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Afghanistan: U.S. Having Two Debates

AUSTIN — Afghanistan is to nation-building what Afghanistan is to war — pretty much the last place on earth you'd choose, if you had any choice at all. I point this out not to oppose the idea, about which I think we have no choice, but to underline that the task is hard, long and incredibly complicated. President Bush has said that from the beginning, but it cannot be said too often.

There are some signs of what could become a dangerous division in what has been an unusually unified America since this crisis began, and they have to do with a class difference in information. To oversimplify, those who are getting their information from the Internet and/or a broad range of publications are having conversations with one another that are radically different from those heard on many radio talk shows.

This is more than the simplistic jingoism that is a constant in American life; this is simplistic jingoism with a dangerously short attention span. The "let's nuke 'em" crowd is still looking for a short, simple solution, and there just isn't one. More stark evidence of this is the poll of Pakistanis just released by Newsweek, and the numbers need to be read carefully: While 51 percent support their government's cooperation with the U.S. during the crisis, 83 percent are sympathetic to the Taliban, and almost half believe Israel was behind the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Fortunately for us, bin Laden and the Taliban are taking care of that theory. I think one of the few mistakes the Bush administration has made so far in this was to criticize the networks for putting on bin Laden — we want everybody to hear him claim credit for those attacks.

While some of us search for the answer to the question, "Why do they hate us?" the voices on radio talk shows are answering, "Who cares? Nuke 'em." Those inclined to think that's not a bad plan might keep in mind the already-classic lead by Barry Bearak of The New York Times: "If there are Americans clamoring to bomb Afghanistan back to the Stone Age, they ought to know that this nation does not have far to go. This is a post-apocalyptic place of felled cities, parched land and downtrodden people."

One downside to the short-simple-answer school is that those folks are going to become extremely frustrated. As others have observed, talk radio is often not so much a forum for discussion as it is a medium for venting anger, so perhaps it serves a useful purpose. But it also seems to foment anger.

In a continuing effort to focus on the practical, I see no reason not to lay out the evidence against bin Laden. It's being leaked to the media so widely one can only assume that's a policy. The Taliban are now saying they will turn bin Laden over to a third party if they see evidence.

We don't want to negotiate? Fine, we don't have to talk to them. We can just make the information public for everyone, with the exception, obviously, of shielding investigative tools. The money trail offers insights on the daunting complexity of what we face. Some of the charitable money we are questioning, from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, goes to the madrasas — religious schools of varying quality. Some offer education, some educate solely for jihad; many of the Taliban are graduates of these schools.

The madrasas, in addition to religious education, provide room and board for the boys of poor families. In Pakistan, where almost the entirety of the budget goes to the military and debt service, the madrasas represent almost the whole of civil society for the poor. When experts talk about building a civil society, they mean from scratch.

While some of us are talking about how to build a civil society, achieve energy independence and settle long-standing international disputes, others are reacting like the waitress in an Austin drinking establishment, who refused to serve the East Indian guest of a regular patron, repeatedly calling him a terrorist and insisting that he leave. That's the reaction gap that concerns me.