Crossing a border

April 26, 2002

STEP BY STEP, the U.S. military is moving deeper into the war against al-Qaida. Now we are taking the fight into the rugged western regions of Pakistan, where covert operations will seek out small groups of enemy fighters living among a population hostile to outsiders.

This is enormously risky, yet unavoidable if the war against terrorism means anything.

The sudden collapse of the Taliban last fall, and the joy with which that was received in many parts of Afghanistan, helped to obscure what didn't happen: The United States did not defeat Osama bin Laden and his followers. They took to the mountains. We rounded up some Afghan allies and tried to flush out the al-Qaida forces at Tora Bora in December, but the battle there was illusory. We sent in our own men in February in Shah-e-Kot, with better results -- probably -- but again the enemy melted away.

There's still a war on, in other words.

U.S. military leaders have good reason to believe that their foes have decamped across the border. So a very skittish Pakistan has given the green light to the United States to send in operatives with the aim of killing or capturing al-Qaida fighters. But it's important to understand the prickly nature of the northwestern tribal areas of Pakistan; even the Pakistani army stays clear of them, and Americans there are going to have to proceed with unusual delicacy.

The last time the United States expanded a war by taking it across a border was in 1969, when President Richard M. Nixon ordered the "incursion" into Cambodia from South Vietnam. That proved to be a disaster, both for the United States and for Cambodia. The move into Pakistan bears only a superficial resemblance to that unhappy moment in history, but Americans must take care not to stoke another endless war from which exit becomes increasingly problematic.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is embarking on another visit to Afghanistan, with stops in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and in Moscow. Everywhere he goes, he will be pressed to step up security assistance to the embryonic Afghan government. Indeed, it does sound like "escalation," but it's hard to imagine an alternative.

And there's one big difference: The fighting in Afghanistan is not a test of American "credibility." It is a struggle against those bent on the destruction of the United States. We saw what they could do Sept. 11. And we heard what they wish they could do as recently as this week, when Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker, told a court in Virginia his life's ambition is to bring down America.

The times now are no less dangerous than they were last fall. The United States must act with extreme care and forethought -- but act it must.

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