- The Washington Times - Friday, March 8, 2002

The U.S.-led attack on al Qaeda holdouts near Gardez, Afghanistan, should serve as a sobering reminder that this nuanced and intricate war will be long and difficult.

This first offensive combat commitment of U.S. conventional ground troops and I emphasize "first" should also remind us that we are still in the early, formative phases of this conflict.

On Afghan mountains, in the White House, on Capitol Hill, in every American home, the United States is now constructing the political and military "architectural foundation" for a long-haul campaign.

In order to win this war, that foundation must be strong, it must be sustaining.

Let's first consider the military foundation. Yes, some of the initial construction was slap-dash. War, like every other human enterprise, has a learning curve.

The United States did not expect to fight a war in the Himalayas. September 11 forced the fight. The Afghan battlefield required instant adaptation. Hill tribes and warlords aren't the most reliable allies, but, frankly, that's Afghanistan. Afghanis topple Afghan governments. Astute outsiders accept that condition.

The war in Afghanistan demonstrates that the United States is able to recognize unique local conditions and adapt strategy and operations as required. That's an excellent long-term foundation.

Sure, there are limits to accepting local "givens." That allied warlords might let trapped al Qaeda fighters slip away was a risk the United States took last fall. The logistics infrastructure necessary to support effective U.S. ground combat operations in the region didn't exist.

It does now. The commitment of troops to the Gardez battle demonstrates long-term U.S. resolve to smash terrorist resistance. When circumstances demand it (and particularly when we've "reshaped" conditions), U.S. infantry will destroy terrorists in even the most forbidding terrain.

In fact, the Afghan campaign provides an object lesson in the U.S. ability to "reshape and re-set" initial military and political conditions, one that should produce long-term diplomatic benefits.

cWith the Taliban collapse, radical Islamists no longer control a nation that promoted terrorism. Those hasty local alliances, which had the downside risk of letting defeated al Qaeda slip free, had the upside effect of demonstrating the internal "brittleness" of dictatorial regimes.

• U.S. counterterror intelligence has improved dramatically. Busting the Taliban loosened tongues. We've a more precise idea of who's who around the globe.

• In September 2001, the supply line to support large-scale U.S. operations in Central Asia did not exist. The logistics line is still slender, but the Pentagon can now support brigade-sized forces. But here's the foundation statement: The United States has demonstrated the military ability to not only "go to the ends of the Earth," but to go there in force and sustain that force. It may take time, but we'll get you.

• Non-Afghan allies are now fully involved in the mission. French Mirages are dropping bombs. Allied commandos are engaged in the Gardez operation. International peacekeepers, with Muslim Turkey taking a lead role, are securing Afghan cities and coalition support facilities.

These four "military" points, of course, are indicative of real political success. The United States is conducting a "global war" with global support, a remarkable political foundation.

"Coalition building" by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has been effective. Russia and China have cast their lot with the United States. Despite snipes and gripes by the ilk of French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, President Bush's "axis of evil" speech clarified one of the war's key tasks, stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Though these successes are significant, the long-term political foundation necessary to win this war still isn't secure. Afghanis topple Afghanistan. Meet another geopolitical truism: The trick to defeating America is to get America to defeat itself, to weaken American will.

Unfortunately, September 11's full import has yet to sink in on some Americans. September 11 changed our world. The habits of political partisanship must change as well. Congress plays an essential role in building the political foundation for a successful war. Real national leaders as opposed to headline-seeking hacks must understand that building and sustaining the American public's will to fight and finish the war on terrorism is, at the moment, their most urgent mission.

Constructive critique, the vetting of realistic alternative policies made with an understanding of the stakes, is a democratic strength. Cheap shots in the hope of partisan gain, however, can have deeply fracturing effects on public faith and undermine military success in a long war where setbacks are a certainty. Consider the downing earlier this week of an American helicopter, the deaths of more than a half-dozen U.S. servicemen and the wounding of at least 50 others in intensive, continued fighting near Gardez.


Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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