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Regardless of Official Word, Things Aren't So Great

5 March 2002

They are going to beam towers of light up from Battery Park City to create a brilliant, if temporary, memorial to those lost at the World Trade Center.

The ceremonial illumination scheduled for next week promises some uplift. The sky above lower Manhattan is to shimmer again. We need it, and now.

For weeks, darkness has gathered around the war on terror. It has crept in mostly unnoticed, concealed beneath patriotic bunting and official rhetoric that boasts of success, is loathe to acknowledge error and leaves undisclosed everything else.

Peek beneath the red, white and blue drapery and you could not, honestly, say that things have been going so well of late. This was so weeks before U.S. troops took casualties in the current fight to uproot al-Qaida forces massed along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The White House claimed early victory over the Taliban and bragged of liberating the oppressed. "We are winning the war on terror," President George W. Bush declared in his State of the Union address.

The CIA, meanwhile, was compiling a downbeat dossier. It depicts the new Afghanistan as rife with competing warlords and bristling with ethnic tension, as well as the usual meddling from Iran. Days ago, there was a mortar attack on a boys' school in Sarobi. Its victims were as young as 8. The countryside beyond Kabul teeters sometimes toward lawlessness.

The United Nations, in the past week, reported these developments: Afghanistan's opium cultivation is back up to a "relatively high level" throughout the country. While some Afghan refugees are now being repatriated, there's been a sharp rise in the number of Afghans moving toward Chaman, a border crossing in southern Pakistan. "The Afghans are also looking more and more destitute," Kris Janowski, a spokesman for the UN in Geneva, said in a statement.

Of the $1.8 billion the UN says is required for humanitarian aid and recovery in Afghanistan, only $600 million has been raised.

Meanwhile in Pakistan, the government of President Pervez Musharraf is trying to squelch an emerging alliance among radical Islamic groups that threatens to unhinge that country, too. Attacks on a police bus, a mosque, even an air base, have occurred. Turning over the main suspect in the Daniel Pearl murder is not automatic. It may well provoke a militant uprising.

The "axis-of-evil" epithet hurled toward Iran had this effect: Iranians took to the streets for huge anti-American protests. Hard-line religious conservatives have been emboldened, and the Iranian moderates, who the administration only months ago pursued, are cowed.

Bush, meanwhile, pursues his goal of eradicating terrorism around the globe by dispatching, or considering the dispatch, of the U.S. military to the Philippines, the former Soviet Georgia, Yemen. In such a global endeavor, it is a good thing to have world opinion on our side. This is not for winning a popularity contest. It is for winning pragmatic cooperation.

But we have not made new friends or endeared ourselves even to the old. A Gallup Poll taken in nine Muslim countries last month found that by a 2 to 1 margin, residents expressed an unfavorable opinion of the United States. Large majorities said the U.S. action in Afghanistan is "morally unjustifiable." All the countries Gallup surveyed, except Iran, are allies.

The administration departs only infrequently from its policy of providing no information. Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) was greeted with the usual sneering put-down from the White House spokesman, and attacks from his Republican counterpart, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss), when he dared ask questions that can't even be considered tough: What comes next, where, why and how?

We were supposed to have learned the danger of conducting a war when word from the official podium sounds out-of-sync with the word that rises up, spontaneously, from the ground. This is not to say there have been lies of the Vietnam variety. There is, though, the whiff of a Nixonian stink bomb - the hint someone is unpatriotic - that permeates the response to those who dare ask how things are going.

This path tempts because it seems an easy shortcut to maintaining public support. It is, though, a perilous route this administration must abandon for its own sake, and for ours.

Marie Cocco
Published in the Newsday (Long Island, New York) © 2002 Newsday Inc

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