AUSTIN, Texas -- UNTIL A FEW days ago, it seemed there were only two ways we could possibly lose the war in Afghanistan. The first was if great numbers of Afghans starve to death this winter, thus canceling out the good we have done by getting rid of the Taliban and inciting a new wave of terrorists. The second would be an Islamist uprising in Pakistan, the overthrow of President Pervez Musharraf, and war between India and Pakistan, thus rather more than canceling out any good we have done.
True, Al Qaeda seems to have leaked away at the end, like water dribbling out of cupped hands. First they were all holed up in Tora Bora and we were pounding the stuffing out of them, and then ... they weren't there. Since we suspected the Pakistanis would let them through, it can't have come as much surprise. We have learned a great deal about how deeply implicated the ISI, the Pakistani CIA, was in the Taliban government.
But now arises a third possibility for disaster that has an element beyond tragedy - ludicrous farce. The problem is General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the warlord's warlord; a man who has changed sides nine times, including stints fighting for the Soviets, the Soviet puppets, the mujahideen, the Taliban, and now the Northern Alliance. This one is a classic.
One Western diplomat, according to The New York Times, says that Dostum has ''a very checkered human rights record.'' Now that's diplomatic language. According to intelligence sources, the guy is brutal and corrupt, as well as untrustworthy - and according to the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, his soldiers' record of rape is ghastly. To have fought a war, costing who knows how many Afghan lives, at least several American lives, and a monetary cost of billions only to end up with Dostum in power is beyond bearing.
Dostum has been appointed deputy defense minister in the new Afghan government, ''something of an unsavory trade-off,'' notes the Times. If he remains deputy defense minister - one of his rival warlords notes that Dostum is illiterate and incompetent to be deputy defense minister - we will presumably have to accept it as a necessary evil pursuant to Hamid Karzai's noble effort to create a true coalition government.
The trouble is, Dostum, on his record, is the cilantro of generals - he has a tendency to take over everything around him. He has already kicked up dust, threatening to boycott the new government because only two of his followers were given Cabinet posts.
Whoever said irony died on Sept. 11 should report to re-education camp immediately.
The administration and the media may be doing a significant disservice by oversimplifying this war. Black hats and white hats may make a good cowboy movie, but they have a downside in reality. During the culture wars of the Gingrich era, conservatives liked to accuse liberals of ''moral relativism,'' a deadly insult even though no one knew quite what it meant. Moral ambiguity is a fact of life, and to pretend it doesn't exist in Afghanistan will only lead to disenchantment. And disenchantment, in our case, usually leads to abandonment of whatever we've started because it's too messy.
We didn't stick around the first time to help Afghanistan get itself functioning, from which ensued a tragedy. Unless we get a realistic grasp of just how difficult this is going to be, we are all too likely to give up prematurely again.
It does no one any good to keep saying, ''Our enemies are evil people who hate us because we are successful.'' That's certainly not the way they look at it - and, at the very least, it is necessary to understand your enemy in order to fight him.
We have already reached such a pass with oversimplification that the words ''root causes'' are used as a scornful code for wussiness, as though trying to understand someone else's point of view is a weakness.
As many others have pointed out, we are probably dealing with at least two aspects of terrorism. One is the perverted holy-warrior fantasy of Osama bin Laden and the other is the consequence of history and policy.
If you drive people off their land - say the Palestinians - and leave them to rot in refugee camps for three generations, you are going to get terrorism. If you further aggravate old wounds by sending settlers into Palestinian territory and ruthlessly occupy same, you will get more terrorism.
This is not a great mystery, nor is it caused by envy of American success. There is no weakness in reexamining policies that lead to terrorism - we'd be fools not to do so.