates the potential for abuse of governmental power on an unprecedented scale. Because it won't track the most likely future terrorists--people who live in, for example, Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia--it's a waste of money that furthers the illusion that our government is protecting us.

Since Sept. 11, George W. Bush has asked us to trade our precious freedoms for a little security. The TIA forces Americans to sacrifice privacy for nothing.

A Post-War Disaster in Iraq

"There you go again."
-- Ronald Reagan, 1984

When George W. Bush wanted the Taliban out, he issued an ultimatum: give up Osama or face the consequences.

Mullah Omar and his grim band of Islamist yahoos were fearsome literalists; in a now-forgotten last-ditch attempt to keep their jobs, they offered to turn over bin Laden. But Bush didn't really want bin Laden -- he wanted the Taliban gone. Days later, bombs began raining on Afghanistan.

Bush's ultimatums are, in fact, merely eviction notices.

A year later Saddam Hussein is sitting through the same "let's make this look good" ritual. Bush doesn't want arms inspections; he wants Iraq. Nothing Saddam does or offers to do will make a difference. War was likely before Election Day, but the Republican sweep makes it inevitable.

Bombs will fall. People will die. We Americans will mostly just care about the Americans who are killed -- and we won't be upset for very long. And what happens after the last oil-well fire has been extinguished? We will be like a dog that finally catches one of those passing cars. What the hell do we do with it? What will we do with the oil-rich, fractious country full of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds once we finally oust Saddam?

The U.S. didn't put much serious advance planning into who would run post-Taliban Afghanistan (remember King Zahir Shah?). Now we're about to take over Iraq without having clue one about what kind of government to install after the war or who will be in charge of it.

In 1998, Congress passed the Iraqi Liberation Act. Under that law, the U.S. officially recognizes six Iraqi groups as possible alternatives to Saddam Hussein's Baath regime: two Kurdish militias currently running Iraq's northern "no-fly zone," the Iraqi National Accord, the Iraqi National Congress, the Teheran-based Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and a small Hashemite monarchist group.

Riven by its own turf battles, the Bush administration is unable and unwilling to declare which -- if any -- of these outfits should rule Iraq after the coming war. On Oct. 28, The New York Sun, a new conservative daily newspaper, reported that the administration was considering naming a special presidential envoy to the Iraqi opposition. But, the Sun wrote, "The matter has become entangled in the vicious policy struggle between the Pentagon and the Vice President's office, on the one hand, and the State Department and the CIA, on the other hand."

The State Department and CIA are the reasonable moderates within the Bush Administration. They prefer giving UN weapons inspectors a real chance to avoid war, and deny any connection between Saddam and al Qaeda. (Al Qaeda operatives are active in Iraq, but in Kurdistan, where Saddam's government has no control.) They back the Shiite-aligned SCIRI and the Iraqi National Accord, which tried to depose Saddam in a 1998 coup attempt. The Defense Department and Dick Cheney, on the other hand, favor a pliant umbrella organization, the Iraqi National Congress, to manage the locals while the U.S. pumps out the oil.

"Tensions are so high," reports the Sun, "that ground rules have been established banning representatives of the State Department from meeting with representatives of the Iraqi opposition without a representative of the Defense Department present, and, likewise, banning representatives of the Defense Department from meeting with the Iraqi opposition without a representative of the State Department present."

U.S. officials have a hard time presenting a unified policy front even towards one fiefdom. "Americans agreed that the future Iraqi government should be an elected government," SCIRI leader Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim said on Oct. 21. "They also agreed that a military ruler wouldn't work." SCIRI's main supporter, Secretary of State Colin Powell, however, told the Associated Press exactly the opposite: "The United States is considering a model for post-war Iraq that resembles Japan after World War II, when Japan was occupied by an American-led military government." Another model, Powell said, is the postwar military occupation of Germany.

For its part the Pentagon is promising to help the Iraqi National Congress train 10,000 troops for combat against Saddam.

Lost among all the internal squabbling is the real possibility that none of the six approved groups may prove to be any better than the brutally autocratic Saddam Hussein. Human Rights Watch accuses both Kurdish militias of "a wide variety of human rights violations, including the arbitrary detention of suspected political opponents, torture, and extrajudicial executions," as well as ethnic cleansing. Kurdish policy towards women is indistinguishable from that of the Taliban; the Kurds take hard-line Islamic fundamentalism even further by endorsing the "honor killing" of women who have sex outside marriage -- even when they have been raped.

The Taliban were bleeding-heart liberals by comparison -- they at least stoned the rapists to death.

All six of the approved groups subscribe to conservative Islam or fundamentalist Islamic values. Several endorse the same Sharia law used to justify stonings and burqas in Afghanistan, and all would curtail the rights of Iraqi women (who currently enjoy the most freedom among the Arab states). And only one can be called pro-American. Like Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, these factions will begin fighting one another as soon as they get the chance.

"Our objective for the long term in Iraq would be to establish a broad-based representative and democratic government," said Bush foreign policy adviser and special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad. But most analysts believe that replacing Saddam with any, some, or all of these groups will accelerate the balkanization of Iraq and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism around the world. That is exactly what happened after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan.

Tell us again ... heck, tell us at least once exactly why we are about to do this thing.

Ted Rall's latest book, a graphic travelogue about his recent coverage of the Afghan war titled "To Afghanistan and Back," is now in its second edition. Ordering and review-copy information are available at nbmpub.com.

Prisoners of the War on Terror

The United States is a nation of laws.

The police arrest suspects they reasonably believe to have broken the law, not citizens who happen to disagree with the government's politics. Cops don't go after people preemptively because they might commit a crime someday. In America, people are considered innocent until they're proven guilty in a court of law. They enjoy the right to a fair trial by a jury of their peers as quickly as possible. And of course they're entitled to the counsel of an attorney.

These fundamental rights, taught in every civics class, define what it means to be American. When other countries fill their prisons with political dissidents, we wonder aloud what it must be like to live in such lawless places. When we watch films like "Midnight Express,"in which an American drug smuggler rots in a Turkish prison, we shake our heads not at the sentence -- after all, he's guilty -- but at the lead character's railroading through the court system and the abuse he suffers at the hands of his guards.

Before Sept. 11, no patriotic American would have disputed the last two paragraphs. Sadly, legal guarantees that every American considered a sacred birthright have been shredded virtually overnight, and many people don't seem to care. Just as a World Trade Center built over the course of five years was destroyed in under two hours, a presidential impostor has used a phony "war on terror" to systematically unravel two centuries of basic jurisprudence in less than a year.

George W. Bush may not have read Gibbon but he possesses the morals and cunning of a gangster; in a country still stunned by last fall's attacks, that seems to be enough.

The "war on terror," we're told, requires new tactics. Law enforcement -- which somehow now includes the military, CIA, FBI and NSA -- needs stronger tools. Terrorists are sneakier and smarter than your garden-variety mafia don. So now they're no longer "accused terrorists" but rather "enemy combatants." Who cares if these "enemy combatants" are American citizens? They can be held forever, or to be more precise, until the federal government "defeats terrorism." And while they're awaiting that distant day, Bush's "detainees" -- not prisoners, since his first decisive victory has been in his jihad against the English language -- don't get to see a lawyer. This works out well because Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- who has anointed himself judge, jury and executioner -- won't offer them a chance to prove their innocence in court.

For the Bushies, see, guilt and innocence aren't the point. The detainees aren't in prison for what they've done. They're there because of what they might do, for whom they know, for what they think. They are political prisoners.

Americans have watched with aggressive disinterest as images of 564 captured Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters squatting in their Guantánamo dog pens fill their living room screens. Human rights activists warn that these inmates, who hail from 38 countries, are being abused. At Camp Delta in July and August, three men tried to hang themselves and another slashed his wrist with a plastic razor. According to the Army, Guantánamo internees have staged hunger strikes to protest the conditions of their captivity. Others are being forcibly medicated with antidepressants and anti-psychotic drugs.

Even worse than the day-to-day torture is the interminable legal limbo. U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ruled July 31 that "the military base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, is outside the sovereign territory of the United States." So Guantánamo isn't the U.S., which means that the prisoners can't seek redress in American courts. But it isn't Cuba either. The POWs can go to the World Court in The Hague, notes Kollar-Kotelly -- but the United States routinely ignores international rulings.

Bush asserts that we're at "war" whenever he calls for increased government surveillance and tax cuts, and decreased freedom and social programs. But then he turns right around and claims that the Guantánamo captives, soldiers captured while bombs fell and bullets flew, aren't "prisoners of war"at all. Being declared a POW, after all, would entitle these schlubs to certain rights under the 1949 Geneva Conventions: freedom to refuse to answer questions, release at the end of hostilities, decent treatment, i.e., not being held in six-by-eight-foot dog pens under the blazing tropical sun. This linguistic chicanery is amusingly convenient, but it will look like madness the next time American soldiers captured overseas apply for POW status.

If you think about it -- and there's been very little serious thinking since September 11 -- what did these guys do to deserve being imprisoned in the first place, much less indefinitely? They fought for the Taliban. In Afghanistan.

Against the Northern Alliance. In Afghanistan. These prisoners -- er, detainees -- didn't attack the United States. They didn't even know anyone who attacked the United States. They're being held not because of who they are, but because of what they might do, and because of what they think.

This is not the American way.

The same goes for the 750 people the Justice Department picked up on visa and immigration charges since September 11. There are millions of illegal immigrants in the United States, but Bush's feds sought out only those whose ethnicity (Arab), ancestry (Muslim) and political beliefs (opposed to U.S. foreign policy) made them targets. These people aren't terrorists, or even accused terrorists -- they're political prisoners, doing time for what they think and what they might do.

Not even Americans are safe from Bush's anti-constitutional assaults on law and basic decency. Remember Jose Padilla? Attorney General John Ashcroft crowed in June that his men had "disrupted an unfolding terrorist plot to attack the United States by exploding a radioactive dirty bomb." Now government officials admit that they've got zero evidence and that Padilla is at best a "small fish." Nevertheless, they plan to detain this American citizen indefinitely, without trial.

Similarly Yaser Esam Hamdi, the "other"American Talib captured in Afghanistan, has been held in the brig of the Norfolk Naval Station since April 5. On August 16 U.S. District Judge Robert Doumar demanded that the government, which hasn't even bothered to explain why Hamdi should be held as an enemy combatant, must do so. "This case appears to be the first in American jurisprudence where an American citizen has been held incommunicado and subjected to an indefinite detention in the continental United States without charges, without any finding by a military tribunal, and without access to a lawyer," Doumar wrote.

There are few more sickening sights than George W. Bush wearing a lapel pin bearing an image of the American flag. Bush and his creepy henchmen can wrap themselves in nationalistic symbolism all they want, but these right-wing thugs aren't patriots. They may pledge allegiance to the flag, but they despise the republic for which it stands.

Ted Rall's new book, a graphic travelogue about his recent coverage of the Afghan war titled "To Afghanistan and Back,"is now in its second edition. Ordering and review-copy information are available at nbmpub.com

How to Win the War on Terrorism

Most Americans were shocked by the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. Suddenly, like a bolt out of a clear blue sky, radical Muslims who hated us for no conceivable reason had killed 3,000 innocent people for reasons both mysterious and nefarious. Our response was knee-jerk: we had to get even. The "evildoers," Bush told us, were led by Osama bin Laden. He, and they, lived in Afghan caves. We would bomb those caves, he promised, until America was safe again.

In truth, Afghanistan had always been a sideshow of anti-Americanism, a mere backlot funded and armed by Pakistani intelligence. Most of the training camps, extremist groups and Al Qaeda itself were in Pakistan. Gen. Musharraf, our new "ally," was virulently anti-American and pro-Taliban. Bombing Afghanistan never made sense as a way of "getting" the 9-11 guys because the 9-11 guys were all Saudis and Egyptians. Bombing may do the trick, but you'd have to bomb the right country -- and Afghanistan isn't it.

We wanted to get even for 9-11, but we missed the point: 9-11 was an act of revenge for more than a decade of perceived insults and abuses. Muslims around the world watched in anger and despair as hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died, first in the Gulf War and later as the result of U.S.-imposed trade sanctions and daily bombing raids over Iraqi cities. They were appalled by the continuing carnage in the endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a meat-grinder that claimed a grossly disproportionate number of Palestinians.

For many Muslims, from Amman to Tashkent to Karachi, President Clinton's 1998 cruise missile attacks on Afghanistan and Sudan were the last straw. Despite ironclad proof that the Sudanese plant destroyed in the attack manufactured nothing more deadly than aspirin, the U.S. government refused to apologize for its mistake.

After years of trying to grab our attention with smaller Attacks -- on the World Trade Center in '93, U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, on the U.S.S. Cole -- there still wasn't any serious discussion of American actions in the Muslim world among American leaders or journalists. That's when jihadis decided to launch a big-budget, theatrical assault not even the thickest-headed American could ignore. Sayonara, World Trade Center.

Why They Hate Us

"There are people that hate our freedoms, that really can't stand the thought that people are able to worship freely or speak their mind freely, or be able to realize their dreams regardless of who they are," Bush says. "They don't like that, and therefore they want to strike out at America again."

Actually, they don't give a fig about our freedoms. Islamists don't want to impose Islam on America, they want to make Muslim countries more radically Muslim. They also want us to stop messing with them.

When terrorists make demands, take them at their word. When bin Laden says he wants us to remove our military bases from the Arabian Peninsula, drop trade sanctions against Iraq and stop arming Israel, believe it: that's exactly what he wants. It may or may not be wise to give into these demands, but dismissing them as the rants of cave-dwelling freedom-haters is lunacy. Terrorists resort to violence because they don't believe that writing letters to the editor, lobbying Congress or other "legitimate" means of disagreement stand a chance of success. Ignoring their concerns entirely -- not to be confused with giving in to them -- is sure to infuriate them further, which will merely increase the frequency and scale of future attacks.

Who They Are

You can't effectively fight your enemies unless you understand their motivations. Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and similar groups are composed of men -- most with wives and children -- who don't consider themselves terrorists. If anything, calling them terrorists only hardens their resolve and their belief that Westerners don't "get it." From their point of view they belong to resistance organizations. (One man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist; in August of 1944 Charles de Gaulle's Free French were transformed overnight from brigands and bandits into the Internationally recognized government of France.)

Desperate, determined individuals whose political and other concerns are systemically excluded from mainstream discourse by those in power form resistance organizations. Their structure is loose and internally secretive; every leader is dispensable. Few members know other members save the person who recruited them and one or two more they themselves recruit. They lead low-key lives and don't attract attention to themselves. They don't attend meetings. Their cellular structure and secrecy makes them hard to find and catch in significant numbers.

Historically, governments have typically responded to resistance groups ("terrorists," if it makes you feel better) by applying standard tools of repression: mass arrests, infiltration, torture, reprisals against members' relatives and associates. These tactics hardly ever work. The African National Congress, Free French and the Solidarity movement all faced formidable, better-armed adversaries in the Afrikaners, Nazis and Soviets. And yet the former eventually seized power from the latter. In fact, repressive tactics radicalize moderates and fence sitters, increasing the ranks of the resistors. Who doubts that Hamas recruits new members among those who watch Israeli bulldozers knock down their neighbors' homes?

How to Fight Them

I'm not a pacifist. Military action is necessary to defend a nation's borders from invaders. But you can no more bomb a resistance organization out of existence than you can track down every one of the estimated 40,000 Al Qaeda members living outwardly bland lives all over the globe. So how do you stop them?

The short answer is that you can't -- not entirely. As long as explosives are cheap and the world breeds despair, there will be someone willing to walk into Times Square with an Uzi and a last will and testament. But we can turn once again to history for a solution.

Despite occasional flare-ups, Northern Ireland's "troubles" are a shadow of the crisis they once were. The Irish Republican Army, after decades of armed attacks against British occupation forces and their Protestant paramilitary allies, has disarmed. Sinn Fein has been mainstreamed (some might say co-opted) into Irish politics. Here in the United States, the Weather Underground -- once the most feared domestic revolutionary organization of the late '60s -- disintegrated when Nixon began pulling troops out of Vietnam. In both cases, the groups evaporated when their cause -- in the first example, the alienation and oppression of Northern Irish Catholics, opposition to the Vietnam War in the second -- vanished.

Both the IRA and the Weather Underground were composed of relatively small numbers of committed members who received financial support from larger numbers of sympathizers. During the '80s many Irish bars in Boston and New York promised to send a portion of their profits to the IRA.

Similarly, Islamist groups draw their financial strength, the asset that allows people from impoverished Third World countries to fund a $200,000 attack against the U.S. on 9-11, from millions of sympathetic Muslims. That broad-based outrage, in the form of millions of dimes and quarters dropped into collection plates in mosques worldwide, should serve as a signal that, just maybe, American policies in the Middle East and elsewhere should be reassessed.

What About Punishing the Evildoers?

Obviously, the perps of 9-11 should be brought to justice. Perhaps the Bushies are already working with Saudi and Egyptian authorities to track down members of the specific groups that planned and executed 9-11. If so, these guys, once arrested, should be put on trial for crimes against humanity at the World Court at The Hague. This would show the world that the U.S. seeks impartial justice rather than ham-fisted vengeance.

Addressing Islamist demands -- not caving in outright -- would eliminate most of the broad-based Muslim support for jihadi groups. Moreover, they'd do us more good than harm. Withdrawing our support for the corrupt Saudi dictatorship might lead to a less pro-American regime, for example, but it would begin to inoculate us from the mostly-justified criticism that we pro-democracy Americans promote oppression wherever it suits our business interests.

Stopping or reducing our $3 billion per annum flow of arms to Israel would allow us to truly act as an impartial negotiator in the Middle East, not to mention put a dent in the deficit. We could still offer to defend Israel in the event of an invasion, and while that stance wouldn't sate Osama et al., it wouldn't spark much anger among the great Arab mainstream.

It's a simple equation, really: Parse Islamist demands into the acceptable and unreasonable, ignore the ridiculous and respond constructively to the mainstream. Take away the cause's raison d'être and the cause goes away. To be sure, there may always be a few lunatics willing to blow themselves up for Allah -- but their bank accounts will be small, and so will their bombs.

Ted Rall's new book is "To Afghanistan and Back."

The Corruption of Journalism in Wartime

When I arrived in Afghanistan last November, Operation Enduring Freedom -- the American bombing campaign that eventually toppled the Taliban -- was being hailed by the U.S. media as an unqualified success.

Precision bombing and first-rate intelligence, the Pentagon claimed, had kept civilian casualties down to a few dozen victims at most. Long-oppressed Afghan women burned their burqas and walked the streets as the country reveled in an orgy of liberation. Or so we were told.

The amount of disjoint between television and reality was shocking.

The "new" Northern Alliance government was no better than the Taliban; with the exception of the U.S.-appointed former oil-company hacks in charge, they were Talibs. Women still wore their burqas, stonings continued at the soccer stadium and the bodies of bombing victims piled up by the thousands. Not only was the War on Terror failing to catch terrorists, it was creating a new generation of Afghans whose logical response to losing their friends and parents and siblings and spouses and children would be to hate America.

Why didn't the truth about the extent of civilian casualties get out?

I blame the journalists, though Lord knows, some of them tried. As a novice correspondent for The Village Voice and KFI-AM radio in Los Angeles, I carefully studied the pros. A brilliant war reporter for a big American newspaper-- he'd done them all, from Rwanda to Somalia to Kosovo -- filed detailed reports daily from his room down the street from mine as I charged my electronic equipment on his portable generator. The next day we'd hook up a satellite phone to a laptop to read his pieces on his paper's website. Invariably every mention of Afghan civilians killed or injured by American air strikes would be neatly excised. One day, as a test, he fired off a thousand words about a 15,000-pound "daisy cutter" bomb that had taken out an entire neighborhood in southeastern Kunduz. Hundreds of civilians lay scattered in bits of protoplasm amid the rubble. His editors killed the piece, calling it "redundant."

He was an exception. The TV people, particularly the big American networks, were the worst. ABC News, for instance, paid $800 for a 12-mile ride from the Tajik border to the first town in Takhar Province. (The usual rate was 50 cents.) The TV guys eased the discomforts of Fourth World living by throwing around hundreds of thousands of dollars, bribing Northern Alliance warlords to put them up in their palatial compounds -- electricity, hot water, beefy bodyguards, the works -- and buying access to places where news was supposedly taking place. While they were off chasing fictional Osamas in mountain caves at fantastic expense, American bombs would strike civilian targets in the most obvious of places; only European journos would show up to cover those horrifying scenes. It never occurred to these well-fed American fools that relying for food, shelter and protection on the top officers of one side in a civil war might not give them the best vantage point for unbiased reporting.

Here in America, reputable media outlets pride themselves on refusing to pay for news. That's why Gary Condit couldn't collect a buck for his interview with Connie Chung. But out in Afghanistan, all bets were off. Broadcast networks paid for interviews, access to battle zones and even rides into battle in the bowels of armored personnel carriers. Had everyone refused to pay, no one would have been fleeced. But war is the seventh circle of hell, and breeds such unseemly rat-like behavior among war junkies.

Their unscrupulous conduct turned all journalists, whether from NBC or a Portugese radio station, into fat targets for robbery, rape and murder. Because the TV scum had driven up prices for all reporters, you needed at least $5,000 merely to buy food and a room for a few weeks. And in a nation with an average monthly income of $1.20, anyone who lifted those $5,000 from your bloody money belt would be set for life. Perhaps only the young soldiers who robbed and murdered 42-year-old Swedish cameraman Ulf Stromberg in his Taloqan guest house are legally responsible for widowing his wife, but surely the irresponsible behavior of well-funded TV personnel share the blame.

More telling was the ignorance of Afghan war correspondents about basic facts concerning the war and its Central Asian theater. Of the dozens of journalists I met in Afghanistan, all were well-versed in the ins and outs of warfare in general, and many were unbelievably brave. But none had been in-country before, or even visited Central Asia. My mention of Bishkek drew blank stares from a news crew at the front. "You know, the capital of Kyrgyzstan," I tried. "It's north of here." Nothing. References to other important Central Asian cities -- Ashkhabat, Astana, Kashgar -- rang no bells for them.

On another occasion I was interviewing Taliban POWs along with a reporter for a U.S. newspaper chain. "I can't believe that that guy came all the way from Chechnya," he commented, scribbling away as he gestured towards a square-faced inmate. "He didn't," I said. "He's Uyghur -- a Muslim from western China."

"What the hell would a Chinese person be doing here?" he asked.

"Uyghurs are a horribly oppressed minority," I explained. "They want to break away Xinjiang province from China and form an independent Republic of East Turkestan. The Taliban supported and trained them. There are lots of those guys here." The writer didn't know that Afghanistan bordered China, didn't understand the international nature of the Taliban's appeal to jihad and thus misled millions of Americans with his ill-informed screeds. Even worse, he knew that he couldn't trust his instincts. Though he never personally witnessed an unveiled woman, for instance, he unquestioningly passed along the Northern Alliance line that burqas were no longer required. "Maybe it's different in other provinces," he said.

It's not that I was any smarter than my fellow journalists. But I'd done my homework. I'd been to that part of the world five times before, and in the process I'd picked up a lot of useful information: how to tell an Uzbek from a Tajik, why Herat is the coolest city in Afghanistan and how much it costs to hitch a ride. I knew my way around, I knew how to deal with the locals and I was able to present my dispatches with a basic understanding of historical, political, cultural and religious contexts. My peers from the networks and the big papers, on the other hand, were used to flying around the world from one trouble spot to the next -- and it showed in their inch-deep reports.

"Aren't you going to the press conference?" was a question that greeted me whenever I chose to skip General Mohammed Daoud's morning propaganda briefing. What's the point of standing around, waiting to be lied to? More often than not, the most reliable information could be discovered by talking to newly-arrived refugees in the local bazaar. Instead the other journalists squandered day after day -- they'd attend the damned briefings, bitch about them afterwards, but go ahead and report Daoud's lies. Most had to know it was Grade-A BS, but they had to file something, and detailed dissembling was better than nothing.

I would have done the same thing if I'd been assigned to cover a place I knew nothing about. A century ago the press employed salaried bureau chiefs to sit around places like Kabul and La Paz in the expectation that something newsworthy might someday go down. It was expensive, but it worked; reports filed by long-term residents were smarter and truer than today's journalism-by-press-release. Decades of budget cuts by the corporate-chain media outlets have eliminated such "luxuries," but in fact posting overseas correspondents might well provide substantial savings. For example, someone who'd been living in Afghanistan would know not to pay $800 for a four-bit ride.

Ted Rall's new book, a graphic travelogue about his recent coverage of the Afghan war titled "To Afghanistan and Back," is out now. Ordering and review-copy information are available at nbmpub.com.

The Ugly American Redux

"They hate what America stands for. They despise freedom. They now know we love freedom, and we will defend our freedom with all our might."
--George W. Bush, March 28, New York


You didn't have to blink to miss it. Let the record show that George W. Bush, reconstituted Cold Warrior and ardent defender of democracy, has suffered his first Bay of Pigs. Whether this experience will chasten him as much as it did JFK remains to be seen.

In a stunning reminder that the Resident's 76 percent approval rating stops at the Rio Grande, an American-backed coup against Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez went from fait accompli to farcical footnote in a matter of hours.

It all began at three o'clock in the morning of the 12th of April, when flamboyant populist Chávez was arrested by mutinous army officers and unceremoniously replaced by "interim president" Pedro Carmona Estanga. Carmona, chief of a national businessmen's association, immediately reverted to the right-wing strongman's play book. He suspended scheduled elections, tossed out laws regulating big business and promised "a pluralistic vision, democratic, civil and ensuring the implementation of the law." Following that declaration of devotion to democracy he dissolved both the National Assembly and the Supreme Court.

It comes as little surprise that the Bush Administration, itself the beneficiary of a coup, would endorse similar subversion elsewhere. But the American media also proved astonishingly sanguine at the replacement of a legally-elected leader by a '70s-style junta composed of right-wing army officers and corrupt businessmen. "We know that the Chávez government provoked this crisis," said White House press secretary Ari Fleischer in a statement welcoming news of the unfolding coup d'état. Describing Carmona as "a respected business leader" in a glowing puff piece, The New York Times slammed Chávez as "a ruinous demagogue."

Ruinous, perhaps. Demagogue, maybe. Nonetheless, Chávez was the legally-elected president of Venezuela. What had Chávez done, in the minds of the American establishment, to justify overthrow, exile and the subversion of democracy?

"According to the best information we have, the government suppressed what was a peaceful demonstration of the people," said Fleischer, in reference to an April 11th incident in which armed men wearing clothes indicating loyalty to Chávez shot 13 anti-government strikers to death and wounded more than 100. Was Fleischer suggesting that the Kent State shootings in 1970 should have precipitated a coup to remove President Richard Nixon?

Chávez's real crime was refusing to suck up to the U.S. or to its powerful corporate interests. A maverick elected with the overwhelming support of Venezuela's poor in 1998, he referred to his nation's upper classes as "squealing pigs" and "rancid oligarchs." He had a point, too: Venezuela's tiny elite have hogged its immense oil revenues for itself while millions starved.

Unfortunately for the downtrodden masses whose votes propelled Chávez into office, Venezuela produces 15 percent of America's oil. This makes the nation of particular economic and geopolitical interest to Washington. In February Chávez, acting on a campaign promise to distribute his country's oil revenues more evenly throughout its impoverished population, replaced Brigadier General Guaicaipuro Lameda with a politically progressive ally as head of the state-owned Petróleos de Venezuela.

The business community howled in fearful anticipation of further reform. Company officers, fearing that decades-old systemic corruption was drawing to a close, ordered work slowdowns, company-mandated strikes and street demonstrations against their own government in the hope of crippling the economy and destabilizing Chávez's rule.

The Times summed up the case against Chávez succinctly: "He courted Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein, battled the media and alienated virtually every constituency from middle-class professionals, academics and business leaders to union members and the Roman Catholic Church." He visited nations hated by the U.S., including Libya and Iran, and criticized the "war on terror." And he dedicated his rule to forcing business to share profits with ordinary citizens. In short, Chávez remained loyal to his leftist principles and to the desperate constituency who had elected him.

But it didn't matter whether or not the Venezuelan people liked him or approved of him. Chávez had to go.

It's too soon to know for certain whether the CIA tried to engineer an Allende-style operation in Venezuela, but anyone who's read ex-spy Philip Agee's seminal "Inside the Company" recognizes classic signs emanating from New York and Washington: official statements of encouragement are laced with just enough ambiguity to provide plausible deniability; blithe dismissals of democratic principles in friendly media are followed by rapid reversals when things start to go wrong. Don't be too surprised if those gun-toting "Chávez supporters" who opened fire on the April 11th ultimately turn out to be CIA-employed provocateurs.

It gets better: Chávez, while being held on the Venezuelan Caribbean island of La Orchila, noticed an American jet on the runway, and presumed it was waiting to take him into exile. "I saw the plane. It bore the markings of a private plane from the United States, not an official plane ... What was it doing there?" Chávez asked, noting that the American ambassador to Venezuela recognized the plane.

Days passed without a Bush Administration denial of involvement in the coup. Finally, on April 16th, Ari Fleischer acknowledged that State Department assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs Otto J. Reich called coup leader Carmona hours after the ouster of Chávez. In that call, according to Fleischer, Reich asked Carmona not to dismiss the National Assembly in order to avoid offending world opinion.

Operation Caracas went wrong nearly the second it started. A fervent U.S. ally, Mexican President Vincente Fox, joined Fidel Castro in condemning the coup and refusing to acknowledge the new regime. Soon every government in the Western hemisphere except our own had condemned the coup. Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets demanding Chávez's return. By April 13th, Carmona had replaced Chávez in the pokey and the U.S. State Department was calling for the "return of democracy."

Asked whether the U.S. knew about the coup in advance, Fleischer waffled. True, numerous anti-Chávez activists had visited the White House in recent weeks to request U.S. help in deposing the president. "We explicitly told opposition leaders that the United States would not support a coup," he said. He wouldn't say, however, whether or not the U.S. ultimately green-lighted a covert action.

The moral high ground has eroded out from under the U.S. in the months following September 11th. First our bombing campaign killed 10,000 innocent Afghan civilians as we sought vengeance for the murder of 3,000 Americans. Then we supported Ariel Sharon's murderous rampage in the West Bank. Now we're back in the business of creating˜or trying to create˜banana republics in South America. Not only are we reinforcing the worldwide perception that Americans are pompous hypocrites; we're setting the stage for the kind of instability that followed U.S. coups in Iran.

"I haven't said that this conspiracy (against me) has its roots in the United States," President Chávez said April 15th. He didn't need to.

Ted Rall's new book, a graphic travelogue about his recent coverage of the Afghan war titled "To Afghanistan and Back," hits stores next week. Ordering and review-copy information are available at nbmpub.com.

Why Bush Is Addicted to Perpetual War

I began working on a graphic-novel update and parody of "1984" a few years ago. An awful lot had changed since Orwell posited his dystopian vision of the future from his late-1940s deathbed, and I accounted for those differences in my own version, 2001's "2024."

In order to acknowledge the collapse of Soviet Communism and the failure of fascism to reemerge as a potent political force, I ditched Orwell's oppressive totalitarian state in favor of an entertainment-fueled nihilism in which dimwitted citizens frittered away their lives watching web TV and working at slightly overpaid jobs to buy worthless junk ... on web TV, natch. Where Orwell envisioned endless rows of soldiers marching in perfect unison to the strains of the Two-Minute Hate, I saw a world where nations had been replaced by trading blocs and the objects of hatred were the immigrants in our midst.

The six months following The Really Bad Thing That Happened have made clear that I wasn't the only guy boning up on Orwell.

In "1984," the elite Inner Party rules the rattled and irradiated citizens of Oceania through three conduits of fear and intimidation: surveillance, terrorism and perpetual warfare.

The Oceanians had their two-way telescreens; we suffer a 10,000-employee National Security Agency that relies on automated voice-recognition and keyword software (Echelon, not to be confused with the more picayune and widely-reported Carnivore system) to monitor millions of e-mails, faxes and phone calls each day. But few Americans give much thought to this wholesale violation of their privacy; only those who are doing something wrong, they tell themselves, have anything to worry about.

The first eight months of the Bush Administration were characterized by political insecurity. Bush, widely derided as unintelligent and oafish, had carried less than half of the popular vote in 2000, and many Democrats believed that he had bullied his way into the Oval Office. Jim Jeffords' defection from the GOP, partially a reaction to Bush's hard turn to the right after his inauguration, cost Republicans control of the Senate. Most analysts expected big Democratic gains in the 2002 Congressional elections, due both to the stagnating economy and to historical trends against incumbency in mid-term.

The White House saw September 11 as a golden opportunity. The first catastrophic terrorist attack on American soil sparked an unprecedented case of leadership projection: desperate for protection and answers (why do they hate us? can we kill them before they kill us?), Americans wishfully compared Bush to FDR and Churchill. Approval ratings hit 92 percent. But Bush's political advisors knew that peaking early wouldn't guarantee reelection in 2004. Bush's father had been turned out of office just 20 months after the Gulf War ratcheted his score up to 91.

The Bushies have lifted their reelection strategy straight out of "1984," and not just by creating ominous-sounding agencies like the Office of Homeland Security, the supposedly-closed Office of Strategic Information, and a "Shadow Government." As in "1984," the Bush regime tolerates zero dissent -- a two-party system in name only has been distilled to one in which only Republicans express acceptable opinions. And an absence of follow-up attacks has been met by endless alerts, advisors and empty hysterics in the name of security, most recently culminating with Tom Ridge's much-mocked color-code warning system.

But Americans don't seem to miss their Democratic Party very much; after all, Clinton spent more time sucking up to big business than worrying about the fact that ordinary people can't afford to see a doctor. And unless Bush resorts to the Orwellian tactic of setting off bombs to kill his own citizens, the passage of time will inevitably yield to the complacency that could cost him '04.

That leaves "1984's" most potent political tool: perpetual warfare. Just as Oceania was always at war with Eurasia or Eastasia -- who could keep track? -- the "war on terror," we are told, will continue indefinitely.

Indefinitely is just another word for forever.

Thus hundreds, possibly thousands, of American troops are headed to the Philippines to fight a rag-tag outfit of 80 jungle bandits. Our boys are scouring the back hills of far-flung Yemen in search of Al Qaeda fighters on the lam from our ongoing war in Afghanistan. We've set up bases in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to fight Central Asia's Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan -- never mind that the world hasn't heard from them since they kidnapped four American mountain climbers in 2000.

China, Indonesia, the former Soviet republic of Georgia, the Axis of Evil, you name it ... we're targeting alleged terrorists in 50-to-60 countries with tens of thousands of soldiers and tens of billions of dollars. "So long as there's Al Qaeda anywhere, we will help the host countries root them out," Bush says. "If we expect to kill every terrorist in the world, that's going to keep us going beyond doomsday," responds Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV).

Best of all for Bush, the more we go after Islamist extremists, the more they'll go after us. The war on terror begets more terror begets more war.

The truth is that Bush isn't considering his post-apocalyptic future -- at this point November 2004 will do nicely. But by '04 Cheney or some other GOP big-wig will be gearing up for '08, and after that there'll be a reelection campaign in '12 ... old George Orwell, it turns out, wasn't that far off the mark.

Ted Rall's new book, a graphic travelogue about his recent coverage of the Afghan war titled "To Afghanistan and Back," will be published in April.

Danny Pearl Deserved Better

As confirmation of Danny Pearl's gruesome murder hit the news, my friends called.

"That could have been you," one said.

"No," I replied, "it couldn't."

True, I've spent a lot of time traveling through Central Asian backwaters where life is cheap, corruption is rampant and Americans are despised. And the dangers are real enough -- on one trip through war-torn Kashmir Province I dodged Indian shells and Taliban death squads and tiptoed across high-altitude suspension bridges where half the boards had been looted by the locals for firewood -- but breezing through hell on your way back to Istanbul has nothing on being posted there for the long haul.

The scum who slit Pearl's throat for the hottest snuff film in South Asia didn't have to be geniuses to get to him. Pearl had been posted in Karachi for two years. The locals knew who he was, that he worked for The Wall Street Journal. He was very alone in a very bad place.

Many journalists risk similar rolls of the dice. It's inevitable that some come up with snake eyes.

Few countries are more unfriendly to Americans than Pakistan. People hurl rocks at you as you pass by in a taxi. Strangers stride up to you and strike you. And Karachi is the worst city in Pakistan: Bombs go off daily. Buses, cars, markets -- they're all going up in flames. According to the government, nearly half the squalid city's population is addicted to heroin. It's easy to believe: everywhere you go junkies are sprawled across the sidewalk, rusty needles hanging from their thighs.

If Pearl's death served any higher purpose, it was to shine a spotlight on the spectacular dangers that reporters face in a place where everyone carries guns and no one gives a damn if one goes off in your face. Pearl's kidnap-murder was tailor-made for the front page: handsome, likable, married, soon to be a dad, brave wife speaking up for him, his face was dramatically beamed to a million laptops thanks to a cybermilitant using the nom de keyboard "kidnapperguy."

As far as we know, George W. Bush didn't ask Pakistan's Gen. Pervez Musharraf to negotiate Pearl's release. That's as it should be; bargaining for hostages only leads to more kidnappings. But for the first time since September 11th, the Bush Administration was forced to pay attention to the death of a reporter.

It was a much different scene three months ago, when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld issued an order to American troops in Afghanistan: they were not to give assistance to journalists, period. Even Northern Alliance commanders were advised that they would lose U.S. support if they helped a reporter get out of a tight spot.

The death count for reporters during the conflict is somewhere between 10 and 15; dozens more came home wounded or minus a limb. Western journalists were shot, stabbed, shelled and mutilated by mines. They were raped, robbed, targeted by Talibs and subjected to countless random atrocities. In a land where no one takes Visa or American Express, every reporter was carrying thousands of dollars in cash. And with no police for hundreds of miles, it was open season on unarmed journalists.

"I've done every war you can think of," a Canadian colleague told me in Taloqan in northern Afghanistan. "Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, the Gulf, Somalia, you name it -- this is the worst by far."

Several times each day, American and Northern Alliance helicopters left Afghanistan for bases in neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to restock ammunition. As Afghan doctors worked under primitive conditions to extract shrapnel from the bodies of dying journalists, fellow reporters begged authorities to airlift them to safety. But the choppers flew out empty. Rumsfeld again: No medevacs for reporters.

If the Bushies had had their way, there wouldn't have been a single reporter covering the Afghan war. They couldn't stop them from going, so they sent a message, chilling and clear: we don't care if you die. In fact, we hope you do.

This attitude, vicious and vile even by the standard of Third World dictatorships, proved contagious, and spread back home to the land of the free. After I reported that Rumsfeld's order had led to the desecration of the body of murdered Swedish cameraman Ulf Stromberg on an unpaved Afghan road, angry readers e-mailed me. "If you're stupid enough to go to Afghanistan," wrote one, "you deserve to die." "Go ahead, croak. Journalists need to stop whining," said another.

What a difference a pregnant widow makes! First it was firefighters and police; thanks to Danny Pearl, war correspondents and journos are joining the swelling ranks of post-9/11 "heroes." But if the Pentagon's unspeakable contempt for the media goes too far, so too does calling those who brave lousy food and lousy people to bring the news to your living room anything else than what they are.

They're human beings -- more often than not underpaid and overworked -- who love the thrill of war and the feeling of accomplishment that comes with uncovering a good story. They don't deserve medals, but they certainly deserve a spot on an empty chopper going back to Tajikistan.

Ted Rall's new book, a graphic travelogue about his recent coverage of the Afghan war titled "To Afghanistan and Back," will be published in April.

Government Gangsterism at Work

Unbridled legal hypocrisy is a recurring theme of the ideologically impoverished Bush imperium. When it suits their immediate aims, the Bushies wield the law like a club. But when the law proves inconvenient they chuck it out the window like a gum wrapper.

We've seen this schizy lurching between law-and-order conservatism and anarchic retro-Tricky Dicky Nixonism ever since November 2000, when the same campaign that sued under Florida's election laws to stop that state's ballot recount resorted to hired thugs and back-room deals when it became obvious that they were going to lose.

Born illegitimately of intimidation, this administration is waging its New War on Terror with the same graceless style. Before September 11, it used international organizations and legal strictures to impose economic sanctions on Afghanistan. As the Trade Center towers burned and Bush's polls soared, the last vestige of respect for law disappeared. Bush dropped bombs without declaring war, without bothering to formally request that the Taliban extradite Osama bin Laden, and without presenting a smidgen of proof that either the Afghan government or bin Laden had anything to do with the attacks on New York and Washington. "You're either with us or against us," Bush said, but "us" meant "me."

During the last few months, at least 6,000 people have vanished off the streets of the United States. Kidnapped by government agents, they have no idea when -- or if -- they will be released from prison. The Bushies say these people overstayed their visas, that they have links to Al Qaeda, that they don't wash their hands after using the toilet, that America is safer because they're behind bars.

Is any of this true? Who knows? Since they haven't been granted access to lawyers or allowed to call their families, no can talk to them. Bush says they have no rights because they're not American citizens.

Keep that in mind the next time you travel abroad.

The Bush police state doesn't coddle our own citizens, either. John Walker Lindh, an American with the bad taste to join the Taliban and the bad luck to get caught, was held for weeks without even being told that his parents had hired him an attorney. You may or may not give a damn about Walker, but he's an American citizen accused of serious federal crimes. The fact that he's been denied legal counsel, that Attorney General John Ashcroft's outrageous statements have made it impossible for him to get a fair trial, and that Bush was seriously considering subjecting him to one of his kangaroo-court military tribunals, tells you everything Americans need to know about our leaders' respect for the law.

Don't deign to look down on Burma or North Korea; when it comes to human rights, you live in a rogue state. Exhibit A: The Taliban and accused Al Qaeda prisoners of war now being held in pens in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Despite European criticism of the conditions under which they are being held, Dick Cheney insists that "nobody should feel defensive or unhappy about the quality of treatment they've received." Maybe so. But if our government has nothing to be ashamed of, why can't reporters, lawyers or family members get inside to visit them?

Even more troubling is the administration's assertion that these men are "unlawful combatants" not entitled to the decent living conditions and other protections guaranteed by the Geneva Conventions. When Nazi Germany executed captured soldiers of the French Resistance, using the argument Bush now cites, the world was appalled. The Taliban prisoners' status is far more clear than the maquis -- the Afghans were fighting to defend their own nation's government from an invasion force. The Taliban, who controlled 95 percent of Afghanistan, were recognized as its government by three U.S.-aligned nations. If the Talibs aren't prisoners of war, who are?

Fortunately, the Geneva Conventions addresses the current situation. In the event of a dispute over the status of prisoners, the agreement stipulates that "such prisoners shall enjoy the protection of the present convention until such time as their status has been determined by a competent tribunal." But, protests Cheney: "These are the worst of a very bad lot. They are very dangerous...These are bad people...They may well have information about future terrorist attacks against the United States. We need that information. We need to be able to interrogate them and extract from them whatever information they have."

In other words, our Vice President wants to torture our prisoners, which justifies our making an end-run around one of the most important international agreements ever made.

"The debate is not actually whether these people are prisoners of war," an anonymous State Department official told The New York Times January 28. "They are not. The debate is why they are not prisoners of war." Cheney summed up the Bush position the next day: "They are not P.O.W.s. They will not be determined to be P.O.W.s."

To hear these guys tell it, the Geneva Conventions exist solely to protect the safety and dignity of American servicemen when they fall into enemy hands. When we capture foreigners in combat, on the other hand, we simply claim that they're "unlawful combatants." Unfortunately for future American P.O.W.s -- er, detainees -- the rest of the world is listening closely.

After September 11, many Americans wondered aloud why other citizens of the world hate us so much. What kind of things could we, or our government, have done that would explain such fury?

Here's one example.

Ted Rall's new book, a graphic travelogue about his recent coverage of the Afghan war titled "To Afghanistan and Back," will be published in April.

Bush Fuels Oil Conspiracy Theory

Conspiracy theories are funny things: the wackier they sound, the more likely they are to be true. The fires of September were still burning when I, among others, suggested that the Bush regime's Afghan war might have more to do with old-fashioned oil politics than bringing the Evil Ones to justice.

Little did I know how quickly I would be proven right.

The Taliban government and their Al Qaeda "guests", after all, both were at best bit players in the terror biz. If the U.S. had really wanted to dispatch a significant number of jihad boys to meet the black-eyed virgins, it would have bombed Pakistan. Instead, the State Department inexplicably cozied up to this snake pit of anti-American extremists, choosing a nation led by a dictator who seized power in an illegal coup as our principal South Asian ally.

Moreover, the American military strategy in Afghanistan -- dropping bombs without inserting a significant number of ground troops -- all but guaranteed that Osama would live to kill another day.

So the Third Afghan War obviously isn't about fighting terrorism -- leading cynics to conclude that it must be about (yawwwwwwn!) oil. Bush and Cheney were both former oil company execs, after all, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was corporate counsel at Chevron. Unbeknownst to most Americans, oil fields dot northern Afghanistan near its border with Turkmenistan. But the real jackpot is under the Caspian Sea. Between confirmed and estimated oil reserves, Kazakhstan is destined to become the world's largest oil-producing nation, and will one day dwarf even Saudi Arabia.

For the U.S., more production means cheaper oil, lower production and transportation costs, and higher corporate profits. The Kazakhs would be happy to work with us, but their oil is frustratingly landlocked. The shortest and cheapest of all possible pipelines would run from the Caspian to the Persian Gulf via Iran, but lingering American resentment from the 1980 hostage crisis has prevented U.S.-aligned Kazakhstan from getting its crude out to sea. Plan B is a 1996 Unocal scheme for a trans-Afghanistan pipeline that would debouche at the Arabian Sea port of Karachi.

As Zalmay Khalilzad co-wrote in The Washington Quarterly in its Winter 2000 issue, "Afghanistan could prove a valuable corridor for this [Caspian Sea] energy as well as for access to markets in Central Asia." Khalilzad has an unsavory past. As a State and Defense Department official during the Reagan years, Khalilzad helped supply the anti-Soviet mujihadeen with weapons they're now using to fight Americans. During the '90s he worked as Unocal's chief consultant on its Afghan pipeline scheme.

According to the French daily Libération, Khalilzad's $200 million project was originally conceived to run 830 miles from Dauletebad in southeastern Turkmenistan to Multan, Pakistan. Multan already possesses a link to Karachi. Partly on Khalilzad's advice, the Clinton Administration funded the Taliban through Pakistani intelligence, going so far as to pay the salaries of high-ranking Taliban officials. The goal: a strong, stable authoritarian regime in Kabul to ensure the safety of Unocal's precious oil.

In 1998, after Taliban "guest" Osama bin Laden bombed two American embassies in east Africa, Unocal shelved the plan. Chief consultant Khalilzad moved on to the Rand Corporation think tank. Considering the Taliban irredeemably unreliable, Clinton withdrew U.S. support. But as the newly-minted cliché goes, everything changed after 9-11. Now the Taliban are gone, replaced with a U.S.-installed interim government.

Rising energy prices helped push the economy into recession; perhaps 90-cent gas will work where interest rate cuts failed. Once again, the pipeline plan is hot.

Did Bush exploit the Sept. 11 attacks to justify a Central Asian oil grab? The answer seems clear. On Dec. 31, Bush appointed his special envoy to Afghanistan: Zalmay Khalilzad. "This is a moment of opportunity for Afghanistan," the former Unocal employee commented upon arrival in Kabul Jan. 5. You bet it is: Pakistan's Frontier Post reports that U.S. ambassador Wendy Chamberlain met in October with Pakistan's oil minister to discuss reviving the Unocal project.

And a front-page story in the Jan. 9 New York Times reveals that "the United States is preparing a military presence in Central Asia that could last for years," including a building permanent air base in the Kyrgyz Republic, formerly part of the Soviet Union. (The Bushies say that they just want to keep an eye on postwar Afghanistan, but few students of the region buy the official story.)

Many industry experts consider Unocal's revived Afghan adventure fatally flawed and expect the U.S. to ultimately wise up and pursue an Iran deal. But thus far the Bushies have given the conspiracy theorists a lot to think about.

Ted Rall, the cartoonist and columnist, is currently working on the first-ever instant graphic novel, "To Afghanistan and Back," about his recent experiences covering the Afghan war.

Everyday Life in Afghanistan

DUSHANBE, TAJIKISTAN -- Resplendent in his spiffy new Northern Alliance hat and shiny Pancho Villa ammo belt and matching AK-47, the soldier tiptoed through what some guys from Badakhshan said was a minefield. Well, he had to take a leak, and what could they know of Takhar or its mines? Safely relieved, he wanted to know my age.

"Thirty-eight. How about you?"

"How old do you think I am?"

Salt-and-pepper hair, definitively receding. Not just eye bags, but wrinkles. Subtly hard facial angles; not a gram of baby fat. I thought 42. I said 36 to be polite.

He enjoyed a hearty laugh. "I'm 18!"

Middle-aged teenagers shouldn't come as much of a surprise in a country with an average life expectancy of 43 (considerably less for front-line troops). But when you spend just a few weeks living the same toxic lifestyles as these poor and unlucky souls, it's amazing that they live as long as they do.

All things considered, I lived considerably better than the average resident of Taloqan, Afghanistan, where I lived for a couple of weeks. For one thing, I was willing and able to pay the extortionate rate of five bucks for the sticks you burn to boil bathwater in an ancient tin stove. A hot-water "hamam" goes a long way towards improving your outlook after a night spent watching bombs fall far too close to your home address. And call me a spendthrift if you want, but I always sprung for the 60-cent horse-drawn cart ride across town. Most Afghans didn't.

Otherwise, there were few indignities or inconveniences that my Amex, Visa or carefully-concealed wad of crisp hundreds could ease, much less eradicate. Like most Afghans, I slept on a filthy mat along one wall of a freezing-cold room containing said stinky mat on top of one astonishingly dirty red carpet. The foul stench made sleep nearly impossible; strange rashes spread among the press corps. Afghans, when asked about this, shrugged and pointed to their own scary blotches.

Though as an infidel I was technically exempt from the 5 am-to-6 pm Ramadan fast, the only way to sneak a snack without causing the highly-armed locals to take offense was to stay home and pay a kid to run to the bazaar. Since I was always out and about, like other journalists I observed a de facto Ramadan fast. Think it's easy? Try it yourself: Move to Arizona and go all day without a sip of water; the principal difference is that Afghanistan is drier and dustier.

Don't get the idea, though, that breaking out that dinnertime flatware after an all-day fast is a big treat. Most people survive on a vegan-unfriendly diet of fatty kebabs and water drawn from the natural goodness of ... the gutter on the side of the road. When I hungrily inquired about a few plump ducks splashing around in Taloqan's communal bath/drinking fountain/toilet/garbage can, you would have thought I'd said only wimps like AK-47s. "EAT them? Why?" my translator spat in disgust.

"In France," I offered, "ducks are a delicacy."

"Not here," he shuddered. "We need them alive."

"If you don't eat ducks, what good are they?"

"They keep the gutter water clean."

What an atrociously unbalanced and unhygienic diet and American bombs don't finish off, the triple Bs -- bugs, benzene and breathing -- surely will.

For one thing, the nation's bedding supports a thriving ecosystem of fleas, ticks, bedbugs, lice and other assorted nasties -- including everyone's favorite bedtime companion, Mr. Scorpion. Neither warrior nor babe nor Osama himself is safe from the contagion, not to mention painful welts, issued by the local critters. After just one week, I counted 106 bites from Afghan bed fauna, many of them on body parts best left unblemished.

Furthermore, nights are almost always shockingly cold, and so are the days from November through May. Afghans heat their uninsulated mud-adobe homes with Chinese-made camping lanterns fueled by eye-burning, lung-searing benzene. Every teeth-chattering minute offers a terrible dilemma: which is worse, freezing to death or poisoning yourself on low-grade Central Asian benzene?

Finally, there's the dust. With a consistency like flour, it's kicked up by anything and anyone moving across a 99 percent-unpaved landscape. Consequently, everyone in Afghanistan suffers from smoker's cough. I left Afghanistan days ago, yet I'm still ejecting prodigious balls of sandy phlegm.

Perhaps the world will, against all odds, witness the coming of a peaceful, prosperous society in Afghanistan. Maybe Afghans will routinely live well into their 50s. American civilization may bring running water, nay, even clean, fresh Evian, into every home. But who's going to take on the ferocious fleas I'm bringing home in my luggage?

What Americans Can Learn from Afghans

TALOQAN, AFGHANISTAN -- You don't have to be in this country more than a few minutes to understand what an entire presidential administration hasn't figured out from behind their faux cherry desks in D.C. -- the last thing this country needs is yet more bombs. Bombing is redundant; death by airstrike too pointless to be cruel.

God must have been in a pisser of a funk when He created this geographic left-over between Central and South Asia. Not only did He stick the Afghans with the world's hottest deserts and its coldest mountains, He gave them just two natural resources: rocks and dust. Finally, just because He's both ornery and omnipotent, He gave them neighbors who hated each other so much they wouldn't touch each other with guns and knives -- they let the Afghans do it for them, to each other.

All posturing in Bonn aside, it's impossible to imagine how Afghanistan will ever be able to unify behind a single political ideal, much less put aside their AK-47s in favor of road-paving equipment and textbooks. Foreign interference only adds to the body count, while cultural shortsightedness spawned by millennia of warfare virtually guarantees that the Afghans will never get their act together. Afghanistan remains a primitive, tribal agrarian society with values and infrastructure straight out of the 12th century. "We should nuke this whole country and start from scratch," a New Yorker named David told me over fatty kebabs at the bazaar. And he's a libbie, toiling for a couple of NGO charities here.

Nonetheless, we Americans could learn a lot from the Afghans and their medieval society.

Even the most well-traveled visitors here are instantly struck by the extent to which Afghans help one another. To some extent it's self-motivated; helping to push someone's truck out of a ditch gets you moving sooner if you're stuck behind it. But the truth is that everyone jumps to the assistance of anyone who needs it without being asked. If you drop a heavy load, a dozen men will rush up and offer not only to assist, but to carry the item themselves. And no, they're not grabbing your wallet as they do it.

As you read this, you're thinking that Americans also help each other out in a pinch. But we don't. If we lived like Afghans, you'd stop the instant you saw a broken-down vehicle on the side of the road. So would the car behind you. Afghans don't need an auto club; they have each other.

The tribal system, so detrimental to building an effective multiethnic state, offers tremendous support to people struggling to survive in impossibly difficult times. My translator Jovid's rented adobe-walled box on the outskirts of town here, which would normally house six people, is currently home to 15 people. Three, an old man and his two children, are refugees from nearby Kunduz who walked here after an errant American bomb destroyed their neighborhood. Four more are distant relatives who moved in after four years of drought made farming impossible. And the rest are orphaned children, not even distantly related to Jovid's family. The orphans are from the neighborhood, their mothers starved to death after their husbands died in battle. There are few orphanages in Afghanistan; there's no need for them. "Someone just takes them in," Jovid replied when I asked him what happens to most orphans.

Just to be clear, Jovid's family is desperately poor. Still, it never occurs to them not to feed another mouth.

After years of reading about a country rigidly divided between a Tajik north and a Pashtun south, in which the Christian minority was ordered by the Taliban to wear identifying badges "for their own protection," I was astonished to discover an altogether different reality. Uzbeks, Daris and Pashtuns not only tolerate one another, they almost all speak each other's languages and partake of various elements of their cultures. Tajiks wear Pashtun clothing, Uzbeks eat Turkmen food and Tajiks marry Uzbeks. While Americans live in strictly-segregated, monochromatic cities and neighborhoods and can't even stand to hear the same music, Afghans of all ethnic stripes live side by side in a truly blended nation.

This partly explains why yesterday's Taliban soldiers can shave their beards and trade their turbans for Hindustani caps to join the Northern Alliance. The jump from a Pashtun to Tajik dominant culture isn't hard for Afghans to make. Afghans make war all the time -- it's what they do best -- out of loyalty to a commander or warlord. But they don't shoot each other merely because of the color of their skin. We Americans, who most assuredly know better, do.

And while we've all been treated to vague tales of the Afghan tradition of hospitality to strangers -- mainly to explain the Taliban willingness to eat American lead for their guest Osama bin Laden -- it's something you have to experience personally in order to fully appreciate. To be offered a meal in a home here means that you'll be treated to a spread worthy of Thanksgiving dinner by people who can scarcely afford the minimum caloric intake to get them through the day.

When an emergency arose that required me to go out into the night (Afghans never go out after dark due to the armed rapists and brigands roaming the streets) my hosts insisted that a car and armed driver be found to take me. Armed to the teeth and willing to risk their lives had I been attacked, they accompanied me to my destination. It was only days later that I inadvertently discovered that they had paid $50 -- more than a year's salary -- for that car.

Crisis, as New Yorkers rediscovered after Sept. 11, brings people together. If Afghanistan is someday blessed with peace, one hopes that it won't lose the powerful bonds that kept its people going through the worst that life has to offer.

Ted Rall, the cartoonist and columnist, is covering the Afghan war for The Village Voice and KFI Radio in Los Angeles.

Fear and Crime Follow Taliban Retreat

TALIQAN, Afghanistan -- One week after the Taliban fled this dusty provincial capital to join their comrades defending nearby Kunduz, freedom was in the air. Eleven-year-old boys toting rocket launchers bigger than themselves milled about the central square, playing soccer, flying kites and shooting their AKs into the air. Women briefly lifted their burqas to take a clear look at the workman painting over the Taliban logo on the local school.

I wandered the streets feeling more like Mick Jagger than a citizen of the nation dropping bombs on the locals; a throng of men and boys followed me as I made my way to the market to buy Nescafe and flea powder. Because of Ramadan the bazaar is quiet during the day, but at night the Shah Masood restaurant springs to life. The local specialty is Afghan steak kabobs mixed with eggs (like the country itself, they are interesting but dangerous).

In a scene straight out of the Wild West, fierce gunmen sprawl over the tables, their weaponry laying about as they sing along to Indian movie music blasting from a loudspeaker and occasionally engage one another in fisticuffs. It's hard to believe that just a week ago most of these men were Talibs.

"Of course we will throw away our burqas," a young woman told me at the bazaar, "but we are afraid the Taliban will come back. If they do, they will punish anyone who removes their burqas."

There is uncertainty in the air about whether "the current government", as locals call it, will stay in power. But it's more than that. Women as well as men dread a return to the Mad Max-like state of anarchy that characterized the early '90s, when the Northern Alliance last ruled this country.

From the April 1992 deposal of President Mohammad Najibullah until 1996, when the Taliban dragged him out of a U.N. compound and castrated, shot and hanged him, the Northern Alliance's Islamic State of Afghanistan was less a government than a state of institutionalized chaos. The highways were trolled by rapists and warlords, and the cities became so unsafe that few Afghans dared venture out after dark.

During this period, Afghanistan secured its role as the world's leading supplier of heroin. The Taliban put an end to all that, but at a terrible price -- the rule of law found its pinnacle at 3 o'clock Friday afternoon when criminals were taken to the soccer stadium east of Kabul and subjected to amputation, stoning and execution.

The bad old days, it seems, may be coming back. At this point, the sole expression of government authority here is a lone traffic policeman standing at the Pakistani-style rotary in the middle of the main intersection. By yesterday, even he had repaired to a disused ammunition dump nearby where he could be found fast asleep, a lit cigarette dangling from his lips. Half of the male population -- the heavily armed half -- is cruising the streets looking for people to rob. And the drug trade has made a remarkable overnight comeback; pure opium paste is selling briskly a few blocks off the main drag.

The American bombing campaign, which continues to take a toll on Kunduz and much of Takhar Province, has heightened the sense that there are no longer any rules.

I confronted one of the customers at the opium joint: "Isn't that illegal in Afghanistan?"

"Nothing is illegal in Afghanistan," he replied. "You can do whatever you want and no one cares."

"That's not always true," I suggested.

"The Taliban would have cared," he responded, grinding the paste into fine dust and sprinkling it into a cigarette. "But you Americans have gotten rid of them, and now we are free."

Certainly the Taliban's purist vision of Islam has taken a beating. Though people are faithfully fasting during Ramadan, nary a head turns in response to the mullahs' call to prayer. Alcoholic beverages have become the hottest consumer item in town.

"What? You didn't bring wine?" my guide and "fixer" asked me last night, as he geared up for a night of opium-induced haze.

"All the western journalists bring wine from Tajikistan," he scolded. Along with the collapse of legality and religiosity has come a wholesale plunge into the kind of societal cynicism that could mean real trouble if and when the new (and old) Northern Alliance gets its act together.

"In this country it's hard to tell the difference between life and death," the wine aficionado told me between bites of laghman noodles. "So we might as well live a little between all the dying."

A Rational Alternative to Thoughtless Bombing

Beware collateral damage, for today's hey-nothing-personal victims give rise to tomorrow's terrorists. As this goes to press, a bestiary of bombs -- a few 500-pounders here, some "bunker busters" there -- is falling into Afghan cities. Bombing, despite laughable assertions to the contrary, is anything but a precision art. Bombs go off-course. Bombs hit things that themselves blow up and kill people who weren't supposed to die. Civilians hang out where they shouldn't. And information about bombing targets is often plain wrong or out-of-date.

The bottom line is this: Ordinary Afghan people, men and women and children who have never done anything wrong to anyone, are getting mangled and killed by American bombs. The innocents have spouses, parents and friends, and these spouses, parents and friends quite naturally hate those who mangled and killed their loved ones. That hate festers, and some eventually come to be persuaded that vengeance will soothe their pain. And one day they'll fly planes into office buildings or blow themselves up in shopping malls or do something as yet unimaginable.

Needless to say, getting even doesn't do much good if our vengeance only creates more terrorism.

And yet: the right-wingers are absolutely correct when they assert that doing nothing is not a viable option. Whether we had September 11th coming or not, giving peace a chance is a supreme act of self-denial: there is no peace. Whether the victims cry for vengeance or not is moot: no nation is worthy of the name unless it's willing to react to the murder of its citizens with force. Bush is, like it or not, doing something. People respect that, even if that something later turns out to be counterproductive.

There is, however, an intelligent middle ground between the commonly-considered binary of mindless bombing versus mindless pacifism. Neither liberal nor conservative, a thoughtful solution can be found by applying what we Americans do best: simple common sense.

The Objectives

The "war on terrorism" is, like previous wars on drugs and poverty, too vague and nebulous to win. Our first priority ought to be to bring the remaining perpetrators of the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center to justice; if they end up dead in the attempt, so be it.

Second, while we'll never eradicate terrorist attacks on American soil we can minimize their number and their intensity when they do occur. This requires a delicate combination of force and tact: We must be kind as well as forceful.

What To Do

Afghanistan's Taliban regime is at best indirectly involved with the September 11th hijackings. (The Bush Administration admits that it couldn't indict Osama or the Taliban on the evidence it currently possesses.) Follow the passports: 18 out of the 19 hijackers were Egyptian; 1 was Saudi. The smart money points to one of the Middle East's most venerable militant Muslim organizations, Gama'at al-Islamiyya, or the Islamic Group. Founded by Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, currently serving a life sentence for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Gama'at al-Islamiyya is best known for the November 1997 massacre of 62 tourists at the Temple of Luxor in Egypt and the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981. Though the Islamic Group is composed of numerous splinter cells whose ideology varies, they share a common aim: the replacement of the secular government of Hosni Mubarek by an Islamic theocracy. The Islamic Group resents the U.S. for propping up the Mubarak government as well as Israel.

Egyptians are, according to most reports, the main suspects for September 11th. So why are we attacking Afghanistan? American intelligence should work with the Egyptian government to track down any members of Gama'at al-Islamiyya who had anything to do with the New York and Washington attacks and put them on trial for mass murder. Arresting murderers ought to take precedence over bombing the places where they trained.

A targeted approach would demonstrate to all but the most fanatic elements in the Arab world that the United States is a nation whose retribution takes place in a measured, just manner. It would also serve to destroy the one network to have drawn the most American blood -- and reduce the odds of a repeat performance.

Though we should continue providing economic and military assistance to Israel, that aid ought to be predicated on several conditions. First, all Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories ought to be closed. Second, Israel should guarantee an end to its more egregious human rights abuses, such as the demolition of Arab homes and rocket attacks on civilian targets. Finally, internal border blockades of Gaza and the West Bank should be permanently halted. This bilateral policy -- supporting Israel while refusing to tolerate religious apartheid -- would show that we stand behind our friends but only to the extent that they behave in a civilized fashion. Best of all, it would end an absurd state of affairs in which a superpower is repeatedly manipulated by a resource-free desert nation the size of New Jersey.

We should drop sanctions and military action against such nations as Iraq and Afghanistan in exchange for verifiable assurances that neither nation will harbor terrorists who target the United States. Then we should pour in humanitarian assistance to show ordinary Muslims that Americans care about their plight. Let a co-opted postwar Taliban root out Al Qaeda and other groups in their territory; it's a hell of a lot easier to let the locals do our dirty work than to send in American ground troops.

But first, let's stop this stupid bombing.

Ted Rall, a syndicated cartoonist for Universal Press Syndicate, is the author of the new books 2024 and Search and Destroy.

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