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Stardate 20011117.1806 (Crew, this is the Captain): A "blog debate" is where two people with their own web logs disagree with each other, and use their web logs to post their arguments and responses. It has unique characteristics over other kinds of debates. Over any kind of real-time debate, it doesn't require that the debater think on his feet. Since each debater controls his own ability to transmit his message, he need not fear being suppressed. Given that the debate is constructed in HTML, footnotes and supporting evidence can readily be cited or included. Pictures can be used (an advantage over news-group debates). All the powers of the medium are available for use by the debaters, who will thus be limited only by the strength of their case. And others will have the ability to observe the process, and just as with two soapboxes in the town square will be able to listen to both sides and try to decide who made the most convincing case -- or to decide that they're both full of shit. (Which has been known to happen.)

Public debate is essential to a liberal democracy, which is why freedom of expression is sanctified in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. And this is never more true than in time of crisis, when the government is forced to respond to extreme challenges and the form the response should take is not immediately obvious -- such as in time of war.

There has been a great deal of punditry about this war, in the press and online. I am no-one important but I've contributed my share on the pro-war side of the debate. I've taken several published anti-war arguments and tried to demonstrate why they're wrong. In some cases the arguments I evaluated approached the ludicrous, while others have been less flawed. But I have not yet seen what I consider to be a single convincing argument against this war, because they all had the same fundamental flaw: none of them would work in the real world. None of them would actually solve the problem we face.

Things like "Instead of spending money on bombing Afghanistan, why not spend that money on bringing clean drinking water to the Third World?" That sounds like a noble goal, but how exactly would that make al Qaeda stop attacking us? Other examples abound, but there's no sense in rehashing them. (Take a look through the archives; you won't have to look far.)

But in the course of doing this, I've been accused more than once of fighting straw men. That's not an accurate characterization; technically a "straw man" is where I invent a fictitious argument and put it in the mouths of my opponents. In actuality, I've been responding to real writings which I've cited with links. But the spirit of the criticism is that I'm selecting egregious examples from the left to criticize, and that the ones I'm selecting are not typical. The idea is that if I were to take on a more worthy opponent I would not do so well.

I'm game. I've issued an open challenge to MetaFilter's anti-war left to a blog debate on the subject of the war:

Resolved: The United States is correct to be fighting this war and should not stop doing so.

The rules of the game are as follows: Rebecca Blood specifically, and the first two other people who contact me by email, will engage in open debate. I will post my arguments here, they will post theirs on their own sites. I will permit each of my opponents to either make the first statement or to choose that I should do so. (If more than one want me to do so, I'll probably only write one such.) I will maintain a summary page here for each such debate which contains links to each entry in the debate so that readers who wish to can follow it if they wish to. My opponents are welcome to do the same. Entries in the debate may be blog entries or separate pages entirely at the option of the writer. Anything which the writer wishes to include will be permitted; they own their own pages and can post what they wish; the only limit is that whatever you post must be linkable. Each party will inform the other by email after writing their latest entry. Third parties may participate if they wish (on their own pages) but no primary debater will have any obligation to link to third parties (i.e. you can't invite yourselves in, though we can link to you if we wish).

Here's what I won't accept: I will not play by Berkeley rules. I have an incisive mind and encyclopedic knowledge and I have blood in my eye. I will not accept any concept that all points of view are equally valid (they aren't) or that I should honor what someone else says as a matter of courtesy (I won't). Ideas in this debate must stand or fall on their own merits. If I think you're wrong about something, I'm going to say so and do my best to prove it.

My contention is that the reason that Berkeley liberals try to suppress debate is because they know that their concepts would not survive the process. I refuse to accept that it is rude to tell someone that they are wrong; on the contrary, I think that it is an essential aspect of free speech. If my debating partners can construct a case I cannot knock down, then they will win the hearts and minds of those who follow the debate, and have a real chance of making a political difference. And by the same token, I'm going to try to make my points as well as I possibly can, and I fully expect criticism by my opponents. I will answer their criticisms as best I can.

There won't be formal judges; there won't be a score; there won't be a declaration of a winner and a loser. Debate ends when one side or the other gets tired (though that doesn't mean that he loses). But winners and losers there will be, and the judges will be those who read our points of view and decide how to vote. The prize is political influence for your point of view. (discussion in progress)

Stardate 20011117.1643 (On Screen): The Arab world is facing the dilemma of the Internet: if they refuse to use it, they'll fall behind technologically and economically, but if they permit widespread use then they have to accept American-style freedom of expression. Most of the Arab states, even such "liberal" ones as Saudi Arabia, have tight controls over the press and broadcast media. If they embrace the internet then their people will have access to all the dangerous ideas it contains: criticism of their governments, political concepts of liberty, more accurate knowledge of how their nations actually fit into the world (and how unimportant many of them really are), attitudes about sex and life and human interactions, pictures of naked people having sex and doing other fun things -- even the ravings of a demented starship captain who sometimes dreams that he lives in San Diego.

And most dangerous of all: they'll meet and get to know people in other nations, and discover that they're actually really quite nice folks, and not demons incarnate after all. That's because the Internet is all or nothing. You can't part-way access it. Other nations as varied as Singapore and China have tried to use it without the body politic being seduced by it, and have mostly failed. The larger a nation, the less able it will be to keep control over the uncontrolled flow of ideas, which are the currency of the internet. (It is, after all, the most efficient means of transporting information that the world has yet seen.) Ideas and knowledge are the most dangerous thing there is to authoritarian regimes; once people find out just how petty and incompetent and brutal their own governments are, they will agitate for change.

Which is why I think that this meeting in Dubai will come to nothing. It's true that lack of access to the internet will hold the Arab nations back and make them uncompetitive. But permitting access will cause Arab governments to fall -- and that's more important. (To the governments.) (discussion in progress)

Stardate 20011117.0936 (On Screen): And I thought I was a good surgeon. Photodude finds a most amazing article on a UK web site and gives it a proper dissection. But he exercises some restraint; a proper dissection of this one would probably take a book. It is so deluded as to be beyond belief; who are these people? So consider this a secondary dissection, but read Photodude's work first.

Helping the Northern Alliance and other Afghan factions to chase away the Taliban is one thing. Many have rightly noted that it will be much more difficult to sort out the subsequent chaos in Afghanistan. More strikingly, the war has done nothing to 'sort out' the problems of fear, insecurity, fragmentation and alienation within American and Western societies - which was the primary aim of Washington's response to 11 September.

We begin the delusions with the a priori assumption that the war is a failure. So if it seems to be achieving its goal, then we restate the goal so that it hasn't actually been achieved. This is the first time I've heard that the goal of the war was to reduce fear, insecurity etc. I always thought the goal of the war was to prevent future attacks against this nation. (Silly me.)

We at spiked opposed this war, but we never doubted that the power of the US-led coalition could blow away a ragtag, stateless force like the Taliban, which eventually left Kabul the same way it entered the city in 1996 - without a fight.

We're such bullies; the peace-loving Taliban never harmed a fly, let alone another person, and if we'd just asked nicely they'd have left Kabul -- so why all that vicious bombing? Never mind that they bailed out of Kabul after fiercely resisting up north at Mazar-e Sharif, where there was quite serious fighting. How cruel of us to actually fight a war against our enemies. How dare we?

Osama bin Laden, said to be the leader of the al-Qaeda terrorist network, was soon put in the frame, followed by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, after it refused Anglo-American demands to arrest and extradite bin Laden on the basis of evidence that it was not allowed to see. (This always seemed one of the Taliban's more reasonable attitudes.)

Oh, that's rich. What's this "said to be" business? Are they seriously trying to contend that bin Laden is innocent? As to "evidence", the Taliban were presented with evidence of bin Laden's involvement in the attacks on the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania three years ago, and that alone was sufficient for extradition. Does the fact that a man commits a new crime suddenly grant him a pardon for all previous crimes?

In recent weeks, we have noted on spiked how a mood of something approaching moral defeatism seemed to have settled over the Western elite. This week's displays of short-term triumphalism cannot stem the underlying corrosion of self-confidence and authority in the West.

And many others have noted a marked disconnect between the attitudes and mood of the "elite" and of the rest of us. You bet your sweet ass the elite have been defeatist, and they've been taking a lot of criticism for it, too.

I can't go on. It's just too putrid. (I guess Photodude also got too disgusted.) (discuss)

Stardate 20011117.0848 (On Screen): So the Harry Potter movie is finally in theaters, and by all accounts it's going to be a smash hit. Ebert gave it 4 stars, Berardinelli gave it three, and right now it's got a 79% on the Tomatometer. There's good reason to believe it's going to set a box office record this weekend.

And if it's good, then why? Because it's based on good material. The one thing that Hollywood never seems to twig on: good movies are based on good scripts. Big name actors and lots of explosions and special effects cannot retrieve a lousy script. But rather than learning the lesson that "Harry Potter is a winner because it's a good story, so let's go find some more good stories" it's a sure thing that in about 9 months we're going t be drenched with Potter-alikes, because Hollywood will think that the lesson is "Stories about kids and magic are winners now." And they're almost all sure to be execrable. (discuss)

And there's a damned good chance that we'll see a Potter-alike TV show next year. And it will be done with American actors, and it's going to suck.

Stardate 20011117.0836 (On Screen): Taliban Ambassador Zaeef says that bin Laden has left Afghanistan. In other words, "You can stop bombing us now. Go away, there's nothing to see here anymore." All together now: "This was never about apprehending bin Laden." It was always about destroying al Qaeda, and that's not finished. Anyway, Zaeef has a long record of blatant lies, so why should we believe him now? (discuss)

Ah, so that's where Zaeef is!

Update: Actually, bin Laden hasn't left after all.

Stardate 20011117.0652 (On Screen): Now that the war is suddenly going well, France has decided to commit ten warplanes to the battle. I have four words to say about this: Too little, too late. (discuss)

What is this business of all the continental European nations suddenly rushing to make token commitments of men to the war now that it's suddenly going very well and looks as if it's going to be won? Where the hell were they all when the situation was still in doubt?

Update: Chirac says that France is going to win this war. Apparently those poor, bumbling Americans just couldn't take care of it and need the French to come in and win it for them with 10 jets. Or at least that's the impression you'd get from his speech: no sign in there of any indication that the US Air Force or US Navy might actually be doing anything in Afghanistan.

Stardate 20011117.0645 (On Screen): Game Theory is, despite the name, one of the most important new mathematical fields of the last 200 years. It began as a study of games but it clearly became obvious that it was actually a study of conflict, and it has application to such things as negotiation strategies, business relations and war. For example, it includes formal ways of creating decision matrices to try to evaluate what you can do, what your enemy can do, what the outcome would be in each combinatorial case, and thus permits you to choose an option which is least detrimental to your side. But part of that is that you assume your enemy is smart and crafty and doesn't deliberately screw himself over by doing something stupid.

One mistake when evaluating such a decision matrix is to look for the outcome which is most advantageous for your own side (which usually involves your opponent doing something stupid) and then to select that tactic on your own side in hopes that your opponent does in fact do the proper stupid thing. It's been known to happen, but that's not the way to bet. The right way to handle it is to first evaluate the decision matrix from the point of view of your opponent and decide which of his choices are best for him; then you figure out how to counter them.

A sure sign that you're dealing with amateurs is if you find them trying to plan their war for the best outcome for themselves. And that's what this news article reports that the Taliban/al-Qaeda top command seem to be doing:

Bin Laden, Mir said, had decided to "carry on his fight from the mountains" and turn the war into a guerrilla conflict rather than an unequal fight pitching the Taliban against an opposition backed by massive U.S. bombing.

"According to my understanding, he knew the Northern Alliance would take Kabul and other cities," Mir said.

"But he said that if the Northern Alliance came out into the cities and came out into the open, the Taliban would get the advantage. He wants to get the Americans into the open also."

In conventional battles, anti-Taliban troops were able to leave most of the work to U.S. bombers and missiles, something that particularly irked Zawahri, Mir said.

"They are just sitting playing chess and playing volleyball while we are getting bombed," Mir quoted Zawahri as saying. "We want to bring them out into the open so we can attack them."

In other words, we Taliban can still win this if only the other side makes a drastic mistake and does the one thing that would give us the best chance of wiping them out. Why aren't they doing that?

Because "they" are not fools and don't want to lose the war. Yes, indeed, we are sitting back and waiting while we bomb the crap out of Taliban forces, and only moving in after they've been shattered by the bombs. And the result has been a major victory with minor losses to the Northern Alliance forces.

Part of this is, I think, also the warrior mentality. To the Taliban top command the way this war has been fought is vaguely dishonorable; it's not how you're supposed to fight. You're supposed to win with courage and valor, you're supposed to come out and fight man-to-man, so that you can prove that you're the better warrior. And the battle should go to the side with the best warriors. These stupid Americans won't do that; they just sit back and drop bombs on us and we can't fight back or prove that we're better warriors. Uh, yeah; and that's the difference between soldiers and warriors: warriors are trying to prove their bravery, soldiers are trying to win wars. And it's why soldiers will always defeat warriors.

If these are the terms in which the Taliban leadership are still thinking, then they are doomed. That's because we're not going to give them a set-piece open terrain pitched battle any time soon. If it happens, it's only going to be after they've been severely weakened by months of bombing. (discuss)

Stardate 20011117.0536 (On Screen via long range sensors): This is thoroughly despicable. This poster is actually trying to justify the crash at the Pentagon. He claims that the news reporting of the event was slanted; what he wanted to see was the press investigating each of the victims to determine if any of them had themselves killed anyone in time of war (in Viet Nam or in Iraq). He is actually trying to say that he wanted the press to work to prove that everyone who died at the Pentagon deserved to die. But if the press won't do it, then we'll have to do it ourselves, he then says:

Those who are interested may want to go down the list, and check out some of the other names, and find out how many served in Vietnam, Iraq, Lebanon, and other areas where US troops killed Asians and Arabs. The study is worthwhile, and may help to put the current so-called “war on terrorism” into perspective.

And then he proceeds to list the names of all the victims at the Pentagon as a basis for research of each to prove that they all deserved to die. Fuck him and the horse he rode in on. (discuss)

Note that he's posting anonymously.

Stardate 20011117.0451 (On Screen): It seems that no-one bothered to get permission first before deciding to send in a hundred Royal Marines to secure the Bagram airbase, and the Northern Alliance doesn't like it. They've said that all but 15 have to leave; they're very leery right now about having foreign troops on their soil. Given the history, both recent and ancient, of foreign troops, that's perhaps understandable. Anyway, there will be negotiations.

What I find curious is that there's no mention of the Americans who also went in. Of course, right now the Northern Alliance are feeling rather solicitous about American troops, having had them fight along side and bring in the all-important air strikes and generally majorly facilitate the recent victories. On the other hand, in all the coverage of this British troop movement to Kabul I've only seen one mention of the fact that Americans also went in, and that was low key. So we may be seeing the fact that the Afghans object to Brits but not to Americans, or it may just be that the press is ignoring the Americans again. (discussion in progress)

Update: CNN reports on this story (basically by commenting on the Reuters story) and makes more clear that it is the excess 85 British that are being objected to. I'm beginning to think that it is indeed the case that they don't object to the Americans. (It's also possible that CNN was incorrect and that there aren't actually any Americans there.) I'm beginning to wonder what will happen when the French try to move into the airport at Mazar-e Sharif in a couple of days.

Update: Apparently this is a case of press overreaction. The guy who made that announcement wasn't speaking on behalf of the Northern Alliance but was just venting. For the moment the NA isn't quite speaking with a single voice.

Stardate 20011117.0413 (On Screen via long range sensors): The plans for a nuclear bomb that were seemingly found in Kabul by the London Times have been recognized by Daily Rotten (Scan for the November 16 entry) as being a copy of a fake entry called "How to build an Atom Bomb" from the Journal of Irreproducible Results. (Anyone familiar with that journal is now doubled over with laughter...) No wonder they were left behind after the Northern Alliance carted away everything important. (discuss)

Stardate 20011116.1942 (On Screen): The World Food Program announced that it has shipped 52,000 metric tons of food into Afghanistan in November, enough to meet its target. There are some distribution problems (which are being worked out) and there remain some security issues, which will stabilize as the Northern Alliance continues to pacify the country and as western troops move in and secure airports. The NGO's which were distributing food are returning to take up that job again, and it's looking now as if mass starvation in Afghanistan can be avoided. This is, of course, superb news. It means that the Afghan people are in nearly every way better off now because of this war, which is a boon.

One staple of leftist anti-war writings recently has been the claim that millions of Afghans were going to starve this winter (and it was going to be all our fault because we refused to stop the bombing) and now that appears to be unlikely. But I bet we still see claims and accusations over the next month or so that millions of Afghans are starving because of us. Why let little things like facts get in the way of good rhetoric? (discussion in progress)

Update: I posted this article onto MetaFilter, and an hour and a half later there's no expressions of joy, no sighs of relief, no cheers, no celebration about a tragedy averted -- in fact, there's no response at all. If I didn't know better, I'd think that the people using that system were disappointed to read this. After all, now it means they have nothing to complain about.

Stardate 20011116.1912 (On Screen): The contribution of the US Navy to the recent events in Afghanistan cannot be overstated. The ability to move three big-deck carriers (CVN) into the area rapidly gave the US the ability to achieve air supremacy rapidly, and to begin tactical and strategic bombing which lead directly to the collapse of the Taliban and the successful ground action by the Northern Alliance. Much bombing has been done by large land-based bombers (primarily B-52 and B-1 bombers flying from Oman and Diego Garcia) but the majority of the bombing has been done by jets flying from USS Enterprise, USS Theodore Roosevelt, and USS Carl Vinson. As it happened, the tactical needs of the theater didn't require more jets than were available on two CVNs, so when Roosevelt moved into the Arabian Sea it was to replace Enterprise which had overstayed its original mission and was due for relief. But if need be the US could have assigned as many as six CVNs to the theater. Without the CVNs, this campaign would have followed a drastically different course; it would have been necessary to develop local airbases in Pakistan and to deploy substantial Air Force fighters and bombers to them before the air campaign could have begun. That would, in this case, have been a substantially more difficult diplomatic problem to pull off; Pakistan was reluctant even to permit use of its airspace, and refused to permit use of its airbases in that way. But because we had the CVNs we didn't need any more than the use of an air corridor over southern Pakistan to permit jets through.

According to this news article (at the bottom) the EU is looking at the results of this campaign and realizing that if it had been a European city which had been attacked instead of American, that the EU would not have had the ability to respond as the US has because the EU doesn't actually have an army. NATO does, but NATO is not the EU, and in such a case the EU would have had to go beg the US for help. Given the reluctance with which the Europeans (except the UK) have provided military aid to the US in this, that prospect is profoundly embarassing. So they're talking about creating an EU rapid-reaction force of 60,000 men which, presumably, would be separate from NATO and not under its jurisdiction. That's probably wise, but the problem is that even if the EU had such a force now, then if the 9/11 attack had been on Europe it still would have had to beg the US for help.

That's because the EU doesn't have the ability to project air power because it doesn't have enough carriers, and all the ones it does have are under NATO control. Ignoring the NATO complication and assuming they could all be deployed, here's what you got:

NameCountryDisplacement (tons)# jets
Charles de GaulleFrance36,60040
Principe de AsturiasSpain17,20012
Ark Royal
UK20,60015 ea

Total is 140 jets. Compare that to the US CVNs:

NameDisplacement (tons)# jets
Kitty Hawk
John F Kennedy
81,70066 ea
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Carl Vinson
Theodore Roosevelt
Abraham Lincoln
George Washington
John C. Stennis
Harry S. Truman
(Ronald Reagan)
80,000-90,00066 ea

(All these figures are from Jane's. The actual number of jets carried by US CVNs is actually slightly higher than given here. USS Ronald Reagan is being built now.) In other words, deploying every single carrier that the Europeans own would provide just about as many jets as two American CVNs -- and it isn't practical to do that for an extended war. (I might mention that about half the combat jets that operate off the existing European carriers are Harriers. All of the US combat jets are Tomcats and Hornets. Harriers are not bad jets but they are not air-superiority jets; even a Hornet can outfly one, even though it's primarily a bomber.) Carriers cannot stay on station indefinitely; they need to be relieved, their crews need time off, and the planes and ships need service. Six months is just about the limit, and 3 months is better if it can be managed. After that the combat capability of the carrier will begin to decline precipitously due to equipment failure and crew fatigue. Stennis is moving to the Sea of Arabia now to replace Vinson, which deployed into the theater in late August, but the US has enough carriers so that it can keep three on station there indefinitely. And the needs for air cover in Afghanistan have been relatively light; we used four CVNs to support Desert Storm, and a hypothetical battle in future could require as many as six.

The British are building two new carriers at about 40,000 tons, which will replace the three they have now. Each will have the ability to operate about 40 of the upcoming Joint Strike Fighters, totaling 80. With the addition of those two and deletion of the three existing British carriers, that brings Europe up to a total of 184 jets, about the same as three US CVNs. That still isn't enough since only about half their carriers could actually operate in a single theater on a continuing basis, with the others rotating or at home getting repairs and permitting crew time off.

Which leads to the following interesting result: even with this hypothetical 60,000 man rapid reaction force, the EU might still have to beg the US to loan it part of the US Navy if they were to try to fight a war such as the one the US is currently fighting in Afghanistan, unless they wanted to try to fight it with insufficient air cover or were lucky enough to manage to get air basing rights in a nearby friendly nation (which can't be guaranteed, as the war in Afghanistan proves). (discussion in progress)

Stardate 20011116.1719 (On Screen): So a man ran by the security checkpoint at the Atlanta airport and vanished into the airport, and as a result the airport was evacuated and air travel all over the eastern part of the US was disrupted, in as much as Atlanta is one of the busiest airports in the world. (My ex-girlfriend's family lives in North Carolina, and they told me that a standing joke there is that you can't even go to Hell without passing through Atlanta.)

Now all the security guards are armed, right? And we're supposed to be on high alert for the air industry, right? And someone deliberately passing a checkpoint is assumed to be dangerous until proven otherwise, right? So why wasn't this guy shot?

I'm not bloodthirsty, but this is just the latest incident that shows that even after everything we've gone through that the air industry is still not serious about security. They seem to be hassling innocent people while at the same time fucking up stuff like this. Is it time to start hitting the airlines with some serious fines? Or perhaps something different: any airline which permits a security breach during the next six months will be disqualified from getting any federal economic assistance including loan guarantees and subsidized insurance. I think it's time for at least one airline to bite the big one; I know I'm not alone when I say that this has gone on long enough. The American airline industry is a basket case because it's being run by idiots. (discussion in progress)

Update: Logan Airport in Boston has suspended the license of Argenbright Security because they've allowed two major security breaches since September and they can "no longer be trusted." Argenbright Security is based in Atlanta. Anyone want to make any wagers on what security company was involved in today's fiasco in Atlanta's own airport? Hmmm?

Update: They found him; he's under arrest. It's probably just as well that they didn't shoot him, since he wasn't a terrorist. He was just a fool. But it's still a serious question of how it was even possible for him to bypass the security station so easily. Why isn't it set up so that there is no path to do that?

Update 20011117: Asked why the guards didn't physically stop him, Collins said, "They don't have the authority to touch any passengers. They can only sound an alert." WTF? The security guards don't have the right to physically restrain someone who is bypassing the security inspection station? Then what the hell are they there for?

Stardate 20011116.1412 (On Screen via long range sensors): So, at long last Iron Chef USA will broadcast tonight. It's a special and the plan is that if it does well they'll make a series out of it. According to this report, there's little chance of that since the show stinks. It's a complete disaster with no redeeming features.

Contrary to previous reports, there's no "Iron Chef English", which is something anyway. The four Iron Chefs are French, Italian, Asian and American. American cooking is nothing like as famous as other kinds, but there is much here to prize, especially when you consider such things as Cajun and Caribbean and Tex-Mex, not to mention barbecue. And many dishes we think of as being ethnic from other parts of the world were actually invented in the US, or so heavily modified here as to not resemble their originals in the home country. (American pizza, for example, is reported to completely outclass the Italian dish on which it is based.)

Regardless, the entire concept is flawed. Iron Chef worked because of the transplant of Samurai ethic; it was intended to be Samurai duels with pots and pans. They borrowed all the trappings of martial arts, including "schools" and rivalries and supposed grudges; it worked because it was quintessentially Japanese. (One of the fascinating story lines they kept following was of traditional Japanese chefs challenging Morimoto because he was too radical, not to mention because he was living in New York. He kept beating them, but then Morimoto is truly a master, as are they all.) It hit all the right notes, being ludicrous in the extreme in some regards while being completely fascinating in other ways. And the cooking is always, always, absolutely top notch. That's the key. Everything else is over the top, but the cooking saves it all -- and must, because at least two of the panel members, and sometimes all four, are gourmets.

None of that translates to America. We don't have the samurai ethic here; and I fear it would come off instead like some sort of game show -- which would crush the seriousness of the food and remove the one thing that makes the show work. From the sound of it they missed out on having any actual food experts on the panel and went completely with show business "personalities" (and lousy ones, at that). And then there's Shatner, a very poor trade for Chairman Kaga. I certainly have no intention whatever of watching Iron Chef USA; let's let it die of poor ratings. (discuss)

Stardate 20011116.1318 (On Screen): There is a political crisis in Serbia. An elite military force is objecting to changes in its status and may try to take over the government. Properly they are in insurrection and are now criminal. The police there are arming as best they can to resist, but for the moment the "Red Berets" are concentrated in their own base. Which leads to an interesting idea: would the Serbian government welcome one last NATO airstrike on their territory? For the moment the Red Berets are very concentrated and would be an ideal target; we could knock the majority of them out in a couple of hours if need be. No more than three or four combat jets flying out of Italy would be needed in order finish the job. It's a thought, anyway. (discussion in progress)

Update 20011117: The situation has been resolved peacefully.

Stardate 20011116.1304 (On Screen): Morale is critically important for any military force, but even more so for warriors than for soldiers, which is what the Taliban army was made up of. The warrior ethic involves even more infatuation with victory than does that of the soldier; while a soldier wants victory, a warrior will not accept anything less. In the Afghan warrior culture, an army which begins to lose will find its support melting away, and that also extends to other kinds of support.

And now that appears to be happening big-time to the Taliban. Upwards of ten thousand Pakistanis crossed into Afghanistan to fight for the Taliban. (Little good it did them; as mentioned here before, untrained volunteers like that are almost useless.) Then those Pakistanis saw the Taliban bail out of Kabul, and they themselves lost heart or conviction in the cause, and now they're returning to Pakistan in droves, as many as didn't manage to get themselves killed or wounded or captured. Equally, support for the Taliban in Pakistan itself has dwindled. Their preachers continue to address crowds but the crowds seem strangely unenthusiastic, and suddenly it's no longer fashionable to wear T-shirts with the face of bin Laden on them.

It took six years for US morale to collapse during the Viet Nam war; it took about a week for that of the Taliban to shatter. That's one of the differences between them and us. Much of their power was based on fear and intimidation and most of the rest was based on bandwagon effect. Those are very fragile assets. Few in their force were motivated by loyalty or a belief in the cause.

And that is why they lost. Most of their force abandoned them when they became losers, and in any case in modern warfare numbers of bodies don't matter. What matters is military power, and to understand that you have to understand force multipliers, which at its lowest terms means that not all soldiers are equally dangerous. Based strictly on numbers, the US has more men involved in this fight than the Taliban did, but few of those Americans are in Afghanistan. But when you consider that the three carriers in the Arabian sea collectively carry crews of about 16,000, and add to that all the crews of the support ships in three carrier battle groups, and all the ground forces in Oman and on Diego Garcia and elsewhere supporting all the bombers, and AWACS and aerial tankers, and the logistics troops involved in keeping them all supplied, and planning and command forces in Central Command and back to the Pentagon, not to mention the substantial manpower involved in intelligence, the United States may well have upwards of a hundred thousand men directly involved in this war already. Because of that, each special forces man on the ground in Afghanistan was quite literally worth a battalion in terms of actual combat power, because there was a battalion standing behind every single one of them. (This war has the lowest tooth-to-tail ratio of any war I've ever heard of, by a very long margin.)But one American forward air controller team (say, five men) has had the ability to direct and apply more firepower than two thousand Taliban troops dug in around Mazar-e Sharif. A couple such FAC teams were able to so severely degrade the combat ability of the defenders as to make it possible for Northern Alliance forces to walk into the place virtually unopposed. That's because they operate with an unprecedented force multiplier; it's no exaggeration to call each of them an "army of one"; there have been many armies in history with less combat ability then each of those men. But that's because they were the tip of a very large iceberg. And indirectly because of their attachment to Northern Alliance forces, the combat power of each Northern Alliance man probably rose ten-fold, so that a relatively small Northern Alliance force was able not only to defeat the Taliban, but to completely rout them while suffering minimal casualties.

And that's one of many reasons why those hastily-organized Pakistani formations of untrained men were virtually useless in combat, and didn't end up making any military difference. They were dealing with an almost negligible force multiplier by comparison to their enemies. Cannon-fodder do not win wars, and that's all they were. (discussion in progress)

Stardate 20011116.1133 (On Screen): Mullah Omar has agreed to evacuate Kandahar, and move his remaining forces into the hills. That leaves only Kunduz in the north in Taliban hands, and that's hardly an asset. (A trap is more like it; the Taliban forces there are doomed.) That means we are indeed moving into the next phase of the war, where they will go to ground and try to fight a guerrilla action. This is a good thing -- for us. (discuss)

By the way, anyone notice that Ambassador Zaeef fell off the radar screen about Monday? There were rumors that the Taliban embassy in Pakistan had decamped and fled; I wonder if it's true, and if so I wonder where he went.

Stardate 20011116.1029 (On Screen):

The Taliban never have functioned as a tight military organization. Knocking out Mullah Omar's Kandahar headquarters will not necessarily affect their ability to fight. Taliban groups could easily return to guerrilla warfare, against which bombing will have only limited effect.

During the decade-long Soviet conflict, it was this lack of a central leadership that proved to be the greatest strength of the resistance. As one British military source noted, "We would be fools to assume that the battle has been won."

The question now is to what extent the battle for Afghanistan will harden, with Taliban groups fighting on their own turf. Another is whether they will have local support, particularly if outside Arab funding or backing from Pakistani intelligence stops. A further factor is the willingness of the hard-line militants of al-Qaida and other foreign Islamic organizations, who constitute up to half the Taliban fighters, to persist in a country where they are not wanted.

Those are legitimate questions, but it's important not to become too bogged down in the problems we face, so as to forget the problems that they face. For one thing, the guerrilla operations against the USSR are not comparable to a hypothetical guerrilla action by the Taliban. Even a guerrilla action has to be supplied, and that means you need access to at least one friendly border, plus patrons elsewhere willing to provide you with the money needed to keep the guerrillas in supply. In the 1980's, that border was Pakistan and the foreign patron was primarily the US, which poured $3 billion into supporting the Mujahideen. But if the Taliban head for the hills, they will not have access to any friendly border (because there aren't any: all six neighboring nations hate the Taliban). Smuggling is still possible but it is far less efficient and not enough in the way of supplies will get through. But that can be tolerated if there is substantial support from the local peoples. Only problem is that right now it appears that even in the Pashtun south there is little or no support left for them: several years of brutality and control by foreigners has made that nearly certain. (The general Pashtun uprising in progress confirms that.)

While the areas around Kandahar are relatively flat, and thus difficult to defend, much of the war may now move into hazardous mountainous terrain in the east. This will enable the Taliban to mix more readily with civilians, making it harder for the U.S. to use even highly discriminate airpower. Red Army officers, who fought in Afghanistan in the '80s, see the real war as only just beginning.

Most of the hard core of the Taliban that will escape and continue the struggle won't be Afghans. You'll still have a few religious zealots, but most of that force will be foreigners (Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks, Pakistanis), and they are roundly despised now by nearly everyone in Afghanistan. For all intents and purposes there is no Taliban any more; what will be escaping is al Qaeda. Most of the native Afghans, including Pashtuns, who were part of the Taliban military force have defected or deserted. The foreigners will get no support, and they will not be able to hide among villagers, especially if shaving and brightly-colored turbans come back into fashion, which already seems to be happening among the Afghans; these Taliban and al Qaeda men will be easy to pick out by their long beards and black or white turbans, not to mention their accents and lack of fluency in local languages. Afghans will have no trouble spotting Pakistanis and Chechens and Arabs in their midst.

Nor is this report correct that bombing will be ineffective. In particular, the upcoming winter will favor us and make bombing quite effective, because men need to be warm and Afghan winters in the mountains are very cold. The US has weapons and sensors that the Russians did not; their problem is not our problem. When the guerrillas light a fire, they'll be spotted. If they're in a cave complex, it will be warm and there will be a heat plume on the cave's ventilation system, which will be spotted. Caves are not safe against our munitions; we have one specifically designed to destroy them. It won't be necessary for us to attack them from the ground to root them out; we will simply bury them with high explosives. There may be dozens or even hundreds of prepared caves out there, but that isn't really all that many in actuality given that each one can be taken out in a single bombing mission once it's spotted, and that any which is in use will be spotted in fairly short order with infrared sensors.

If you're out in the open and you light a fire, you'll be bombed. If you don't, you'll freeze. If you hide underground, you'll be buried. If you try to blend in with the populace, you'll be spotted and shot. If you avoid all those fates and remain in Afghanistan, you'll starve. If you try to escape to the Pakistani border, you'll be bombed while you move and then will have to fight against the Pakistani army once you get there. What are they to do? If we have problems, theirs are vastly worse. This situation is far from hopeless for us; it's actually looking very good indeed. (discuss)

Stardate 20011116.1002 (On Screen): President Musharraf of Pakistan has been in a very tricky situation, confronting a hostile neighbor who had gotten intolerable, internal dissent, and overwhelming international pressure. He has been pleading for a short campaign, because he knew that if the struggle in Afghanistan stretched out, he'd face more and more problems inside of Pakistan.

Well, the struggle is far from over, but the changes during the last week have certainly aided his situation immensely. Where it used to be the case that people in Pakistan were being recruited to go into Afghanistan to fight for the Taliban, now there are reports of Pakistanis trying to escape again back to the relative safety of Pakistan, deserting the Taliban cause. And where there used to be immense pro-Taliban-anti-Musharraf demonstrations involving tens of thousands of people, that too seems to have collapsed. There was an attempt by Taliban partisans in Islamabad to have a protest yesterday and only 900 people turned out for it. Clearly the shock of the defeat has eroded support in Pakistan, which is all to the good. Musharraf has been steering his ship of state through very treacherous waters and has done a creditable job. Perhaps in a couple of years he'll feel sufficiently secure to actually risk an election. (discuss)

Stardate 20011116.0835 (On Screen via long range sensors): I understand the purpose of defense lawyers. (I understand the purpose of cockroaches, too.) A criminal defendant is entitled to competent defense, the idea being that this creates a reasonably high barrier that the prosecution must surmount to get a conviction and that helps prevent prosecution of innocents, not to mention getting acquittals for them if wrongly tried. All that's fine.

But sometimes defense lawyers are given impossible tasks to perform. They have to defend the indefensible, and they have to try to make a convincing case out of a shambles. And in doing so, I think that many of them are wasted actors. Perhaps there should be an academy award. It must be difficult for a lawyer to stand in front of a judge and deliver, with a completely straight face, a line like "My defendant was not guilty of assault; he was responding to the fact that the Cookie Monster attacked his daughter." It must be hard to do that without cracking an embarrassed grin; he must have spent hours practicing it before trial. (Or perhaps he just has no shame.) (discussion in progress)

Stardate 20011116.0758 (Crew, this is the Captain): I think maybe it's time to spread a bit of link lovin' around here. If you like USS Clueless then you'll probably also like the following:

Fredrik K.R. Norman
Matt Welch
Ken Layne
Andrew Sullivan
Bjørn Stærk
Brian Carnell
Thomas Nephew
James Lileks
Andrew Hofer
Iain Jackson
Charles Johnson
Reid Stott
Fred Pruitt

These sites don't necessarily all have the same point of view that I do, but that's not important. I read them all daily and recommend them highly. (discuss)

Stardate 20011116.0727 (On Screen): It is now Ramadan, and devout Muslims all over the world will fast while the sun is in the sky for the next month. And in mosques all over the Muslim world, some of the devout are praying that American be destroyed and that the Taliban triumph in Afghanistan.

This is decidedly odd: it's been Muslim northerners in Afghanistan who have done most of the ground fighting. It is unquestionably true that the US has aided them significantly but it's Muslims fighting against Muslims, so in practice this means that they are praying for the defeat of fellow Muslims.

Of course, it's unlikely to make any difference in as much as it is unlikely that God is going to start fighting on the side of the Taliban. (If He had that intention, you'd think He would have proved it by now -- a few lightining bolts or a convenient earthquake or something like that.)

More disturbing is that this is happening in such friendly nations as Indonesia and in particular Saudi Arabia. Earlier this week the Saudi government spent a lot of money putting multi-page full color advertising into several US newspapers to try to make Saudi Arabia look moderate and friendly to average Americans. (It doesn't seem to have had any effect that I've heard of, but Americans are more than a bit jaded with publicity fluff at this point.) That money would have been much better spent trying to convince average Saudis that the US is friendly and should be supported with ad spreads in Saudi newspapers. Oddly enough, that would have had a much greater effect on American public opinion. The problem is that the Saudi government is now and has been for a long time talking out of both sides of its mouth. Internally to its own people it excoriates the US, but outside to us it talks friendly. It's blatant hypocrisy, and one way or another it's going to end soon. (Most likely by the government of Saudi Arabia being deposed.) (discuss)

Stardate 20011116.0627 (On Screen): As they continue to evaluate the Taliban documents abandoned in Kabul, they're finding lots of other marvelous things. I'm not quite sure why it is that these papers haven't been seized by intelligence sources; why are they still being evaluated by the Times of London? It may be that we're seeing deliberate leaks, and if so this one is a doozy.

They found detailed instructions for refinement and use of a naturally-occuring toxin called ricin. It can be powdered and delivered by inhalation, and the toxic dose of it is extremely small. Once ingested, the victim will die slowly and painfully over the course of about a week. There is no known antidote.

Is there a chance that they actually have done this and are preparing an attack with it? I think it's unlikely. The argument against them having nukes goes double for this: if they had it, they would have used it by now. But this may explain the interest that the hijackers had in crop-dusters, for that would be an ideal means of delivering this stuff, and the death toll would be staggering.

On the other hand, it may indicate that we were extremely lucky, in as much as they were clearly preparing to produce it. Had we not gone to war against al Qaeda, it's likely that they would have used it against us in future. This also strongly suggests that we cannot stop: al Qaeda must be eradicated. Negotiations are not acceptable, nor is anything which would permit al Qaeda to continue to operate even at a substantially reduced level. Only their annihilation will save us from them. They are mad dogs who are hell-bent on killing us all. (discussion in progress)

Stardate 20011116.0548 (On Screen): Studies of iceberg melting patterns shows that over the last 12,000 years there has been a 1500 year cycle of warming and cooling caused by slight changes in the amount of sunlight reaching the earth, due to changes in the output of the Sun. This agrees with tree-ring studies. Evidently extremely small changes in solar output (%0.1) can result in substantial warming and cooling of the earth, because both are self-reinforcing cycles due to the fact that snow is white and reflects light back into space. (So the more snow you have, the more likely you are to get snow.) Interestingly enough, for the last 200 years we've been in the warming part of that solar cycle and in about the next hundred years we'll be coming to the peak of it, after which the earth will begin to cool again. The prediction is that in about 1100 years there will be another mini-ice-age such as the one which froze Europe in the 14th century.

Which of course begs a question: what has carbon dioxide got to do with it? Well, apparently nothing. It's possible that carbon dioxide also has an effect, but it may well be that much, perhaps even most, of the current warming cycle is due to solar variation and has nothing whatever to do with human activities. But you sure wouldn't know it from reading this article:

"The climate system is extremely sensitive to weak forces, such as solar variability," Bond said. "That should make us that much more worried about greenhouse warming."

Greenhouse warming is believed to be caused by an increase in the atmosphere of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels, including oil, gas and coal.

I think that Bond is reaching here. While it's true that the study shows that the ecology of the earth is sensitive to small perturbations, it's also true that the study shows that the earth would be warming now even if there were no humans on it. If anything, his study plays down the significance of human activity, and suggests that in about two hundred years the earth will begin to cool despite human activity. His statement about greenhouse warming is a political statement not based on his scientific research. (discussion in progress)

Stardate 20011115.1953 (On Screen): I feel better now. Apparently US forces are on the ground in Afghanistan and in considerable numbers. Many are attached to local Pashto tribal chiefs advising and negotiating. Others are out hiking around identifying targets for bombing. Still others are now actively seeking engagement; they're no longer trying to avoid contact, they're doing things like setting up roadblocks. It's not that I want any of our men to be hurt, but it just seems as if we need to be involved in the ground action -- and we are.

That's because one of the goals of this operation is to make an example of the Taliban. When we go to the next nation which is harboring terrorists, we need to be able to say: "Get rid of them, or you will be the next Taliban." And with the spectacular defeat the Taliban just suffered, that could be a more than credible threat. But there may not be a convenient Northern Alliance equivalent in that next nation, and it is necessary that it be clear that we could and would have taken care of the Taliban even without them, and can do so in the next nation too. We must commit men on the ground and they must prove themselves in combat so that we have that credible threat for the next nation on our list: cooperate or die.

In the mean time, let us honor the US Special Forces who have been fighting this war for us on the ground. They have done a textbook job on this war; it's difficult to conceive of how it could have been handled better to this point. (discussion in progress)

Update: I feel more better now. Eight C-130 transports have landed at Bagrem airport north of Kabul and unloaded a force of 100 Royal Marines, and about 60 Americans.

Stardate 20011115.1931 (On Screen): The story of how the missionaries were freed is now becoming clear, and no, the Taliban didn't graciously let them go. They were moved out of Kabul and imprisoned in Ghazni, and while they were there, the town was taken by the Northern Alliance, who freed them. (Ghazni is about a quarter of the way along the road that runs from Kabul to Kandahar.) Evidently word was communicated somehow (phone?) to western authorities elsewhere, and they went to a field and were met there by US Special Forces Helicopters (who homed in on a fire that the missionaries set). I suspect the reason that three helicopters went in was simply that it was a dangerous area and they wanted to make sure they had enough force in case it turned out to be a trap. That sounds completely prudent.

It's hard to imagine what an emotional roller coaster those people were on. When they heard fighting outside, and then the door to their cell was broken open by a ragged man holding an assault rifle, and the adrenaline spiked as they were certain they would be shot -- and then he said "Free! Free!" and it turned out he was Northern Alliance and was turning them loose. To go from certainty of death to realization that you're safe in two seconds like that... (discuss)

Update 20011116: Who says irony is dead? It seems that they made their signal fire by burning the burqas the women had been forced to wear by the taliban. That's a gesture which approaches the poetic.

Stardate 20011115.1919 (On Screen): "How Stuff Works" suggests the possibility that web browsing cost one penny per page, flat rate. They are still making the assumption that if the web doesn't work for paid content then it must be a failure, because it "isn't living up to its full potential". But who says that is the direction the web must go? Why must it be dominated by professionally-produced content?

How can we build a successful electronic economy on the Web?

Why would we want to? And who says that it's a failure now? It doesn't permit the magazine-without-paper business model to work, but why do we necessarily need that? But passing by the whole question of why we're trying to fix something that isn't broken, there are a number of severe flaws in their concept. First, the bureaucracy required to implement this would be mammoth. Would it be mandatory for anyone who puts up a web page to participate in this? How could that possibly be enforced? What of their privacy; what if someone wants to put up a web page anonymously? If it is not mandatory, then you have the problem that free sites will be competing with pay sites, and the free sites will, on balance, be seen as desirable.

How do you implement payment? Does this mean that everyone who owns a computer with a browser and a modem would be forced to register and leave a credit card number in some (hackable) central database? Yeah, right.

But the problem pales when you realize that the web is a world-wide phenomenon. How do you charge for page hits from Botswana? The article mentions that the maximum charge for light browsing would be "no more than" $20 per month -- but to someone in a nation like that, that is a great deal of money.

Doesn't this also mean that there will be an accounting trail showing exactly what pages you've viewed? Sorry, I don't want that.

I also question whether a billing system can reasonably be set up which can perform such transactions for a fraction of a cent each (including amortized cost of the computers, and ongoing cost of the network bandwidth for all the tracking).

It's also subject to dramatic abuse. For instance, if as suggested there was a ceiling of a certain number of dollars per month, then it would be possible to create a proxy which many people worked through, which fronted for many people at once -- and hit the ceiling immediately. Without a ceiling, on the other hand, this becomes a way to make surreptitious payments to someone else, laundering the money. Want to pay someone? He puts up a web site and you program your computer to load it a million times. Another kind of abuse is popup advertising and window spawning: do I have to pay a penny for every popup advertisement which I don't voluntarily open? Or for every child window that some site spawns without permission?

The real effect that this would have is not to foster lots of new commercial sites, but to cause use of the web to collapse. Despite what they think, this would strongly inhibit many people from using the web. This is a really stupid proposal. (discuss)

Stardate 20011115.1557 (Crew, this is the Captain): This site has a copy of the UBBS discussion system installed on it, which I purchased. That system gives me certain capabilities as administrator. When I first considered putting it up, I wrote a policy statement about how I wanted it to run, the upshot being that I will wield administrator abilities as I feel I need to in order to preserve civil and intelligent discourse. That doesn't mean I'll stomp on anyone who disagrees with me, but rather that I will shut down threads which descend to personalities, and remove posting privilege from anyone whose contribution I deem to be negative. It's been half a year and we're now up to 120 members, and in that time I've had to ban exactly two people and close two threads -- all within the last two weeks. The point is intelligent and reasoned disagreement with my posts is very welcome, but drivel is not whether it agrees or disagrees with me. There have been at least three other incidents where members were out of line, but those were settled via private mail to inform them of how their behavior was unacceptable. In each of those cases it was clear that their behavior was either an aberration or a simple misunderstanding of how I want people to act. I don't want to do any more banning and closing of threads than I have to, because excessive use of those capabilities could cast a chill on the discourse and destroy what I'm trying to create, but if I do none at all, the Clueless Comments forum could become useless for my purposes. (discuss)

Stardate 20011115.1522 (On Screen): A large number of Royal Marines (perhaps a hundred) have flown to Bagram Air Base north of Kabul. That is an air base that the USSR built in the 1980's during its occupation. The intent is to secure it and convert it into a usable location for bringing in humanitarian supplies. The Royal Marines are there to evaluate it and decide how much and what kinds of other forces might be needed.

There are also reports that the French will be moving forces into Afghanistan very soon, ("within days"). Which makes me wonder whether we're going to be moving any of our own people in. I've been expecting to hear that elements of the 10th Mountain Division currently in Uzbekistan had moved to Mazar-e Sharif to develop the airport there, but so far there have been no announcements. (Which doesn't mean it isn't happening, but it seems as if they would say so if it did.) What I'm wondering is whether Bush and Blair are doing a deliberate good-cop-bad-cop here, where the British and French (and maybe representatives of a couple of other nations like Canada, which is reportedly sending a thousand men) do the protection-of-humanitarian-aid mission, while the US (and maybe the Australians) end up on the ground in southern Afghanistan to prosecute the fighting against the remnants of the Taliban. It would be an attempt to avoid another yellow-bomblet-yellow-food-package mistake; if US troops are handing out food in some places and fighting other places, it may confuse people. Better if they see the one kind of uniform always handing out food and another always fighting.

A lot of that depends on the extent to which our commanders intend to ignore the Afghan winter, which should be setting in within days. It may be that they are still thinking about letting the theater go to sleep, to maintain bombing pressure but to not begin ground action until the weather lifts. Or to defer it until the Taliban settle in for the winter, immobilizing itself, so that our 10th Mountain Division, which are specialists in fighting in winter conditions and rough terrain, could catch them by surprise. (Skis are to the 10th what parachutes are to the 82nd.) But it would be a little strange for the US to not commit any ground forces at all, especially now, and if there is not expected to be any resumption of major ground hostilities any time soon, then some of our people should be involved in pacification and distribution of aid.

In the mean time, I wish the Royal Marines well. They're good men and I hope that this doesn't blow up in their faces. The risk is low, in my opinion, but non-zero. All it takes is a digruntled ex-Taliban soldier in the hills with a sniper scope to ruin a lot of Royal Marines' days. (discuss)

Update 20011116: French troops are deploying in Mazar-e Sharif. I guess the 10th Mountain Division won't be handling that one after all.

Stardate 20011115.1135 (On Screen via long range sensors): Another example of truly prophetic writing from the ancient history of last week:

By mid-November, snow will start to close all the mountain passes in Afghanistan. It will not only be impossible for the warring armies to move on the ground, but aid agencies desperately trying to prevent widespread starvation among the Afghan population will be rendered immobile.

There is no doubt that the air raids are causing massive damage to the ruling Taliban forces. They are not, however, causing any significant defections among the tribesman who support them. If anything, the bombing is having exactly the opposite effect. More and more volunteers, credible reports have said, are joining the Taliban ranks.

There is no question that this war will continue for a long time to come. We've won a battle, not a war, and in this war there will be setbacks. Things are going to go against us.

But we have won a battle, and in a most spectacular fashion.

This article is filled with misconceptions and outright falsehoods. It claims that the goal of this war was to capture bin Laden so he could be punished -- where the hell did that concept come from, and why won't people learn that it's not true? That was never the purpose of this war, though it might end up being a desirable side effect. The primary goal was to eliminate al Qaeda's ability to operate against us, and since the Taliban provided them with political and physical cover and allowed them to operate within Taliban-controlled territory and refused to stop, the Taliban also had to be eliminated.

The article criticizes the American press (especially CNN) for not telling how awful the US is or how badly the war is going. (That doesn't deserve comment.) It waves the flag of Viet Nam and preaches the gospel of Quagmire. Predictably, it blames the whole conflict on Israel. And finally, it discusses the hydra of terrorism:

"For the US, this war is unwinnable because our policy makers refuse to address its causes, and fear that doing so would make us look like we are caving in to terrorism. Until we do, for every terrorist killed, 10 more will take his place".

That remains to be seen. For one thing, the stunning defeat of the Taliban has the effect of putting all governments in the world on notice: if terrorists operating from within your territory attack the US, the US will take your government out. I'm willing to see 10 new terrorists spring up if I can also see 10 new governments suddenly take suppression of terrorism seriously. That's a good trade. (discuss)

By the way, the World Food Program expresses optimism that widespread starvation can be prevented. Presumably they know whereof they speak. Supplies are already flowing into northern Afghanistan.

Stardate 20011115.1113 (On Screen via long range sensors): The Alvarez theory hit the world of paleontology, geology and biology like a stone from the sky. (Sorry.) It posited that the reason for the mass die-off at the end of the Cretaceous, which just incidentally included the exterminaion of the dinosaurs, happened because a large body from space struck the Earth and caused a massive ecological catastrophe. Named after the father-and-son team of Luis and Walter Alvarez, who lead the group that developed the idea, it was initially greeted with shocked suprise and disbelief in many quarters -- but with eagerness in many others. And over the years the evidence in favor of it piled up until the smoking gun was finally found: the crater itself. It is called Chicxulub (Sheek-su-lube) and it is located in the Caribbean just off the Yucatan peninsula. While much research continues, it has triumphed and is now generally accepted in the scientific community as the explanation for that mass extinction event. And in the aftermath of that discovery, it is now suspected that all the other major extinction events, especially the Permian catastrophe, were also caused by impacts. The Permian event, which is the largest mass extinction in the history of the earth (dwarfing the Cretaceous event) has now been tentatively identified as having been caused by an impact in China.

But these refer to things that happened long ago, so it's stunning to learn that perhaps meteor strikes might have more immediate effect on the course of history. There was a major impact in the 20th century, for instance, but it happened at Tunguska in Siberia, possibly the least inhabited land target on earth one could imagine. (Lucky for us, too; if it had hit Paris or some other large city it would have killed nearly everyone living there.) So the Tunguska event didn't have any effect on history. Now it appears that there was a strike in southern Iraq within recorded history which may well have altered the course of Western Civilization. It is humbling to think that the juggernaut of human history is susceptible to the effects of nature in such a dramatic fashion. Certainly weather can do it, but we live with weather every day; but rocks from the sky? As little as 200 years ago the entire concept that rocks could fall from the sky was dismissed by the scientists of the time as superstition. (discussion in progress)

Stardate 20011115.0958 (On Screen): One of the most towering examples of academic irresponsibility is finally being rectified. When I was a young child, there was an archeological find of staggering importance in Israel: a cache of scrolls was found sealed in clay jars in a cave in the vicinity of the Dead Sea, the now notorious Dead Sea Scrolls. And for fifty years an institute in Israel has been sitting on them, analyzing them and refusing to publish photographs of them. Scholars all over the world requested, then demanded, access and were refused, though selected excerpts began to be released in a trickle over the last fifteen years. Now, at long last, those photographs have been published in toto.

There were numerous strange events along the way to this eventuality. For example, one of the things they did release was a concordance, which gave the locations of every word -- but not the text itself. But some clever guy realized he could feed the concordance to a computer and reverse sort it, and reproduce the text. That at least permitted scholars to study what the scrolls said, albeit not the actual writing. And given how semitic languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Phoenician, Arabic, etc.) are written, there's always a substantial chance that the words were interpreted wrongly since semitic languages do not write vowels. That would mean that by analogy feel, foul, foal and fool would all be written as "fl"; the opportunity for confusion should be obvious. Hw cn y b crtn wht n sntnc mns whn ll th wds r wrttn tht w? Still, access to the text was a major embarassment to the Israeli Antiquities Authority, which had been responsible for sitting on them and trying to suppress them.

So why was it that they were suppressed? Because of the fear that they would cast an unpleasantly critical light on Israel and on Jewish traditions. The time was spent trying to analyze them to create a unified and (hopefully) definitive analysis of them which would not be ideologically embarrassing. By so doing, alternative and less desirable interpretations would be squelched, or so it was hoped. It appears that they've finally given up on that, which is why they gave in and published.

If this proves anything, it shows that any attempt to allow religion and politics to affect the course of science is doomed to failure, and only results in polluting the science. It is not to the credit of the IAA that it took fifty years to publish; there was no excuse for them not publishing the raw photographs in the 1960's without any attached commentary, to let the scholars of the world begin their work. This is not an academic triumph, it's the end of an academic scandal. (And likely it's the beginning of another as scholars discover that the omnibus commentary produced by the International Editorial Team is self-serving and ideologically motivated.) (discuss)

Stardate 20011115.0918 (On Screen): Robert Fisk is at it again. I suppose I could dissect this article like I did the last, but what's the point? He laments that the Northern Alliance is being reasonably merciful to other Afghans who are changing sides, but are tending to slaughter foreigners who came to meddle in the affairs of Afghanistan. Which may well be true.

But it occurred to me: isn't this the kind of thing that the multiculturalists tell us we're supposed to tolerate? That is the Afghan way, and it always has been. Their culture is different than ours; neither better nor worse, just different. And we have to respect their culture, don't we? If their tradition is to murder foreign invaders, who are we as liberal multiculturists to say that they are wrong? After all, we were supposed to tolerate how the Taliban would whip women who uncovered any skin, and how they cut off the hand and foot of anyone who transgressed certain laws; it's their way. We were not permitted to condemn them for that because it indicated cultural intolerance on our part. (To be punished by indoctrination sensitivity training, of course.) So should we not tolerate the traditions of the Northern Alliance as well? (discuss)

Stardate 20011115.0438 (On Screen): Andrew Sullivan has been collecting particularly egregious examples of big-name pundits who reluctantly (read "eagerly") pronounced this war a failure before the fall of Mazar-e Sharif and the collapse of Taliban military power. It makes for amazing reading, and it also makes you wonder about the motivation of the people involved. Of course, many of these are people who make their living by being seen as experts; their job is to tell us what's going to happen.

There's an interesting scam which some shady stockbrokers have used. It goes like this: you get a mailing list and divide it into halves. One half receives a free advisory from you that the market will rise, the other that it will fall. Whichever actually happens, you discard the other half. Then, again, you divide the list in half and do the same thing. This goes on for maybe five times, after which you've got 1/32nd of the list where you made the correct prediction five times in a row. Those people then get the hard sell, on the grounds that you were absolutely prescient. Of course, you weren't; it's just that they lucked into being in the group where you were right five times, but they're balanced by all the people who received wrong predictions from you. But they don't know that; because they don't see all the others. All they see is five predictions in a row which came out correct -- and quite often they will sign up for your newsletter or give you money to invest or whatever.

I have to wonder whether some of these pundits may have been following the same strategy turned around: they cast the dice and decided to predict that the war was a failure; if they were right, their futures as analysts were secure. As it turns out, now they look like fools -- but it was a gamble, and their careers are not over because of it. I suspect some of them were simply misguided, but some may indeed have been doing this at least subconsciously. (discuss)

Stardate 20011115.0332 (On Screen): Via a very indirect communication link, the BBC interviewed Mullah Omar, and it makes very interesting reading. Not to put too fine a point on it, he's delusional. He sounds uncannily like Hitler was described to be in the spring of 1945 when it was clear that all was lost; the man was still full of plans and ideas about how the war was going to be turned around. (Which never happened, of course.) Both seem to believe in miracles: for Hitler it was going to be high tech weapons which would turn the tide, whereas Mullah Omar truly seems to be expecting God to show up and directly affect the struggle. He says there is "a plan" for the destruction of America -- I venture to guess that it involves a lot of prayer.

Though they have been severely crippled in the last week, the Taliban are still a force to be reckoned with; this war is not yet over. But it's becoming clear that the Taliban are being ill served by their leaders. (discuss)

"The command is still in the hands of Mullah Omar. The Taliban are completely obeying him," says a Taliban spokesman. Of course, by its nature a statement like this (about control) is almost automatically false. A commander whose control is not in doubt doesn't need to say that; it's only commanders who have lost control who feel the need to say that they have not..

Stardate 20011114.2159 (On Screen): Investigators seem to have concluded that the loss of the stabilizer from the Airbus A-300 which crashed was the cause of the loss of the jet. The question is why it snapped off, and it may turn out to be because it was made of composites instead of metal. This is standard practice on current jets, but the A-300 was first commercial jet model to use composites, and there may be a weakness in the design due to lack of experience of the designers with the material. Also, it is more difficult to repair than aluminum, which may also have been a factor. Another possibility is that vortices from a 747 which had taken off just before the A-300 might have caused extra turbulence on the structure of the A-300 which precipitated a progressive mechanical failure of the tail. I'd put my money now on a combination of those: that the tail was weak and the vortices represented enough extra stress to make it come off. (discussion in progress)

Stardate 20011114.2033 (On Screen via long range sensors): The Times of London's reporter in Kabul was searching a Taliban safe-house abandoned there, and found partially-burned plans for production of a fission weapon. Charles is wondering whether we should be scared.

Basically, no. Plans are easy. Any physics graduate student with access to a reasonable technical library is capable of designing a bomb. In fact, about fifteen years ago a physics student actually did design a bomb for his Ph.D thesis, based entirely on unclassified sources. (It was something of a scandal; requests came in from all over the world for copies of it, and the university decided not to issue copies. The government considered classifying it but really couldn't since it was based entirely on declassified information.) There are a lot of ways of doing it. But all of them require a substantial amount of fissionable materials. There are a lot of isotopes which can be used this way, but the most easily used are Uranium-233, Uranium-235 and Plutonium-239, and none of them are easily produced.

U-235 is the only one of the three which occurs naturally, since it makes up %0.7 of naturally occuring Uranium. However, at that concentration it cannot create a critical mass. For use in nuclear power plants, it has to be enriched up to a couple percent. For use in a bomb, it has to be nearly pure. But U-235 and U-238 (which makes up the other %99+) are the same element, Uranium. So the U-235 cannot be separated out chemically; it has to be separated out using the fact that it is physically lighter. But it's only about 1% lighter which isn't very much. The way the US does it is to process the Uranium into a hexaflouride, which is gaseous. Then the gas diffuses through filters, with the lighter U-235 being preferentially allowed through because of its slightly lower weight. Each such pass causes a very slight increase in the proportion of U-235; the entire process is extremely slow and very, very expensive, and since UF6 is poisonous and corrosive and generally horrible, and because there's a danger of substantial radiation release when the concentration of U-235 gets higher, the whole process is extremely non-trivial. There's a different approach that involves using that gas in centrifuges and it has its own set of problems. And reducing the metal afterwards is non-trivial. In as much as you may need to process upwards of 2 tons of Uranium to produce enough U-235 to make a single bomb, you can see that this isn't something that gets done in a cave in Afghanistan.

U-233 and Pu-239 have different problems. To make U-233 you bombard Thorium-232 with neutrons. Each atom which takes a neutron converts to Th-233, which beta-decays (halflife 22.1 minutes) to Protactinium-233, which in turn beta-decays (halflife 27.4 days) to U-233, which has a half-life of 162,000 years. That will be the only Uranium mixed in with the Thorium, so after a considerable period of bombardment with neutrons and a few months to let the beta decay settle down, it's possible to chemically process the metal by dissolving it with acid, to separate the U-233 from the rest. The separation process is substantially simpler, but neutron activation is non-trivial and requires an operating nuclear reactor or a particle accelerator. And the conversion process is extremely inefficient; there will only be a small fraction of a percent of U-233 in the Thorium afterwards. You might have to process many tons of Thorium this way to create enough U-233 for a bomb.

Of the three, Plutonium-239 is the most easily acquired in this day and age, but even it is not that easy to come by. Pu-239 is created the same way as U-233, except that what gets bombarded with neutrons is U-238. That creates U-239, which beta decays (halflife 23.5 minutes) to Neptunium-239 which beta-decays (halflife 2.35 days) to Pu-239, which has a halflife of 24,360 years. Again, it will be the only Plutonium in the metal and since it's a separate element it can be separated out chemically. But the process is very dangerous because it generates a lot of radiation; it's far from trivial. But the reason that it's the easiest one to acquire is that it is present in spent fuel rods from normal civilian reactors. If a sufficient number of those can be stolen, then enough Pu-239 could be extracted to make a bomb. But because the proportion of Pu-239 is very small, it would take a huge number of them, many tons, and someone would notice if they were being collected. (Spent fuel is monitored.) And the extraction process, while easier than for U-235, is far from trivial and is fraught with danger.

It takes years to put together the equipment and facilities and experts necessary to create fissionable materials in adequate quantities, and it is extremely expensive. Once that part is done and you have the fissionable materials, making a bomb out of one is relatively easy. And simply creating plans for a bomb is trivial by comparison. Since plans don't explode, and since there is no good reason to believe that al Qaeda has access to a sufficient amount of fissionables to create a weapon, this is really not a concern.

The article says Both President Bush and British ministers are convinced that bin Laden has access to nuclear material and Mr Bush said earlier this month that al-Qaeda was “seeking chemical, biological and nuclear weapons”. But "nuclear material" is a term that covers a lot of ground; it doesn't necessarily imply that they have a sufficient supply of refined fissionable material to make a weapon. I don't believe they do, because if they had a bomb they wouldn't have bothered with jets on September 11; they'd have leveled lower Manhattan. (discuss)

Stardate 20011114.1925 (On Screenvia long range sensors): Taliban desperation watch:

According to the latest U.S. intelligence estimates, the Taliban now only controls 10 percent of Afghanistan. CBS News has learned the Taliban has contacted the U.S. to ask for reduction in bombing in return for "discussions" about turning over Osama bin Laden.

They made this offer once before: stop bombing us and we'll talk. We won't promise to actually say anything, but don't you want to talk to us? That was a preposterous offer last time, and now it is beyond ludicrous: there isn't any way that we'd believe that they would negotiate in good faith. As is now well known, the Taliban and al Qaeda are two heads on one body, inseparable. They are not going to voluntarily give up bin Laden -- but they're certainly willing to talk about it if by so doing they can get the bombing slowed or stopped. Negotiation by us now would snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. But be certain that anti-war leftists here and in Europe will immediately take up the cry: Stop the bombing, they're offering to negotiate! (discuss)

Stardate 20011114.1756 (On Screen):

"While we have offered our sincere condolences to the American people and the families of the victims of these events," Sabri said, "Iraq has expressed its hope that the United States will deal with these events in a spirit of wisdom and responsibility by undertaking a comprehensive review of its policies."

He pointed to the U.N. sanctions imposed after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. The sanctions, chiefly designed to prevent Iraq from rebuilding weapons of mass-destruction, have been criticized as hurting Iraqi civilians while failing to shake Saddam Hussein's autocratic regime.

Rest assured that we will be reconsidering our policy of containment toward Iraq. We will definitely be reevaluating our policy, but I can also assure Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri that he's not going to like the new policy even as much as he does the current one. We have a little list, and Saddam Hussein's name is second on it right below Osama bin Laden. What the 9/11 attack proved to Americans is that half-solving a problem is not sufficient. There are some running wounds in the world now, and they're going to get fixed this time, and fixed permanently. (discuss)

Stardate 20011114.1740 (On Screen): There's been much discussion in various quarters that the attack on 9/11 meant the "death of irony". I'm not so sure I believe it; while it may be true that fashionable cynicism just became unfashionable, the universe will keep tossing irony in our faces. Consider, for instance, the fact that the 8 western misisonaries who were held in Afghanistan are now free and in Pakistan. They were retrieved by US special forces helicopters from a field, but for the moment it's not clear just how they became free. It may be that they escaped; it may be that they were freed by the Taliban. But in that case, how did the special forces know where they were to retrieve them? Another possibility is that they were freed by direct action of special forces units on the ground (in which case those who did it would call in the helicopters, which is why I'm leaning towards this theory) -- and if so, then the universe has created another sweet irony.

For you see, several of the missionaries are German. In Germany right now there is a great deal of political struggle about the extent to which Germany should be involved in this war. It's being heavily debated in the German parliament, and there is a great deal of opposition to it. I'm told by someone I know who lives in Berlin that the general mood there is to not get involved. So how will those people feel when they learn that some German citizens were saved from an awful fate by US soldiers fighting a war that Germany is not and doesn't want to get involved in? (discuss)

Update: it's been informally acknowledged that they were indeed freed through military action.

Update 20011116: Chancellor Schroeder got his approval from Parliament to support the war militarily, but only just barely and only by making it a vote of confidence. That was gutsy of him, but it's unfortunate that it required that for Germany to do the right thing. German forces will not (and constitutionally cannot be) involved in combat.

Stardate 20011114.1540 (On Screen): Good old University of California... The voters of the state of California adopted ballot measure making it illegal for the University of California to take race into consideration when deciding which students to accept or reject. After this happened, there was a temporary tumble in the number of black and Hispanic students which, interestingly, then rebounded. But now the regents of UC (responsible for such famous institutions as UCLA, UCSD and Berkeley) have decided that a strict merit-based admissions policy just isn't good enough, even though that is clearly what the voters indicated that they wanted their state funds to support. But race is out -- so now they're instituting a policy where they can take into account such issues as "overcame adversity" or "was poor" or "attended a crummy school".

They said they do not expect the ethnic composition of freshmen classes at any of the campuses to change substantially.

I don't believe a word of it. They deny that this is a backdoor way of reinstituting racial preferences for minorities, and as proof of that they state that all indications of the race of applicants will be removed from the applications before this evaluation. Of course, if the application says that the student grew up in Watts, or attended a crummy school smacko in the middle of Oakland which is known to have a %95+ minority attendance, then it won't be too difficult to figure out anyway, one would think.

One of the biggest difficulty of this whole business is just how one quantizes things like "overcame adversity". We are, after all, ultimately going to have to line all applicants up in a line and take the first hundred thousand each year; and that means that ultimately every candidate must be assigned an overall numerical score so his place in that line can be determined. Doing that with academic scores is relatively straightforward: a 560 SAT verbal is higher than a 540. But how does one assign a reliable score to "overcame adversity" based solely on evaluation of a written application? What is the definition of "adversity", anyway? Despite their disclaimers, how much you want to bet that it turns out to be a code word for "not being white"?

Proponents said the switch, already approved by the UC faculty, sends a message to California high school students that they can get into UC if they make the most of their opportunities.

There is, to me, a certain irony in the fact that the regents are trying to send a message and didn't receive the message that the voters sent to them by passing a law: knock off the fuzzy-headed policies and use merit exclusively. What the law said was "no racial quotas"; I suspect that now there's a good chance there will be a new law passed which is much more explicit: "all studemts will be selected based solely on academic merit; no other criteria will be permitted". (discuss)

Stardate 20011114.1430 (On Screen): There has been one case before of a commercial jet liner which crashed because it lost its vertical stabilizer. That one was a 747, and the failure mode was subtle: the pressure chamber in the jet gave way at the rear because of an inadequate repair, and the explosive decompression applied force to the tail which weakened it and led to it falling off. I think it's going to turn out that the source of Monday's crash will be something equally subtle and bizarre. (discuss)

Stardate 20011114.1200 (On Screen): I think that the events of the past month have made clear that most people's mental image of the special forces was completely wrong. The combination of computer games and such publicity as they have gotten tended to make us think of them as being super-soldiers, sort of the elite of the elite -- and in one sense that is true. But the other image that created is that the way they're used is as shock-troops, and that is what turned out to be completely false. These are not people you throw in to make attacks and to win miraculously where no-one else could; there are too few of them and they are too precious to waste that way. The proper image of Special Forces is that they are military spies. Their job is to go where no-one else can go, talk to who no-one else can approach, and observe what no-one else can see -- and to report all that back. They fight when they must but avoid combat if they can, and if they try to destroy something it's most likely by calling in an airstrike rather than by the more romantic image of sneaking in and laying explosive charges. (That's more risky, and it also gives away the fact that they're in the area. Bombing is largely anonymous; there's no way to know if you just got bombed because of aerial recon or because special forces fingered you.)

Now there is a group which is more like that old viewpoint, and it's the Rangers (the "Green Berets"). There are Rangers now in Pakistan who are ready to attack if need be. If a unit of Special Forces spots a target which justifies a sharp ground action, a company or more of Rangers can move in within hours to attack it. (If a much larger action is required, we got the Marines.) But that will only happen if bombing cannot solve the problem, and for the moment the only thing ground action could do better would be to take prisoners and capture intelligence assets. (discuss)

Update: Michael writes to tell me that I made a mistake. The Green Berets are distinct from the Rangers; apparently the Green Berets are special forces.

Stardate 20011114.1133 (On Screen): This article from StratFor tries to claim that the Taliban did not suffer a rout, but rather made a strategic withdrawal. Unfortunately, the case they make for that is extremely weak and doesn't agree with the evidence. It is true in a sense that they are trying to recover a situation which has suddenly gone very badly against them, but that's because most of their units did indeed rout.

For example, when their troops abandoned Kabul, they left behind most of their heavy artillery. That's a major military asset and at this point it will be exceedingly difficult to replace -- and as this article points out, without artillery they have little chance of recovering lost ground. By the same token, much of what used to be Taliban forces has defected to the other side, much has disintegrated from outright desertion, and a fair amount of their force is isolated in pockets in the north (such as in the city of Kondoz). They've also taken substantial casualties and lost a considerable number of prisoners. As a result, it may well have been the case that they had an army of 40,000 last week, but they certainly have nothing like that now which they can concentrate for effective operations. And now it's reported that the city of Kandahar, their last major stronghold, may also have fallen.

It is unquestionably the case that one should never underestimate an opponent. But it is equally a mistake to overestimate one. A rational view of their strengths and their weaknesses is the best, and right now the Taliban are very much down, but not yet out. But the StratFor article makes it sound like they planned all of this and that we are somehow falling into a crafty trap of theirs by beating the crap out of their army. That's a mistaken impression. This truly was a victory and a major one. The war isn't over, but the situation now for us is a damned sight better than it was a week ago. The Taliban will move into the hills and try to fight a guerrilla action, but there are ways of dealing with that. Our situation is far from dire. (Theirs is next door to dire.) Stratfor is correct about one thing: this war ain't over, and it may well be that it won't be for a long time. But great strides have been taken, and it doesn't pay to be too pessimistic. (discuss)

Stardate 20011114.1055 (On Screen): Well, as time has gone on, my score at Blogdex has risen, and as I look at it now I've got 27 links. But what's odd about this is that the first one is from Blogdex itself. Evidently it's recursively processing its own files, which is really strange. (discuss)

Stardate 20011114.1040 (On Screen): And now the flow of humanitarian aid for Afghanistan has begun, and soon the trickle will become a flood. The irony is complete: the best way to help the starving multitudes of Afghanistan turned out to be to increase the intensity of the bombing (with heavy emphasis on the use of cluster bombs). (discuss)

Stardate 20011114.1035 (On Screen): It has finally dawned on the Red Cross just how badly they screwed up. Blinded by the immense amount of money which was given to them for the so-called "Liberty Fund", all of which was donated with the intention of helping out victims of the NYC attack, the Red Cross originally decided to divert more than half of that for other worthwhile efforts, including banking a huge amount of it for unspecified future needs. On the other hand, less than a quarter of the money has actually been disbursed to victims, and some victims have not been able to get aid even though they both need and deserve it. The negative publicity this has rightfully generated has finally made them change their plans: they will now do what the legion of donors had originally expected them to do, and use all of the money for victim assistance. This is the correct thing to do, but it's what they should have done in the first place; and it is not to their credit that they are only doing this now because of negative publicity and because the head of the agency was grilled by Congress. That's the wrong reason.

The right reason to do what they're doing now is honesty. Americans are a generous people, but when they give money to a cause, they expect it to be used for that cause. They do not expect and will not tolerate having older and wiser heads redirect that money to other worthwhile causes; that is not a decision the older and wiser heads should be making even if the other causes are indeed worthwhile. A donor gives money, but it is the donor's privilege to decide what that money should be used for. If that concept is repudiated, the donor will feel ripped off -- and will not donate again. That is the long-term damage that the Red Cross risked, not only to itself but to all other charities. (discuss)

Stardate 20011114.0812 (On Screen via long range sensors): I think that a lot of people who have been supporting this war have been waiting for someone to say what Anne McElvoy now says so well: antiwar activists have been a bunch of raving loons, and the tide of events has now shown them up. Her point is well-made that they aren't going to stop opposing this war simply because we're winning it, and indeed I've already started seeing some of the new objections she predicts. In particular, that the Northern alliance is worse than the Taliban. That one's already going around. One she doesn't mention but probably should have was the idea that this is actually something the Taliban planned, and that we're falling into a trap they've set for us. It's truly astounding how many people are afraid of victory. I suppose there is a comfort in defeat, a satisfaction in mediocrity, sort of like well-worn shoes. Achievement is terrifying. It's so much easier to be second-rate. When you're certain you can't win, then you don't have to try. (discussion in progress)

Stardate 20011114.0736:


Stardate 20011114.0705 (On Screen): Daniel writes to say that investigators of the latest jet crash in NYC (how it pains me to have to put it that way) have found no apparent damage to the engines and no important evidence of bird strikes. There doesn't appear to be any bomb damage, so the puzzle is deepening. The one obvious anomaly was that the rear stabilizer fin broke off the jet, which is unprecedented and extremely puzzling. The A-300 is "fly-by-wire", which means that the pilots have no direct control over the air surfaces (i.e. no cables). Rather, their controls are simply inputs to a computer system, which then makes the airframe do all the right things. When this was first proposed there was considerable fear about the possibilities of software bugs bringing planes down, but in fact all military jets have been fly-by-wire for decades and the Shuttle is, too, and the programmers appear to have taken very great care. However, in a case where one of the primary control surfaces of the jet is gone, it's likely that the software was not programmed to deal with a jet crippled that way. So if the stabilizer did come off the jet, then the jet was doomed. That part's completely understandable, the puzzle is just why the stabilizer did actually come off?

It seems to me now that it may be that there was some sort of previously-undiscovered weakness in the airframe. It's happened before. All aircraft design is a tradeoff; you cannot put as much in as you'd like because it would never leave the ground. They design them to be strong but not over-strong because overdesign is parasitic weight, and all aircraft must be light. (Proportionally speaking, of course.) Under the stress of flight, a small weakness can cascade and result in a catastrophic failure.

The DC-10 cargo-door failure was an example of that. In some circumstances, the door on the cargo hold of a DC-10 could fail in flight. It was holding cabin pressure in, and would blow out. That caused the cargo hold to depressurize, but the passenger cabin remained at higher pressure, which put immense stress on the flat floor separating them. The floor then collapsed in a few places, and this severed a channel through which cables ran which controlled the rudder and elevators, causing the pilots to lose control of the aircraft, resulting in catastrophic loss of the jet. This happened at least twice in the 1970's, and once they diagnosed it they then strengthened the door and the DC-10 has been a reliable and safe aircraft ever since. The chain of events is straightforward in retrospect, but the idea that a failure of a cargo hold door could cause loss of the aircraft seems incredible on the face of it. Equally, it may turn out that the loss of this A-300 was caused by what seems to be a minor failure which cascaded. The "rattling" noise reported on the cockpit voice recorder is not inconsistent with a progressive mechanical failure of the airframe. (discuss)

Stardate 20011114.0623 (On Screen): Diplomats and intellectuals observing the UN are dismayed by President Bush's "You're with us or you're against us" speech.

In comments before the assembly of more than 1,000 delegates, the president warned that some states, "while pledging to uphold the principles of the U.N., have cast their lot with the terrorists," alluding to Iraq. There will be "a price to be paid," Bush said.

That message has some diplomats and U.N.-watchers wondering how Washington will simultaneously hold together its coalition while broadening its war aims. Meanwhile, a growing number of U.N. members are signaling a waning appetite for Bush's "with-us-or-against-us" campaign.

I don't think it's sunk in yet that we're not interested in permanent coalitions here. If it becomes a choice between continuing to fight this war and maintaining a coalition, then the coalition can take a flying leap. This war is going to be fought, and the US is quite willing and capable of going it alone. But if we're forced to do so, then a lot of nations will get asked searching questions afterwards.

The president's good-vs.-evil rhetoric also denies shades of gray, says Richard Falk, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University. Such language "implies too much clarity in a world that's much messier than that," he says. "It shows a lack of respect for the sovereignty of other countries and may place them between contradictory pressures."

President Bush's with-us-or-against-us slogan was an effective rallying tool following the Sept. 11 suicide attacks. But the power of those words is fading with every civilian casualty in Afghanistan and could even be polarizing opposition to the U.S. course.

It also hasn't apparently sunk in that President Bush is doing this deliberately. He is trying to force other countries to make decisions forthrightly and to get off the fence. And while civilian casualties in Afghanistan "could" polarize opposition against the US (note that this is a supposition by the reporter and not actually an established fact) a complete victory there probably will have the opposite effect.

By contrast, says one analyst, British Prime Minister Tony Blair is making a convincing case. "Blair is not boxing leaders in, but saying, 'This is the moral imperative, this is the task at hand, will you help us?'" says Scott Lasensky, a Mideast expert with the Council on Foreign Relations.

Apparently Lasensky isn't familiar with the "Good cop, bad cop" approach to diplomacy. Bush is being the bad cop, Blair the good cop. After the Bush's bellicosity, Blair's apparent reasonableness can be all the more effective. Hasn't it occurred to Lasensky that Bush is doing this deliberately?

In fact, this criticism still is treating Bush like the thick-headed cowboy from Texas, ignoring the fact that so far this war has been prosecuted with great subtlety and restraint. There are wheels within wheels. And indeed immediately after asking "Why should anyone cooperate in this?" the article proceeds to list all the ways in which the US is using diplomatic and economic influence to persuade others to cooperate. So far I'm quite impressed with how this is going, and I'm quite happy to let this administration stay the course. (discuss)

Stardate 20011114.0604 (On Screen): Some things in Afghanistan are becoming more clear now. One thing in particular is how and why Pashto tribal leaders have decided to revolt against the Taliban. It's not just that the Taliban are hated (and apparently nearly everyone in Afghanistan despises them now) but I think the more persuasive argument was that in the new government which will be formed, Pashto people will need to bargain from a position of strength if they want to be reasonably well represented in it. If they were to sit idly by while the Northerners did all the fighting, they'd have no moral authority to part of the spoils. But if they in turn participate in the uprising, then they'll be able to claim that they were part of the revolution -- which in fact it turns out that they are.

Another thing which becomes clear is that our special forces (and very likely British ones) have been setting up this uprising for a long time and have done a superb job. Rather than try to create local defections, they made deals with the local warlords so that when a general campaign began they'd be ready to switch sides -- sort of like setting up a whole lot of dominoes. Then once all the dominoes were stood on end, the battle for Mazar-e Sharif set off the chain reaction. While nay-sayers said "They're not doing anything!" our special forces ignored the criticism and went about their business quietly setting up conditions for a victory.

One of the reasons they can do this is that they speak local languages. I've been thinking about this and I suspect that the language they've been using is probably Arabic. While it's not native in Afghanistan, surely there will be many people there who speak it (since it's the language of the Q'uran), and it will certainly be more impressive to the locals when foreign devils come around and don't try to speak English to them. But the number of special forces troops who speak Arabic must be quite limited; and that's another reason why the SAS probably are in this up to their ears, because in this campaign such men will be gold and I'm sure the SAS has some as well. Of course, special forces people are even more of a "silent service" than are submariners, so it may be years before we hear any of the true story of what went into setting up this victory, if we ever do.

The Taliban have decided that there is more security to be found in caves than in urban areas. This is decidedly a mixed blessing -- but then, a successful wartime campaign will present its enemy only with bad choices. It also seems to represent a triumph of tradition over clear thinking by the Taliban, since traditionally caves have been a safe haven. Of course, traditionally their enemies didn't have
GBU-28 "bunker busters". The Taliban are trading a human shield for one made of stone, and they are about to discover that this was a poor trade. On the other hand, the human shield itself was turning on them and represented a danger in its own right.

Finally, a key factor in the disintegration of the Taliban's army appears to have been not defections but outright desertion. Large parts of their army was made up of men who had been forcibly impressed, and such men only fight when they have no alternative. Once the opportunity arose, they just plain left and went home. they didn't change sides to be on the side of the victorious army, they decided they didn't want to be part of anyone's army. Between casualties, defections and wholesale desertion, it appears that most of the Taliban's army is now gone, and with nearly the entire country apparently in revolution against them, it becomes easier to understand why what remains of Taliban forces are in wholesale retreat. (discuss)

Stardate 20011113.2240 (On Screen via long range sensors): Simply amazing: Peace activists in Seattle yesterday demanded that the bombing in Afghanistan stop. Never mind that it now appears that a few more days of bombing may wrap up the war, and that supplies will start flowing into most of the nation which is no longer under control of the Taliban because it will no longer be necessary to bomb there. (For example, I suspect there won't be any more bombing in the vicinity of Kabul, for fairly obvious reasons, and the road east to Pakistan should be open by this weekend.) Haven't these people been looking at the newspapers? Don't they realize just how irrelevant they've become? (discuss)

Stardate 20011113.2204 (On Screen): As predicted by John Dean, President Bush has decided that should we capture any terrorists, then he will make a decision on a case-by-case basis whether they should be tried in front of military tribunals instead of in civilian courts. This is quite unusual but not unprecedented, and I think it's a good thing (for reasons that Dean describes quite lucidly). The report states that it might "alienate European allies who oppose the U.S. death penalty and favor international courts." It's hard to see how even the Europeans could oppose the death penalty for bin Laden at this point, but stranger things have happened. Regardless, the simple fact is that in this particular case the voters of the United States don't give a tinker's damn what Europeans think about the death penalty. If bin Laden is captured, he'll be tried in front of a military tribunal and if found guilty he'll be condemned to death. (If the Europeans don't like it, we'll lend them a hanky to cry into. But I suspect that any protests in this case will be muted.) (discussion in progress)

Stardate 20011113.2149 (Crew, this is the Captain): I was going back this afternoon and rereading my older log entries from the ancient history of last week. A couple of them are quite striking, not because of my sterling writing but because of the articles they are connected to.

For example, The New Republic was afraid that the war would bog down because US ground troops had not yet become involved, in as much the Northern Alliance were not capable of winning any battles.

President Bush may not have explicitly ruled out the use of ground forces, as his predecessor stupidly did in Kosovo, but his conduct of the war has sent the same lulling message: the United States will not put large numbers of troops on the ground. And how does the president propose to destroy Al Qaeda and the Taliban without them? He is relying on three other military instruments: airpower, proxies, and Special Operations forces. Two months since September 11, and one month since American bombing began, these three instruments have gotten us exactly nowhere.


Of all the proxies the United States has enlisted over the past half-century, the Northern Alliance may be the least prepared to attain America's battlefield objectives. This week, after opposing the Northern Alliance's advance at the behest of the State Department for close to a month, the Bush administration is reportedly pressing for aggressive action. But the Northern Alliance remains far weaker than its adversary, it boasts far fewer troops, and lacks the determination of its foe. Winter is already arriving in northern Afghanistan, and with it the shuttering of the Alliance's supply routes. Its forces lack fuel and ammunition, remain pathetically divided, and seem in no rush to march to an American timetable.

Now that's prescient. But not as much as this:

"Its campaign is a failure," he said, referring to the United States. "Bush is defending this campaign and saying he has destroyed al Qaeda network and Taliban forces. ... They can lie as much as they want, but the whole world will find out, after the fierce destructions, who is the liar and who is telling the truth."

That, my friends, was a quote from a top al Qaeda official named Ayman el-Zawahri. So, what with the "fierce destructions" behind us, who was the liar and who was telling the truth? (discuss)

Stardate 20011113.2129 (On Screen): If this report is true, it is a very hopeful sign indeed. It says that several regions in southern Afghanistan, inhabited by Pashtun, are in revolt against the Taliban. The main fighting that has taken place until now has been in non-Pashtun parts of the nation, and one big question was whether the Pashtun would support the Taliban, who are also Pashtun. It may well be that they won't -- and if so, some Special Forces units get a gold star on their weekly report. (Or maybe Silver Stars on their uniforms.)

I'm becoming cautiously optimistic that Kandahar may also fall soon, and that the Taliban (such as there are left by that point) will be confined to the hills for the winter. (discuss)

There are reports of combat in the Kandahar area.

Stardate 20011113.1448 (On Screen): Chris is writing a series of articles about the problems of Artificial Intelligence. The second of five is now out, and spends some time talking about neural nets.

Neural nets are an interesting approach and it is indeed the case that they can do some kinds of pattern recognition -- but only if you train them correctly. There's a classic story of an attempt to use neural nets for automated analysis of aerial reconnaissance photos to try to spot the presence of Warsaw Pact tanks. So they decided to train it with pictures that they knew contained such tanks and others containing pictures of NATO tanks, so that it could learn to tell them apart. Then they started feeding it test pictures, and it seemed to get the wrong answer far too often. Finally someone analyzed the contents of the net to find out what it thought it was seeing. It turns out that the training pictures of Warsaw Pact tanks had all been taken on an overcast day, whereas the training pictures of NATO tanks had all been taken in bright sunlight, and the neural net had learned that NATO tanks had shadows, whereas Warsaw Pact tanks didn't have. (discuss)

Stardate 20011113.1405 (On Screen): In their continuing effort to find something bad to say about the war, some anti-war activists are focusing on the fact that the US doesn't seem to be fighting its own war. Why aren't our own troops in there? Are we cowards?

They're missing the point that the goal of a war is to accomplish a political objective. In this case, this particular war has several. First, to make it impossible for al Qaeda to continue to use Afghanistan as a base of operations, especially for training purposes by shutting down their terrorist universities. Second, to remove the Taliban from power. Third, to establish a stable, peaceful government in Afghanistan to end 30 years of warfare there. That last one is the trickiest part.

The one thing that is clear from an analysis of recent history of Afghanistan is that the only thing that the tribes of Afghanistan hate more than each other is outside invaders. Any attempt to establish a government there using an external army, as the Russians tried to do, is a prescription for civil war. The best guess is that the only way a real national government can be created in Afghanistan is if the Afghans do it themselves.

The Taliban actually were such a government but obviously not acceptable to us. The Northern Alliance would have been better, at least as part of a coalition government, but didn't have the military capability to handle it; they'd been trying for years and weren't successful. The quite subtle strategy we've followed was to provide enough extra support for the Northern Alliance, especially in the form of air-based bombing, to make it possible for them to defeat the Taliban. The reason wasn't to avoid risking the lives of American servicemen, though that is a positive aspect of it, the reason was that now the Afghans will say "We did it ourselves." That is critical; the new government won't be seen as having been imposed on them by foreigners. Yes, the US helped (and helped a hell of a lot), but it was Afghans themselves who kicked out the Taliban, and it will be Afghans themselves who are heavily involved in creating the new government -- and this substantially increases the chance that the resulting government will be stable, because it won't be seen as a puppet created by foreign invaders. (discuss)

Stardate 20011113.1337 (Crew, this is the Captain):

what+is+the+amphibious+assault+ships+doing+in +the+war+against+terrorism +especially+the+USS+BATAAN

I found that as a Google search string in my refers, and it strikes me that other people might find the answer interesting.USS Bataan is currently attached to the USS Theodore Roosevelt battle group which is operating in the Arabian Sea. USS Bataan is a member of the Wasp class of amphibious assault ships. These are immense ships, in fact larger than anything else in the navy except for big deck carriers. At about 40,000 tons, they are larger than the biggest aircraft carriers which the US deployed in World War II. Their job is to support both aircraft and landing craft for Marines which are carried on board. They carry three ways of projecting power. First, they typically carry 5 AH-8B Harriers, though in unusual circumstances they can operate up to 20. Second, they carry 42 CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters for purposes of transporting air-mobile Marines to shore. Third, they carry LCAC hovercraft to support landing operations, especially to land vehicles such as trucks, HMMVs and tanks as well as artillery. Typical doctrine is for helicopters to land a force just inland of the shore, who will knock out any defenses. Then LCACs will start landing heavier equipment and more men to substantially widen the beachhead, while Harriers will provide close air support as needed.

Of course, they don't operate alone; doctrine is for LHDs to operate as part of a larger fleet with protection by at least one carrier, and jets from that carrier will also provide air support for any landing.

So given that Afghanistan has no beaches, why are there LHD's in the Arabian Sea? One reason is that they are assigned semipermanently to carrier task forces. But in fact they're not wasting their time, because their Sea Knight helicopters have the ability to carry men a considerable distance inland. If, for instance, it was decided to try to create an airhead in southern Afghanistan, it would be possible to create a temporary base in Pakistan to stage further inland. Sea Knights are heavy-lift helicopters capable of carrying supplies as well as men. Moreover, an LHD is a barracks ship; its primary purpose is to carry Marines in large numbers. USS Kittyhawk is also in that area carrying many more helicopters.

As it happens, we have not done that. But we could have, and the point of having two LHD's in that area was to provide options to our commanders, and worries for our enemies. The more things we are capable of, the harder it is for our enemies to figure out what we're going to do, and therefore the harder it is for them to defend against what we actually end up doing.

Nor, indeed, is it uncertain that we won't eventually use them that way, though it is now unlikely during this campaigning season. But even sitting offshore looking fierce can be a tremendous asset. During the Gulf War, a regiment of Marines sat off the coast of Kuwait and threatened a landing which never came. But by so doing they tied down three Iraqi divisions who were thus not on the southern front when the attack began. Equally, we can be sure that our Marines sitting off the coast weighed heavily on the mind of the Taliban commanders, and may well have tied down substantial Taliban forces to protect Kandahar, who were therefore not available to defend cities further north.

Of course, the best time to bluff is with four aces, and if indeed the opportunity had arisen to use the Marines in a reasonable way against the Taliban, you can be sure they would have moved in (and done a superb job). And that is why the Taliban leadership had to take them seriously. (discussion in progress)

Stardate 20011113.1240 (On Screen):

Nothing could have prepared the chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board for the role that has been thrust upon her.

That's the first line of this report. Know what I find most notable about it? "Chairwoman." Have we finally consigned that unbelievably stupid construction "chairperson" to the ash heap of Political Correctness? Can "person" go back to meaning "a human whose sex is not known to the speaker"? Has the American Press finally decided that it doesn't have to be ashamed of the fact that half our population is female? Have American women finally decided to be proud of their sex? One can only hope. (discuss)

The women of my generation individually like being female but collectively hate it. Thankfully, it seems as if that particular pathology has not been passed on to the younger generation. Women the age of my niece don't seem to think that life played a dirty trick on them.

Stardate 20011113.0940 (On Screen): Nelson Mandela is revered around the world as a man of peace and upstanding moral character. He's a Nobel laureate. And he supports US military action in Afghanistan and urges us to not stop it.

This must be mortifying for anti-war activists. It's hardly any wonder that they hold up Ghandi and King on their placards, for both men are conveniently dead and cannot contradict them to tell them what fools they are. (discussion in progress)

Stardate 20011113.0928 (On Screen): At this point, it's looking like the most likely cause of yesterday's crash in NYC was an engine failure of some kind. If so, the most likely cause would be the engine throwing a turbine blade. This is more likely to happen on takeoff than at any other time, because that's when the engines are run at their maximum power levels. The housing of the engine cannot contain such debris, and what other damage it might do to the jet depends entirely on what direction it flies. And during takeoff the lost of an engine is worse than at any other time, because when a jet is near the ground there isn't sufficient time to recover from radical changes in the performance of the aircraft. One possibility is that the imbalance of torque made the jet perform an uncontrolled flat turn, which would put the rear stabilizer partially face-on to the air stream. That may well have been enough to snap it off, making it land in the bay separate from the main impact point. With the loss of the rudder, it would have been nearly impossible for the pilots to regain control of the jet.

But that's just me guessing. Investigators have had a day to look into it already and say there is no sign of foul play, especially from the cockpit voice recorder. I'm not the first to observe this, but it is a sign of the times that we heave a sigh of relief to learn that a jet crash that killed 255 people was "only" an accident. (discuss)

As to why the pilots didn't announce an emergency on the radio, the best guess is simply that they were too busy.

Update: Another possibility is that one or both of the engines ingested birds.

Stardate 20011113.0759 (On Screen): The situation of the government of Pakistan is more than anomalous; they've been facing a dilemma for weeks. They were behind the Taliban in the first place, but that became untenable and the Taliban had to be abandoned. But Pakistan fostered the Taliban in the first place because the Northern Alliance was considered to be a danger to Pakistan -- and now that they are becoming ascendant, Pakistan faces the possibility of them again being in charge. To some extent their involvement in the ultimate Afghan government is unavoidable. President Musharraf of Pakistan is struggling to find some way out, but it's not clear there is one. For him there are no good answers.

But some answers are worse than others. He wants Kabul to be patrolled by "international peacekeeping forces" instead of by the Northern Alliance, which is probably impractical any time soon. But his immediate plan for that would be to use a mix of Turkish and Pakistani military units -- and that's impossible. Given that much of the Taliban force just evicted from the city was made up of Pakistanis, there isn't any way that the people there, or the Northern Alliance itself, would welcome a new invasion by Pakistanis. Peacekeeping forces can only work if the people in the area are glad to see them; otherwise it's just a prescription for further conflict. The idea of Turkish forces is an interesting one, but the reality is that there will be no international occupation of Kabul anytime soon.

The incredible military events of the last three days make the political problem of post-war Afghanistan increasingly urgent. But it won't be solved by bandaids. President Musharraf will need to learn patience. (discuss)

Update: Looks like I'm going to have to see about repairs to the subspace crystal ball. The Northern Alliance have asked for international help in Kabal. They seem to have taken a quantum leap in sophistication in their dealings with world politics; I wonder if someone is feeding them strategy? (I think I might smell the SAS...)

Actually, it may well be the results of some back-room dealing with the US and UK, where our special forces guys made a deal with the NA to the effect: we'll offer you close air support in your campaign if you promise to be good afterwards in victory and control your troops.

Stardate 20011113.0751 (On Screen): No matter how well things go, there's always going to be someone who will claim that it's going badly. "The Taliban have us right where they want us" as a wag put it.

It's a bit more surprising when it's a supposed military expert saying it. It's by no means the case that the war in Afghanistan is won; there are many, many problems yet to solve. We have to figure out what to do about a future guerrilla operation in the mountains around Kandahar, and we have to figure out what kind of government to put in place in Afghanistan post-war. These are serious problems indeed -- but we are blessed to have them.

William Arkin writes for the Washington Post about how badly the war is going. The article is not out of date; he wrote it after the fall of Mazar-e Sharif (though probably before the fall of Kabul). He makes many criticisms most of which come down to carping. (In many cases it's no more than "That's not how I would have done it!")

He complains that the war is being run in a conventional and unimaginative fashion -- which is blatantly false; the use of special forces and the extreme efforts involved in causing the Afghan warlords to change sides has been completely unprecedented. In any case, the goal wasn't to be imaginative, the goal was to win. Who cares about imaginative?

He complains that buildings like the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Security and so on have not been bombed. Yes, and the reason was two-fold: those buildings don't matter, and they're in the middle of heavily populated areas so the risk to nearby civilians would be severe. Why bother?

He complains that we haven't been attacking bridges, electric power, oil storage and so on. He's also complaining that the bombing has been "conventional" -- and yet those kinds of targets are what a conventional bombing campaign, such as happened in Serbia, would go after. (Make up your mind!) Evidently attacking troop formations and supply dumps and other direct military assets (which is what most of the bombing has concentrated on) is just a bit too unimaginative to him.

He carps about the fact that not very many targets have been hit, as if it was somehow important that the air campaign achieve a certain intensity. By so doing, he confuses means with goals. The point of war is to achieve a goal; means are subordinated to that. You use as much force as is needed to achieve the goal, but no more than necessary, because a well fought war is economical in application of force. It's no doubt true that we could have bombed at a higher level of intensity, but it's not clear that doing so would have achieved any greater result.

On the other hand, while advocating a higher intensity of bombing he at the same time laments the fact that we may be running out of advanced munitions. Of course, a more intense level of bombing would only have exacerbated that problem, and conservation of those weapons is one of the reasons that the campaign has operated at the level it has. (Make up your mind!)

But by and large, when B-52 heavy bombers aren't dropping strings of dumb bombs on Taliban front line troops, most planes are dropping JDAMs and laser-guided bombs on individual tanks and armored vehicles. According to Wald's mathematics, targets are being "hit" at a rate comparable to the Gulf War. But is this a useful measure of success? And is it a sound strategy?

Is it a useful measure of success? Absolutely not, but Arkin is the only one trying to apply it as a measure of success. Is it a sound strategy? Evidently so, given how fast the Taliban collapsed. (It was so fast that it resembled shattering glass.) Anything which is successful is sound strategy. It's hard to think of any other criterion which makes any sense. One of Murphy's Laws of Combat says, "A stupid plan which works isn't stupid."

When you get right down to it, Arkin's article comes down to saying that "Damn them! They didn't make any mistakes for me to criticize, so I'll criticize them for not making any mistakes, because criticism is my job." (discussion in progress)

Stardate 20011113.0716 (On Screen): If there's any question of the Taliban retreat being deliberate, this should quash it. Mullah Omar has broadcast a message by shortwave telling his troops to stop running and to start obeying orders again.

According to the Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) news agency, Mullah Omar told his troops: "I order you to obey your commanders completely. Do not move here and there ... regroup yourselves.

"Put up resistance and fight," he said.

That is not something that a well-ordered army needs to hear, but it's definitely the kind of thing that the panicked commander of a routing army will say. It is clear that the situation is dire in the opinion of Mullah Omar himself. Otherwise he would not resort to such desperate measures. (discuss)

Stardate 20011113.0708 (On Screen): In some ways I actually feel sorry for the Taliban's ambassador Zaeef. He has a thankless job, especially now. (But I don't feel too sorry for him.) In response to the wholesale collapse of the Taliban military, he claims that "The Islamic army of the Taliban withdrew from these provinces in an organized way to avoid civilian casualties." Let's be frank here: he's lying. There was no organized withdrawal; this was a rout. Second, he doesn't mention all the warlords who changed sides -- did the Taliban order them to do this? Third, the Taliban have shown no particular sign until now that they give a damn about the well-being of civilians; it's difficult to believe that they would decide to abandon half the country for that reason. Ambassador Zaeef is looking at a military catastrophe, and he has to say something. Too bad for him that in the face of a disaster of this magnitude there's really no bright spot he can focus on. (discuss)

Stardate 20011113.0632 (On Screen): There were fragmentary reports out of Mazar-e Sharif that hundreds in the city had been killed by Northern Alliance forces, which lead to concerns of wholesale revenge killings of innocents, or worse of troops run amok pillaging. Now more information is appearing and the reality is much less terrifying: most of those killed (several hundred) have been Pakistani and Kashmiri fighters. In other words, the city was taken but there was still resistance inside the city which is being reduced. This is hardly surprising, and it suggests that as resistance is subdued that things will calm in the city. There is always a certain amount of this when a city falls. Something of the kind is also taking place in Kabul due to the fact that there remain some Taliban forces there; there will be sporadic combat in that zone for a long time. It appears that the message has gotten through to the Northern Alliance commanders that they need to reign in their troops and control them after major victories. Let's hope they can keep control. (discuss)

Stardate 20011113.0605 (On Screen): If reports are to be believed (and I think they are), the Northern Alliance will soon control the road east from Kabul without too much struggle. Taliban forces in Jalalabad are pulling out, and the Torkham border station has been abandoned. It remains to be seen what will be involved in taking Sarowbi, which may be the only place that substantial combat is required.

More surprising is word that Taliban forces may be abandoning Kandahar as well, to move into the mountains to go guerrilla. I'm less convinced by these reports, but something like this will inevitably happen sometime even if not immediately. Unlike the kind of set-piece fighting which has been going on until now for which modern air power is superb, that would be much more difficult to deal with. But there actually is a solution, and it's the one Cambodia used against the Khmer Rouge: wait 'em out. You isolate them, cut the flow of supplies, try to make sure few locals support them, and let them wither away over the course of 20 years. You don't try to fight them directly because there isn't any point; the idea isn't to defeat their men but to use up their supplies. Combat is low level and chronic, but you don't make the mistake of going in to try to root them out, because you never will. But when their food runs low, and after years of stagnation, their power will shrink as men die or desert. It's a slow process but reasonably sure if you handle it correctly. Guerrillas cannot operate in a vacuum; they still eat and use up clothing and medical supplies, and so the flow of supplies is what you target, not the guerrillas themselves. 5000 men will require at least a thousand tons of supplies a year once their stockpiles run out, so where does it come from? Well, either it's contributed or it's sold. If it's contributed, you figure out who is doing the contributing and work on making that stop. If it's sold, eventually the guerrillas will run out of money (especially if you're working on seizing their assets).

If the guerrillas are no threat internationally and no threat to whatever new government is put into place in Afghanistan, then they no longer matter. (discuss)

Stardate 20011112.2059 (Crew, this is the Captain): If, indeed, Kabul has fallen and resistance can be eliminated in the next few days, and if the road east to Pakistan can be made secure, then we will be facing a supreme irony. Recall that nearly every international aid agency involved in trying to feed the people of Kabul begged or "called for" or demanded a bombing halt so that food supplies might be moved in? The irony is that it may turn out that the starving people of Kabul were best served by stepping up the bombing. (discuss)

Another irony is that it seems Allah fights on the side who has air supremacy. (Funny thing about that.)

Stardate 20011112.2031 (On Screen): Well, I confess that I called this one wrong. It is reported that Kabul has fallen and the Taliban are retreating to the south. There are reports of a column of motor vehicles (tanks, APCs and trucks) moving along a road towards Kandahar. If so, they're screwed; our air forces will be all over them. Anything that can fly and drop bombs will be in the air and on the hunt.

It may well be rather the case that the defenses have been breached and that Kabul is now disputed. We'll know by tomorrow. If it is true that they've pulled out, then the rapid rate at which Taliban resistance has collapsed is quite stunning. What might have happened is that the Taliban military was comprised of segments of radically different quality, and that the best units were in and were destroyed in Mazar-e Sharif; once they were out of the picture, the Northern Alliance were free to move on other objectives which were defended by third rate troops which couldn't actually be relied upon. It may well be that most of the defenders of Kabul were such, and that the combination of knowledge of the fall of Mazar-e Sharif and weeks of bombing by US air units combined to make their morale crack. So despite the cautious tone of this report, I suspect that it truly is the case that Kabul has fallen, though there may well still be fighting going on there. The critical question now will be whether the road east to Pakistan is secure, so that it can be used to bring in supplies. If indeed the Northern Alliance does take control of Kabul, it is essential that there not be mass starvation in that city this winter. (discussion in progress)

By the way, I believe that we can now be reasonably certain that the US air campaign has not in fact been a failure.

Stardate 20011112.1625 (On Screen): Tariq Aziz, deputy Prime Minister of Iraq, denies that Iraq has any links to international terrorists.

Freedom fighters? Yup. But no terrorists. Oh, I'm convinced -- how could I have been so deceived? (discuss)

Stardate 20011112.1254 (On Screen): According to this report, English no longer dominates the web -- well, sort of.

For the first time in the history of the World Wide Web, native English speakers are no longer the dominant demographic group on the Internet, thanks to a surge of more than 100 million new Internet users in 2001, a report released today found.

The third annual "State of the Internet Report," produced jointly by the U.S. Internet Council and International Technology & Trade Associates Inc., (ITTA) found the new users – mainly from the South Pacific region – helped shrink the share of native English speakers online to roughly 45 percent of the estimated total of 500 million Web users.

That said, I suspect it's still the case that there are more native English speakers actively using the web than there are native speakers of any other single language. English may no longer have an active majority of native speakers but I suspect it's still the single largest one. But that's not the real issue. There are many, many web users for whom English is a second language who still use English-language web sites heavily. (I can tell from my usage logs that I get a lot of hits from non-English-speaking nations. The real question would be this: of all the languages spoken by all the people who use the web, which language is spoken by more of them? There can be no doubt that it is English, nor that a substantial majority (probably in excess of three quarters) of web users are English speakers either as a first or second language.

This is so obvious a point that I have to wonder what the agenda was of those who originated this study. Just why was it that they felt it was important to make this observation? (discuss)

Stardate 20011112.1105 (On Screen): I'm becoming more convinced that today's crash in NYC was just a terrible and unfortunate accident. I think it will be discovered to be some sort of structural failure or engine explosion, and not the result of inimical action. But if it is the result of inimical action, I think it will be the result of a shoulder-fired SAM, not the result of anything on board. Reports are that the left engine was burning and then fell off the jet, after which it banked left and nose-dived into the ground. In theory it should be possible to fly such a jet on only one engine, but in practice it takes a while for the pilots to recover control of the jet when something that drastic happens, and with the jet as low to the ground as it was they may simply not have had the time they needed.

The reports are not consistent with a bomb on board the jet, unless it was specifically placed on the engine. A bomb in the fusilage would have made the fusilage disintegrate, and at the very least the tail of the jet would have hit quite a ways from the rest of the body. Also, a bomb in the jet itself (say, in cargo or baggage) would not have made an engine separate without causing the entire jet to scatter in pieces. It's conceivable that a carefully placed bomb could have done that, but why would an attacker go to all that trouble?

A SAM, on the other hand, would be an IR seeker and would home in on one of the engines; in that sense it is at least a bit more plausible than a planted bomb. But I lean against that explanation until more evidence of it is uncovered. With as many people as there are in NYC and at least some of them looking upwards, eyewitnesses should appear soon. More to the point, it would be picked up on radar. So if this was a SAM, I think evidence of that will develop. That is surely something that will be carefully considered.

The A-300 is a good, reliable jet but it has had its share of crashes over the years; this is not by any means the first. What happened today is a great tragedy, but let's not get carried away with fear. (discuss)

Update: This is the engine which fell off the jet. It would not be in the shape it is in if it had been hit by a SAM. I am virtually certain now that this was not the result of an attack.

Stardate 20011112.0939 (Crew, this is the Captain): At this time there is no evidence that the crash in NYC is anything besides a tragic accident. Given that one engine landed far from the rest of the plane, it seems credible that there was some sort of structural failure. This could range from simple failure of the engine mount to a bomb, but until more evidence becomes available, it is much too soon to speculate.

But if it turns out to be the result of terrorist activity, the discussion which will instantly begin will be whether the purported attack happened because of the war in Afghanistan or in spite of it. Antiwar activists will cite such an attack (if not this one, then some other when it comes) as being proof that we should not have gone to war, because doing so angered them and made them attack us again. Such an argument will be utter idiocy, because it will ignore the fact that we were attacked five times before we ever went to war, and that there was every reason to believe we'd be attacked again regardless. But you're sure to see it. (discuss)

Stardate 20011112.0919 (On Screen): Union workers in France, disgruntled because their company went out of business, have rigged their former place of employment with makeshift explosives and are threatening to destroy it unless they are given a better severance package. At the best of times this would have been extremely ill-advised; but with a war going on against terrorists this was foolhardy to the point of idiocy. The French government should treat this as it is: armed revolt. The French unions should condemn this forthrightly. But I don't think they will. (discuss)

France has a long history of kowtowing to its unions; the result of this has been to create an environment so hostile to business as to cripple France's economy. When I was in high school, the Franc was valued at 80% of the Mark; now it's less than 30%.

Stardate 20011112.0820 (On Screen): Quentin writes to tell me that a jet crashed minutes after takeoff in NYC. Needless to say, the first thought everyone has is "Is this another terrorist attack?" It's possible, but it doesn't sound like another hijacking. There's three possibilities:

First, it may just be a terrible coincidence. Frankly, right now I think this is the highest probability.

Second, someone may have managed to smuggle a bomb on board with a pressure fuse. Third, it may have been shot down with a smuggled shoulder-fired SAM. I think that is the least likely explanation.

What I do know is that this was the very last thing that the airlines needed; regardless of how this happened, their business will now collapse. This plane belonged to American Airlines, who also flew two of the four planes involved in 9/11; I think there's a high chance of AA going out of business now. I don't see any way that they can restore public confidence after this fiasco. Other airlines will also be severely affected; it may take years before airline travel returns to prewar levels. (discussion in progress)

Stardate 20011112.0536 (On Screen): Mark McGwire proves once again that he's a class act. Having been offered a $30 million two-year contract to continue playing for the Cardinals, he's decided that he's going to retire. Why? Because he doesn't think he can perform and doesn't feel as if he'd earn the money. How many people in sports would do that? (discuss)

Stardate 20011112.0434 (On Screen): War in Afghanistan is as much like a game of poker as it is like chess; there is a certain amount of combat, of course, but casualties tend to be low because the fighters are interested in glory. That also mea

Captured by MemoWeb from on 9/16/2004