For six or seven weeks now, the United States cleared with surprising ease many of the hurdles that might have caused it to stumble. In the Afghan war, the Northern Alliance proved astonishingly effective when linked with Special Forces who could call in American air strikes. While it's not clear that anti-Taliban factions active in southern and eastern Afghanistan actually won any battles – as opposed to negotiating surrenders with their surrounded tribal counterparts – they were able to gain and hold Taliban territory. The Western financial system did not spiral into a tailspin, as it seemed it might in the weeks after 9-11. The predominantly Muslim Central Asian countries in Russia's orbit proved extremely cooperative – enabling US forces to operate from bases there, thus making possible the Northern Alliance's first crucial victories. Islamist mobs in Pakistan never achieved the critical mass needed to overthrow General Musharraf – and so Washington and the world were spared the quandary of what to do about a nuclear-armed Islamist state. By the last weekend then, America's leading television pundits felt free to amuse themselves with soft questions, sorting amongst various favorable alternatives. Would it be better to try Osama bin Laden at The Hague, in an American courtroom, by military tribunal, or would it best simply to shoot him on the battlefield? This was the lead question on the last McLaughlin Group (generally a probing and interesting show) last Sunday. Everybody on the air simply assumed that the headlines from Tora Bora meant that bin Laden would soon be in hand, dead or alive. And then, the spell passed, the flush of victory – or victory in "Phase One" – seemed premature. Tora Bora has passed from Al Qaeda's hands – but bin Laden is nowhere to be seen. And slowly it began to sink in that that this Afghan campaign is likely to end in a kind of frustration – a long and titillating build up with no satisfactory climax. We are left with reports of unpaid Afghan soldiers (guys from our side) committing crime waves in Kabul. Nobody in Washington gets to decide what to do with bin Laden. And absent a decisive victory, all the difficult questions about what happens next seem that much murkier. Pakistan suddenly appears on lists as a possibility for the next US action. Pakistan? Can it be that our crucial ally against terror in Afghanistan is about to be transformed into a villain? And who knows where the bin Laden trail leads next – Somalia perhaps, or Iran, or Saudi Arabia? Or does the administration just forget about bin Laden and switch to the plan the neoconservatives have pined for all along – war against Iraq? Here Washington can contemplate strategic isolation. Russian president Vladimir Putin, whose timely support was crucial in the defeat of the Taliban, repeats his warnings against an American strike against Baghdad. Perhaps the Bush team doesn't care – perhaps it believes that a friendly Russia isn't much use in the war against terror – though it would hard to imagine that anything is more critical to American security than tight control over the former Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal. Germany's Schroeder announces that he too opposes a war against Saddam Hussein. Britain's Blair has made the case already. Meanwhile the Mid-East peace process lies in tatters. "Good riddance," say the neocons – the only thing they want more than an American campaign against Iraq is the burial of the Oslo peace process and the death of Palestinian hopes for an independent state. The American newspapers repeat again and again the line that there is absolutely no linkage between America's Mideast policies and terrorism against the United States. After the last bin Laden video was released demonstrating to all the world the Saudi's culpability for the 9-11 attacks, the New York Times claimed that he made no reference, in the recorded conversation, to the Israel-Palestinian issue. But here the Times was flatly wrong – bin Laden did talk about the "the children of Al Aqsa" a reference to the current intifada and the Jerusalem mosque that is at the emotional center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But such is the punditocracy's investment in the notion that there is no connection whatsoever between terror against Americans, and US backing of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory that no one seemed to notice the Times' error – no one except, on his website, Mickey Kaus. So after six or seven weeks in a row in which everything appeared better than it had after the previous one, the trend has been reversed. No one knows where bin Laden is. Matters are worse in Pakistan, where conflict with India over Kashmir threatens to escalate at any time; worse in the Middle East. Worse in our relations with Russia. Potentially worse with Germany. And perhaps worse in the hearts and minds of Americans – simply because the Saudi terrorist has served as so clear and so unifying a target in what will now become a more complicated and diffuse campaign. Now suddenly there are many more possibilities for President Bush to make poor decisions, and one must hope and pray for his wisdom.
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