A couple of phrases give us useful pointers to the moral and political intricacies of retribution. The Pentagon is talking about establishing "killing boxes" around Kabul, where U.S. helicopter gunships can fire at will. The Pentagon's assumption is that such "killing boxes" contain only Taliban troops, fair game for everything the gunships can throw at them.

Thus we see the return of an old friend from counterinsurgency in an earlier time, when "free-fire zones" meant that any Vietnamese peasant could be swiftly identified as Viet Cong, and thus a legitimate target.

Motorized transportation in Afghanistan mostly consists of old trucks. My brother Patrick, reporting from the Panjshir Valley for the London Independent, told me on his satellite phone Friday morning that he was being driven around in a truck with bullet holes in the windscreen that the Northern Alliance had captured not long before from the Taliban.

From the air an old truck looks like an old truck, whether the fellow driving it is a Taliban warrior or a farmer. In the 50 odd miles between Northern Alliance positions and Kabul are nearly a million villagers. Is this the kind of terrain to be winning hearts and minds with "killing boxes"?

We're now falling into the daily news rhythm of "more intense bombing around Kabul." I hear it each morning on CNN. It's not so long since Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was talking about the paucity of worthwhile targets in Afghanistan.

So all we can conclude is that the U.S. military strategy is now that of trying to eliminate a militia and its leaders in difficult terrain by bombs, missiles and gunships. One Pentagon spokesman on Oct. 16 said that the AC-130 Specter gunships were selected to add an element of terror to the attack as well. "If you're on the ground," he continued, "and get hit with a bomb from a B-52, it's over, but if you're there and hear an AC-130 coming with its Gatling gun going, the experience can be even more frightening."

Now these gunships are over Kabul. How can the Pentagon possibly argue that the only people these gunships will terrify are the Taliban and al-Qaeda? The usual rule is that bombing unites those in the receiving end in fear and dislike of the people doing the bombing. For the same reason it also consolidates the political control of those in power, whether Aideed or Saddam Hussein.

The Pentagon also lets it be known that there are now U.S. forces "on the ground" in Afghanistan, presumably combing the mountains for bin Laden. The self-satisfied and self-indulgent Rumsfeld had rich sport the other day, playing to the press gallery by belittling the view of the chief of Britain's Imperial General Staff that the campaign to run down bin Laden and his Taliban allies would last into next year.

Perhaps the Special Forces will run bin Laden to ground, but it is worth remembering that Afghanistan is twice the size of France. How many troops does it take to comb the Hindukush? How long would it take, especially considering winter is only a week or two away in Afghanistan? Remember the efforts via gunships and Special Forces to wipe out the warlord Mohammed Aideed in Mogadishu, Somalia, which came to such grief in early Clinton-time?

This brings us to the moral calculus of bombing. How can one categorize the current bombing as anything other than an assault on innocent civilians, for whose well-being President Bush has more than once expressed great concern? Reputable relief organizations have stated repeatedly that up to 7 million Afghans, many of them children, are on the edge of starvation. The famous aerial food drops are the purest tokenism. The only way food can be brought is by road, and amid the bombing, these convoys have largely been suspended.

It seems reasonable to assume that about 500 Afghan civilians have been killed by the bombs, but even if the Pentagon was right in disputing that number, it is impossible to occlude the simple truth that the bombing will most certainly exact huge casualties among malnourished refugees beset by winter. "Collateral damage" is assured.

The second telltale phrase: "Moderate elements in the Taliban." That was the political message that came out of Secretary of State Colin Powell's recent visit to Pakistan, in which the Pakistanis insisted that any sort of takeover in Kabul by the Uzbeks and Tadzhiks in the Northern Alliance was unacceptable. Hence the sudden discovery that there are "moderate elements in the Taliban" that can be recruited to a new coalition government.

As a phrase, "moderate elements in the Taliban" may sound comical, as though New Labor's Tony Blair suddenly started talking about the "New Taliban." But at least it suggests a political strategy a little more refined than that of terrorizing Kabul with bombs and gunships in a bombing campaign that, in terms of international treaty and obligation, is entirely illegal, though no one seems to care about that anymore.

The appropriate strategy to extract bin Laden from Afghanistan and to isolate Mullah Omar was always a political one, of the sort in which the CIA is supposed to excel, with suitable backstairs intrigue and bribery, and promises to the relative chieftains and feudal lords that, in the future, their opium trade will not be inconvenienced by international reproof. In other words, once Mullah Omar's body can be exposed on the battlements of Kabul, hopefully alongside that of Osama bin Laden and his associates, life in Afghanistan can resume its normal course.

Terrorism, however bloody, is an expression of political intent. Effective counter-terrorism is also political in its aims and strategy, or should be. In its current form, the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan looks awfully like blind rage, like the giant Polyphemus in Homer's "Odyssey," blindly hurling a rock at his assailants as they sailed away.

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2001 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.