Why do people celebrate a meaningless, pagan festival?

A FEW days back I went by the local shopping centre to drop my daughter off there. This centre was rebuilt and reopened a few months ago. It now has an enormous amount of parking space. Yet on this day, every single space was taken.

There’s one reason for this: Christmas.

In the run-up to Christmas, people seem to go crazy. They run to every possible shopping outlet and buy all sorts of junk, supposedly as gifts for others. Old people, middle-aged people, young people and children, they all come out and indulge in this orgy of buying.

And it all has to be done before Christmas.

On Christmas Day itself, people eat enough to make themselves sick. The holiday is used as a way for people to get together – this can be a nice thing if you have friends and family in the place you live. But to use it as an excuse for over-consumption just doesn’t wash.

Four years ago, I began to question the meaning of all that was being done at Christmas time. I’ve known for a long time that Christmas has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus Christ and everything to do with paganism. But I just went along – the children wanted gifts, everybody else wanted to indulge themselves and I joined in without too much of a murmur.

The family had a chat and decided that we would do without all the falsehood and unnecessary stress and strain – not to mention the waste of money. It was difficult for everyone to adjust the first year. The second year it got easier and this year nobody even talked about Christmas. It is just another day and that’s the way it should be.

The children want gifts at the end of the year so they get something but it is done well before December 25. I work every Christmas Day to emphasise the fact that it is an ordinary day – fortunately, I work in an industry where some people have to work every day of the year.

The churches would do well to abandon celebrations on this day for the only individual who is cited in the Bible as celebrating a birthday was Herod, a pagan if ever there was one. And for those who continue to believe that this day, December 25, has anything to do with the birth of Jesus, it is time to realise that nowhere in the Bible is one asked to celebrate the birthday of the book’s central figure.

As with many other things, people just go along with celebrating Christmas and do not stop to question. It is high time that this meaningless ritual was given the push. Let’s have a shopping festival instead – for that is exactly what Christmas is all about.

Shane Watson knows no shame

HIS captain is embarrassed. Senior cricket writers have poured scorn on him. Past cricketers have called his actions juvenile. Yet Shane Watson, the Australian all-rounder, is out there trying to defend his behaviour on the fourth day of the third Test against the West Indies.

Watson dismissed the West Indies captain, Chris Gayle, and then charged down the wicket to the departing Gayle and jumped up and down in front of him, snarling in a manner that the best wolfhound would find difficult to emulate.

And he justifies this behaviour by saying that Gayle had riled him up on the field, and “given as good as he got.” He even says he’s not embarrassed by the monkey act he performed in front of Gayle.

Which leaves one wondering whether he is really in the here and now, whether he knows that he can’t act like a two-year-old on the field – which is his workplace – and whether he thinks that he is not subject to society’s expected standards of behaviour.

Cricket Australia is partly to blame because it has not seen fit to levy any penalty on Watson after the ICC referee Chris Broad fined him a totally inadequate 15 percent of his match fee.

Broad has form in this regard – it would have been interesting to see what he would have fined a West Indies player who did a Watson. In the same game, Sulieman Benn was involved in an incident with Brad Haddin and Mitchell Johnson for which he earned a two-match suspension; the Australians were fined 25 and 15 percent of their match fees respectively.

You know that the chief of Cricket Australia is holding a post he is clearly not fit to hold when he says that the players should be given credit for good behaviour in several recent series.

I’m not sure why anyone should be given credit for doing the basics of their job but that seems to be part of the culture in the country. Cricketers are paid extremely high wages – Australian cricketers are about the highest paid in the world – in order to do a job. With that job comes an expected standard of behaviour; the ICC has a code of conduct and the Australian authority has one too.

When people do a job for which they have been paid, and paid mighty well too, why do they need to be praised? They have signed up to do something and merely kept to it. If a man signs up to work from 9am to 5pm, should he then expect praise because he arrives punctually for work every day?

Umpires can kill a damn good game

THE final Test in the Australia-West Indies series looked like going down to the wire. But it was stopped a couple of metres short by incompetent umpiring.

The West Indies had one wicket left and needed 51 runs on the final morning; they looked like getting real close until Kemar Roach was given out by umpire Billy Bowden of New Zealand, caught behind.

Roach challenged the decision and the replays showed plenty of air between the edge of his bat and the ball as it passed on the way to keeper Brad Haddin. The technology known as Hot Spot, another tool being used by the TV match officials, also showed that the ball had not made contact with Roach’s bat.

Yet Asad Rauf, the TV umpire, informed Bowden that the decision was up to him. As Bowden was not going to overrule himself, he raised his finger again and the match was over. The West Indies had made 14 runs off 21 balls on the final morning when Bowden intervened.

This incident raises the question: when an umpiring decision goes to referral, what is the third umpire trying to do – find proof that the decision is wrong or find proof that the umpire is right? Shortly before Bowden’s intervention, Rauf ruled that a catch claimed in the outfield by Doug Bollinger was not valid as the ball had hit the ground before Bollinger had got it in his grasp.

Rauf, it may be recalled, had given Shivnarine Chanderpaul out on referral in the second Test when an appeal for a catch behind was turned down by umpire Mark Benson. Ricky Ponting opted for a referral and Rauf overruled his colleague’s decision, even though the replays were inconclusive.

Bowden is a showman who always seems to be trying to get the camera to focus on him. He has an expansive way of signalling a boundary, a peculiar way of signalling a six and generally acts the goat on the field. The way he gave Roach out raises questions about his competence when it comes to actual umpiring – he will probably win an Oscar for his gestures.

And as to Rauf, one wonders how he alone can see something which nobody else can spot. Roach clearly had not touched the ball based on the TV camera evidence. Does Rauf think Bowden has some kind of third eye like a Hindu deity? Rauf saw evidence in the Chanderpaul incident too, when even the umpire on the field could not see a thing.

The referral system is a good thing. But if it turns out to be a case of taking potluck, then it will be of no use.

Technology can aid a good umpire to make good decisions. But in the hands of an incompetent, even the best technology is of little use. That is the only conclusion one can draw. As the old Indian saying goes, it is dangerous to put a matchbox in the hands of a monkey.

To understand the term ‘the ugly Australian’ you need to watch cricket

THE ugly Australian. That’s a term which is pretty common in the cricketing world, simply because one sees a great deal of evidence on the field. Yesterday, there was one more instance of the kind of boorish behaviour that serves to make every decent citizen of this country wince in shame.

Australia does not know how to lose gracefully in sport. Generally, if an Australian team loses, it is because they played badly, not because the opposition played better. And when this explanation is being trotted out, there will be also be a string of excuses offered, reasons as to why Australia could not win.

In cricket, Australia has got pretty used to winning, by fair means or foul. Since they dethroned the West Indies in 1995, Australia has been the leading team in both Test and one-day cricket, even though their record has not been anything like the West Indies during the 15 years that the Caribbean team was the top Test team.

Recently, Australia was toppled from its spot atop the Test cricket ladder and is now ranked third. This is, in part, due to changes in the team, changes brought about by retirements, injuries (there are lots of injuries due to the incessant cricket that is played worldwide) and politics.

But the behaviour of the Australian team is still appalling. One instance – and there were plenty of others, mind you – from the fourth day’s play in the third Test against the West Indies will suffice to illustrate this.

Chris Gayle, the captain of the West Indies, is a laidback person. He doesn’t lose his temper, keeps silent most of the time he is on the field, but can be a dangerously destructive batsman once he gets going.

When the West Indies began the improbable task of trying to score 359 in their second innings to defeat Australia, Gayle’s wicket was a vital one. More so, since he had made a rapid 102 in the first innings. In the previous Test he had shown an entirely unknown facet of his batsmanship by carrying his bat for 165, a long, slow and patient innings which helped the team to draw the game.

For a while, it looked as though Gayle and makeshift opener Travis Dowlin would put on a sizeable opening stand, until the latter fell to an injudicious stroke. This brought in Ramnaresh Sarwan, the other seasoned player in the side. Sarwan made a hundred when the West Indies chased down 418 in 2003 to defeat Australia; this, incidentally, is the highest fourth innings winning score in Test cricket.

Hence, both the wickets of both Gayle and Sarwan were vital for Australia to feel confident about winning. One more factor has been haunting Australia: the last time they played a Test in Perth, it was against South Africa – and the Proteas chased down 414 to beat the home team.

For a while after Dowlin was dismissed it looked as though Gayle was settling down to play a long, patient innings, similar to the one he played in Adelaide. But Shane Watson, one of the players whose abilities are highly over-rated, finally got an inside edge and keeper Brad Haddin grasped the catch.

Watson then ran to Gayle and began to jump up and down in front of him like a monkey. He was screaming out loud as well but Gayle refsued to be drawn into any kind of retaliation. He turned and departed for the pavilion. Watson was calmed down by his teammates.

It was ugly to see a grown man behave in this manner. It would have been surprising to a first-time watcher of the game – but to someone who has been watching for decades, it was just one more indication of the fact that the moniker “ugly Australian” is indeed an apt one.

Both umpires then spoke to Watson and he has been reported for this incident. It remains to be seen whether he will get off lightly as his teammates have or whether he will be hit with an appropriate penalty.

There was a constant stream of chatter on the field, right from the time the West Indies’ second innings began. The Australians have no need to talk, most of them are good cricketers and if they play to their skill-level, they can win. But they seem to think that they have to keep abusing people on the field.

This often has the opposite effect; opposition players get sufficiently worked up to play well above their abilities and things go wrong for Australia.

This habit of sledging is an indication of an inferiority complex: secretly, the Australians are always scared of losing. They have grave doubts about their own abilities and hence resort to verbal abuse to try and wear down the opposition.

This is one more reason why Test cricket is slowly dying, this display of boorish behaviour on the field.

Why is Chris Broad still a match referee?

ON A day when the fifth fastest century in Test cricket was scored, there was a sharp reminder of how the white man still rules what is essentially a colonial game.

The West Indies captain, Chris Gayle, put the Australian attack to the sword in the second half of the second day of the third Test to make 102, with a display of clean hitting that hasn’t been seen since Adam Gilchrist made a 57-ball Test hundred against England in 2006-07 at the same ground.

But it was the ugly clash between players that was the standout incident of the day – more so, considering the type of justice that was meted out.

West Indies off-spinner Sulieman Benn, a feisty character, was bowling when Australian wicket-keeper Brad Haddin angrily remonstrated with him for running into Mitchell Johnson while trying to field on his follow-through.

Haddin had no business getting involved in what was an accidental clash between Benn and Johnson.

But he did, and thereafter things hotted up. Benn fielded the next ball as Haddin stroked it down the pitch and made as if to throw down the wickets at his (Haddin’s) end. Haddin pulled away from the wicket and extended a hand to Benn, inviting him to throw the ball. There was no need to do that unless he wanted to aggravate the situation further.

When the over was bowled, Benn began to make some comments to Haddin who was coming up to mid-pitch to have the normal chat with Johnson that batsmen have between overs.

Johnson brushed Benn’s hand as he came up and this led to Benn pushing him away. Yes, Johnson made the first contact.

It was only at this point that umpire Billy Bowden got involved and asked the players to stay apart.

But, strangely, when match referee Chris Broad adjudicated, Benn was charged with a level two offence and Haddin and Johnson with level one offences.

Broad penalised Benn one Test or two one-day games. Haddin was asked to forfeit 25 percent of his match fee and Johnson will lose 10 percent.

Apparently, those who contest the charge get stiffer penalties; Benn contested the charge while the two Australians did not.

Haddin was the agent provocateur; if he had minded his own business, nothing would have happened. Johnson is old enough to look after himself and has been in the team much longer than Haddin; if he was a junior player and at the start of his career, one can understand Haddin’s involvement.

Yet Benn earned a heavier penalty than the two Australians.

Broad has form in this regard – last year when Australia was in India, Gautam Gambhir and Shane Watson collided on the pitch and Gambhir copped the heavier penalty, a one-match ban. Watson forfeited 10 percent of his match fee.

In the same series, India’s Zaheer Khan was fined for a verbal exchange with Matthew Hayden; the latter was widely known as one of the most foul-mouthed players in his time.

A third incident in the same series: Australian captain Ricky Ponting earned not even a rebuke for continuing to appeal long after the umpire had ruled Virender Sehwag not out on a lbw appeal. But he did not earn even a rebuke from Broad.

It’s interesting to recall that when Broad, a former England opener, was given out in the Sydney bicentennial Test in 1988, he knocked all three stumps out of the ground with his bat in anger and was fined £500, the maximum possible fine at the time

It looks as though the ICC takes every chance it gets to penalise the countries that line up behind India when it comes to voting. India is the powerhouse in the cricketing world and the white members of the ICC just hate this – they long for the days when they were making the decisions. This is their one way of getting back at the coloured nations – appoint a match referee who can get a bit of their own back.

Melbourne’s climate: erratic and nice

YESTERDAY it was 39 degrees Celsius and fans and air-conditioners were in overdrive. That equates to 102 degrees Fahrenheit. Today the mercury is sitting at 25 Celsius, a drop of 14 which is not remarkable when you consider that this is Melbourne.

This kind of swing can happen in a single day; there have been summer days when it has been 40 Celsius during some part of the day and half that by evening. By bedtime, it can even time to pull out a blanket.

A famous saying about this city is that you can experience all four seasons in the space of a single day – and it’s not an exaggeration.

Summer brings its share of hot days – the highest I’ve seen in the last 12 years is 42 Celsius which works out to 108 Fahrenheit – but the mean works out 20 Celsius for the highs and 10 for the lows. Overall it is more than bearable. I love it.

Some people find the wild swings unmanageable, especially when it gets cold. Many retired people move to warmer climes as the cold has its attendant health issues. Arthritis is common.

Melbourne’s weather is particularly welcome for anyone who comes here from the Persian Gulf. There the temperatures stay constant for days on end; there are just two seasons the hot and the cool.

Seven months of the year in the Gulf are bearable only when one lives in air-conditioned dwellings. There are two distinct types of heat – some months the mercury rises to as much as 44 degrees and the humidity stays relatively low. And by low I mean something around the 60 percent mark.

August and September sees lower temperatures but the humidity more than makes up for, residing in the 90s all the time. And there is no change, it goes on day after day after day.

It’s a peculiar kind of heat and one has to experience it to understand what it feels like. The heat in Asian countries is an entirely different kind of beast. Sri Lanka, India, Singapore, Thailand are all different from the Gulf region, though the heat is always unpleasant.

But no region is as bad as the Gulf region. And yet people work outdoors even in those climes.

The entire Gulf region was built on the back of cheap labour from the Indian subcontinent and much of it was done in the summer.

Fast bowlers have lost their skills

WHY are today’s fast bowlers unable to attack a batsman’s body? Why are they unable to bowl a decent yorker? Why do they just keep bowling up-and-down stuff when the wicket is one of the bounciest in the world?

These are some of the questions that came to mind as I watched part of the first day’s play in the third and final Test between Australia and the West Indies at the WACA ground in Perth. The pitch there is one of the fastest in the world and the West Indies have found it a happy hunting ground in the past.

But this time, they do not have the bowlers to take advantage of the bounce that the pitch offers. Only one, the youngster Kemar Roach, was able to use the pitch to some extent. He gave the Australian captain, Ricky Ponting, a good working over and forced him to retire hurt after getting one ball to rise and hit Ponting on his left elbow.

Like all great batsmen, Ponting – and despite the fact that he is in the twilight of his career, the Australian captain is still a class act – has his moments of vulnerability at the start of an innings. Last January, he was given a good working over by the Indian teenager Ishant Sharma and lost the duel. This time, it remains to be seen what he will do when he resumes his innings sometime later in the game.

The rest of the West Indies pacemen were innocuous. They tried to maintain a good line but never threatened. Ravi Rampaul may be a decent tailend batsman but he is no class as a bowler.

The third paceman, Antiguan Gavin Tonge, from the same island that produced the feared Anderson Montomery Everton Roberts, looked to be bowling well within himself and needs to free up his action a bit to generate enough pace. He looks cramped when he bowls though he has the height and physique to be a good fast bowler.

But height and muscle are only half the story. The late Malcolm Marshall was a small-made man but find me a batsman who felt unafraid when the Barbadian with the whippy action was marking out his run-up. The willowy and graceful Michael Holding could hardly be called muscular but batsman called him “Whispering Death.”

Fast bowlers no longer seem to be able to bowl the famous “throat ball” that Colin Croft made his specialty. They seem to be unaware of the “Sandshow crusher” which was a favourite of the great Pakistani fast bowler Waqar Younus who would often knock over all three wickets with one.

When a fast bowler can home in on a batsman’s body and get the ball to bounce awkwardly, it is only a matter of time before the ball is fended off to a close-catcher. And the West Indies were masters of the art of doing exactly this.

On the Australian side, Mitchell Johnson occasionally does get the ball to do unpleasant things but he is erratic and can bowl 20 overs all over the place before he gets one over on target. As a result, batsmen do not have difficulty negotiating his bowling.

Doug Bollinger is good with the old ball though one has to see whether he can use the Perth strip to good effect. The third Australian paceman, Clint McKay, is an unknown quantity.

It is interesting to note that during the West Indies heyday, the 80s, their bowlers were the match-winners more often than the batsmen. The bowlers conceded only around 24 runs per opposition wicket, a figure that went up to something around 26 in the 90s. By 1995, Australia had dethroned them.

In the 2000s, the West Indies bowlers have been getting wickets at the cost of about 50 runs apiece. Their batting figures have stayed relatively stable over these three decades.

Which goes to show that during the good times, the bowlers were the ones who pulled the irons out of the fire. They do not have bowlers of that class anymore – occasionally, someone shines as Jerome Tayor did when they beat England by an innings in Jamaica earlier this year.

But for the most part, the West Indies bowlers cannot take the 20 wickets required to win a Test. And that, one fears, will be the case for some time to come.

An encounter with Joe ‘Zonker’ Brockmeier

MANY people who claim to be part of the so-called free and open source software community paint themselves publicly as open-minded and reasonable people.

As with most things, the reality is often different.

I’ve met more than my fair share of people who consider themselves part of this community as I’ve been writing about these genres of software for nigh on 10 years. There are lots of excellent open-minded and reasonable folk in these circles, but some of those who pose as leaders are often the most biased.

Until January 2009, I had never met Joe “Zonker” Brockmeier. I had occasionally read something which he had written as he has worked in a number of online publications as a technology writer and editor. I always thought of him as a competent and intelligent writer.

In 2008, he took up the job of community manager for OpenSUSE, a GNU/Linux distribution that has been sponsored by Novell, a company that signed a patent deal with Microsoft in November 2006, a deal that was considered a sellout by most of the FOSS community.

Exactly how a journalist can cross over to the world of PR is beyond me. Of course, when one is already doing PR and passing it off as journalism, it is not difficult at all.

In January 2009, at Australia’s national Linux conference, which was held in Hobart, the capital of the island of Tasmania, Brockmeier gave a talk on how, in his opinion, FOSS projects should be publicised.

I was present and wrote it up. I did not agree with many of his recommendations and said so without mincing words.

The conference, an annual affair held in a different city each year, provides wireless internet coverage but it is often patchy as the number of conference rooms is normally spread over an entire university campus. As a result, those who need net access – in my case I can’t work without it – often have to work in certain areas.

But in Hobart, the wireless coverage was super; hence, when I had a backlog of stories to file, I would sit in some lecture theatre or the other and do my work.

I was sitting in one such lecture and writing an article on the day when my piece about Brockmeier’s talk appeared. I suddenly noticed the man himself sitting a few seats away and glaring in my direction. This did not bother me as many people glare at me. I finished my work and got up and left.

Brockmeier came charging behind me. He hailed me and said “You’re XXX aren’t you?” He was perspiring freely and appeared to be very agitated.

When I answered in the affirmative, he asked me which journalism school I had attended. I told him that I had never been to journalism school but had learnt the trade at the stone (that’s what we called the page-making table in the days of lead-type). I also told him that I had been educated in India, while he had been educated in the US and asked him if that really made a difference.

He was taken aback by my frankness and caught on the back-foot; it looked like he was not used to people answering back. He then said that since I disagreed with him about how FOSS projects should be publicised, I should tell him the right way to publicise such projects.

I told him that I had never heard such a silly thing in my life and that I was not going to tell him a thing – it was for him to find out. He then accused me of being innacurate in my report as some things I had reported were not in the PowerPoint presentation which he had used. He said he had been watching me in the theatre from which I had just emerged and noticed that I had not taken a single note.

This again was silly and childish as he had spoken extempore a great deal while his presentation was taking place. I asked him to go back and have a look at a video of his talk before opening his mouth. I also told him that I was not writing anything about the talk that had been going on in the theatre and hence there was no need for me to take notes.

The bluster seemed to go out of him. It was as though a balloon had been deflated. I told him I had no time to waste and started walking away. He walked alongside me, muttering something about nobody liking me because I criticised people in my articles. This, of course, showed that his knowledge of journalism was a big zero and that PR was the right field for him.

Journalists are asked to write about things without fear or favour. In practice, this does not work 100 percent of the time – but if you stick to the rules of the profession even 75 percent of the time, you end up making an awful number of enemies. There are three classes of enemies – those who are pissed that you wrote about them, those who are pissed because you did not write about them, and those who are pissed because you described them as being the co-founder of a company when in reality they are one of four co-founders and came in after the other three.

Journalism is a terribly lonely profession, hence not many people go down this route. I’m talking of the real route. Instead, there is a kind of half-arsed compromise and puff pieces are written to make people happy. Most of it is spin of the most extreme kind.

A film that leaves the rest for dead

AT TIMES one encounters a work of art so finely crafted, a work that leaves one so satisfied, that thereafter one cannot view anything of the same genre and experience a similar sense of satisfaction.

The film Syriana is one such work which transcends practically every superlative and leaves one wondering when, or indeed whether, any filmmaker will ever come close to such a masterful effort.

Syriana (original script here) was made in 2005 by Stephen Gaghan who spent four years researching before he created this epic. And it shows.

The film brings together a number of stories:

  • that of a CIA veteran who is returning to the US and finds himself sent out on a mission that turns sour and results in the agency turning its back on him;
  • that of a lawyer who is trying to smooth out a merger between two oil companies and finds himself in possession of information that could end up being political dynamite;
  • that of a religious group in the Middle East who are looking for candidates to serve as suicide bombers;
  • that of a couple of Pakistani expats who lose their jobs because of the merger of the aforementioned oil firms and become prime recruitment material for Islamic terrorism;
  • that of an oil industry consultant who ends up as economic adviser to a sheikh who expects to become leader of a small Gulf country only to find his brother installed as leader instead because of American presssure;
  • and that of the aforementioned sheikh and his efforts to go against the grain and how they end in tragedy.

Despite being a film about people and situations from the East and West, despite including dialogue in five languages, despite drawing half-a-dozen story threads into a coherent whole, the film never, just never, gets boring or descends into stereotypes.

I have never seen a film which shows that the director has so completely understood the psyche of people from the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, the Western world, and all their attendant cultures that he never puts a foot wrong. Directors often get things 95 percent right and that is deemed acceptable; Gaghan gets it 100 percent right all the time.

The film resonated with me because I could comprehend it on different levels: as someone who has grown up on the Indian subcontinent, as one who now lives in a Western country, and as one who has spent a considerable amount of time in the Middle East.

The editing is so finely tuned that one scene begins almost before the other ends. The dialogue is taut and loaded with meaning; one has to see the film at least twice before all the little nuances of the excellent screenplay can be grasped.

If truth be told, one can’t praise this film too much. All of the above is just understatement. One has to see the film to begin to comprehend exactly why it is a statement of the times, a mirror to society and an apt illustration of the fact that in the inter-connected world we live in, an act somewhere far away can have unintended repercussions in our own backyard.

There is a range of emotions at play right through the film; there are moments of exhilaration when it looks like good will triumph, there are others when depression is the order of the day. The music is classy right through, every language spoken (English, Arabic, Urdu, Farsi and French are all used at various times) is translated correctly, with respect to both word and idiom.

Overall, there is a lesson for us all in the film: life cannot go on as it has, with the haves continuing to accumulate wealth while the have-nots continue to struggle for the bare necessities.

And the film also teaches us that the West cannot keep interfering in countries far beyond its borders to maintain its economic superiority, without facing a terrible backlash. Some part of that backlash arrived on September 11, 2001; Syriana sounds a grim warning that there may be more to come.

Why are the Americans still in Afghanistan?

MOST people who haven’t been living in a cave or under a rock for the last eight years know that American soldiers, and forces from a few other countries, were sent to Afghanistan in 2001, following the attacks that brought down the World Trade Centre.

The attacks were judged to have been carried out by Osama bin Laden, a Saudi who had taken refuge in Afghanistan after having his citizenship revoked, and the idea was to capture the man and make him stand trial.

Eight years and a bit later, the forces are still there, bin Laden is still at large, and the Americans are still talking about capturing him.

Indeed, the top American commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal has been quoted as saying that the capture of this elusive Saudi is crucial to defeating the Al Qaeda terror network which the West believes is a vast empire of terrorism controlled by bin Laden.

A few weeks back, there was a bit of news that runs counter to this talk: an US Senate report said that bin Laden was within the grasp of the US in 2001 but had been allowed to get away because the then US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, rejected calls for reinforcements to take the Saudi into custody.

Get that? Did they want to capture the man or not? Or did Rumsfeld want an excuse for the Americans to continue to stay in Afghanistan? Once he had been captured, the Americans would have had no reason to stay there.

About the only change in Afghanistan of 2001 when the Americans attacked and now is the absence of the Taliban in positions of power and the presence of opium aplenty in the fields. When the Taliban ruled the country, there was not a single opium plant under cultivation.

The Americans have installed a puppet government, headed by a former oil company executive, Hamid Karzai. This gentleman was caught rigging elections a few months back but is still the president of the country. That’s what American democracy does for you – it helped an unelected man like George Bush to rule in the US and it helps Karzai to rule in Kabul.

But the Taliban have made gains and Karzai’s remit runs only as far as Kabul and only as long as there are men with guns from various foolhardy Western nations willing to guard him.

Initially, there was evidence that the Americans’ prime interest in Afghanistan was setting up a pipeline to carry gas from central Asian republics through Afghanistan to Multan in Pakistan. The proposed extension would move gas on to New Delhi, where it would connect with an existing pipeline.

This kind of project required a stable government in Afghanistan. And many have speculated that that is why the Americans went to the country. In 1998, an existing pipeline project had to be shut down after the Americans launched cruise missiles into Sudan and Afghanistan.

But the Americans are blissfully aware that no outside power has ever been able to bring stability to Afghanistan. The mix of warring tribes, all of different ethnic origins, has always ensured that unless a dictatorship, or something close to it, was in place, there would be organised chaos.

The pipeline project began in May 2002. By then the Taliban were defeated by American military power. And the opium fields had started to bloom again as Afghans returned to growing what is their main crop.

Given that American military forces have in the past been involved in smuggling drugs back to their country – the famous druglord Frank Lucas cut out the middlemen and made a fortune by getting drugs brought in to the US on American military planes from Vietnam – it is not unreasonable to assume that something similar is happening now.

After all, the biggest market for heroin, one of the many products produced from the opium poppy, is the US of A. It seems to come down to oil and drugs in the end. And for that many thousands of Americans have died. Soldiers from other countries have given their lives too in a meaningless war that has brought no peace to Afghanistan..

For it is becomingly increasingly clear that once the Western forces are out of the country – and that will happen by mid-2011 – the Taliban will be back in power. The pipeline will be guarded and the Taliban are unlikely to meddle there. The flow of drugs may lessen.