The Taliban scored a powerful psychological victory yesterday, as fewer than two dozen suicide attackers brought Afghanistan's government and capital city to a standstill.
In a dramatic wave of attacks (possibly planned with help from Pakistani intelligence operatives), the Taliban struck Kabul's presidential palace, several government ministries and a multistory shopping complex.
And they did it just as President Hamid Karzai was swearing in his new Cabinet (despite a battle with parliament over the legitimacy of his picks).
Think that gave Afghans renewed confidence in their government?
Still worse: The attack's planning was meticulous and media savvy. In smooth coordination with simultaneous suicide bombings and small-arms attacks, Taliban public-relations agents popped up online and in the media to thump their chests over their win.
When it comes to media relations, these thugs aren't backward barbarians. Indeed, the Taliban does it far better than our military, which slowly issues defensive statements that nobody takes seriously. (And where our bureaucracy's paralytic, NATO's is comatose.)
Inevitably, our guys in Kabul will play down the attacks, claiming that "Saigon's back to normal, people are going about their business." But weigh the psychological impact yesterday's strikes had on Afghans unsure of which horse to back in this deadly race.
Yesterday's wave of bombings was a mini-Tet Offensive -- a small-scale repeat of the attacks that triggered US public opinion's turn against the Vietnam War. They were designed to explode Western claims of progress and embarrass our leaders -- and it worked.
Our self-delusion stinks of the early years in Vietnam, when Gen. Paul Harkins, our man in Saigon, claimed (in 1963) that the Vietnamese army was doing a great job, the war was being won and our troops would be home by 1965.
Recently, I read a report by an official US visitor to Afghanistan calling Karzai "brave" and describing him as the leader Afghanistan needs.
Good God -- he's hiding in his presidential palace, afraid to visit the front lines and see what kind of shape his country's really in. Yesterday, the war came to him.
Our insistence on propping up Karzai is so uncanny a replay of our support for South Vietnam's incompetent Diem regime five decades ago that the similarity's unnerving.
We saw what we wanted to see then. And we see what we want to see now.
The problem is not our troops: They're doing everything we ask and more.
But they're pit bulls led by miniature poodles. Senior military leaders refuse to see our enemies for what they are -- religious fanatics with a durable tribal base -- and insist on treating them as 20th-century ideological insurgents.
Earth to Gen. Stan McChrystal: Those suicide bombers yesterday weren't Sandinistas.
Special Forces and other personnel down-range (far from the gee-whiz briefing rooms) understand that there is no Afghan nation, that we've stuck ourselves in the midst of complex tribal wars super-charged by religious fanaticism among our enemies. And, in tribal wars, you have to pick your tribes.
It's not that the war in Afghanistan's unwinnable. It's just not winnable on the ludicrous terms we've imposed upon ourselves. We want to build what can't be built and refuse to do what must be done -- and sacrifice our troops for foreign scoundrels.
Poll the Afghans on the streets of Kabul today. Ask them if we're winning.
Ralph Peters' latest book is "The War After Armageddon."