The battle is joined

Afghanistan: The U.S. hasn't finished there

in fact, the fight may have just begun.

March 05, 2002

AMERICAN TROOPS are engaged right now in difficult mountain fighting with remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaida, the first serious engagement between the U.S. Army and the enemy in Afghanistan. By yesterday, at least eight Americans had been killed.

The battle, raging south of Gardez, has been a sharp reminder of just what is involved in the war on terrorism. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said repeatedly this winter that the job was still to be completed in Afghanistan, and he was right. The Pentagon tried to get Afghans to do the fighting for us at Tora Bora in December; the result was something close to a fiasco. This time, U.S. soldiers are in the thick of it, as they must be if they hope to carry the day.

There will surely be more battles. Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar are, as far as anyone knows, still on the loose. America is in this for the long haul.

Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, told the Senate last week that the good that has been accomplished in Afghanistan must not be allowed to unravel. Americans and Afghans alike are going to have to get accustomed to the idea of a U.S. presence there - for years to come. We cannot declare victory and go home.

But the fighting, and the sacrifices, by the 101st Airborne Division and Army Special Forces should serve as another kind of reminder as well. After Sept. 11, the United States had its work cut out for it. The enemy was identified as the al-Qaida network and the Taliban regime that provided it with a haven. The task was - and still is - to defeat those who aided and abetted the murder of 3,000 Americans.

But now the Bush administration, in consultation with no one, is finding new fronts all around the world on which to expand the fight. Do we want to be in the Philippines? In Yemen? In Georgia? Do we know what we want to accomplish in Iraq? Are these places in fact related in some way to Sept. 11? Maybe they are, but the White House and Pentagon are sharing nothing with Congress or the public about the war councils that are toting up new military commitments seemingly every day.

Senate Democrats, led by Tom Daschle, are fully justified in asking where this will all lead, and how much it will cost. Before the United States starts lashing out in all directions at once, it wouldn't hurt to get an idea of what's at stake. In the meantime, let's attend to the work at hand - which is in the eastern mountains of Afghanistan.

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