Why the War in Afghanistan is a Long Way From Over

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An anti-Taliban fighter searches a former al Qaeda cave

When some 2,000 al-Qaeda fighters appeared to slip the dragnet at Tora Bora last December, the American forces learned a valuable lesson: If you want to get things done in Afghanistan, do them yourself. That's why when it traced a group of some 500 suspected bin Laden loyalists to a cave network in the Shahi Kot mountain range in Paktia province, the U.S. last weekend sent 1,000 of its own men — together with 200 special forces troops from Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Denmark and Norway — to take a leading role in the ground offensive. Although the soldiers were accompanied by a similar number of anti-Taliban Afghan fighters, Tora Bora showed that local militiamen don't necessarily share the incentive of the Western troops to take the risks necessary to finish the job. At Shahi Kot U.S. forces are less reliant on proxies, making it the biggest battle the Americans have fought in Afghanistan — and that, inevitably, has brought the biggest casualty count.

Eight Americans have been killed and 40 wounded since the assault on the cave complex began Saturday, and the battle is not over yet. The Arab, Chechen and Uzbek fighters holed up 8,000 feet above sea level have their backs to the wall. The al-Qaeda men are reportedly well-armed, well-organized and highly motivated. That, and the altitude and icy conditions make for a slow allied advance, although the Pentagon is confident that this time, there will be no escape.

The White House has long prepared the American people for U.S. casualties in Afghanistan, and these latest ones are likely only to stiffen domestic resolve to complete the war there. But the clashes in the Shahi Kot range are a sharp reminder of how much remains to be done, the perils that continue to face the U.S. mission — and the limits of technology's ability to make waging war safe for Americans.

Many in Washington had marveled at the relative absence of casualties in the war's first phase, as U.S. forces appeared to destroy the Taliban without putting many of its own boots on the ground. But while American air power had quickly driven the Taliban from the cities and put to flight their al-Qaeda allies, the U.S. had — as the Pentagon has quietly, but insistently maintained all along — left much of the job still to be completed. The key is to round up the remaining al-Qaeda members still at large in Afghanistan, a task that will be difficult to complete until the new government of Hamid Karzai is able to extend its authority beyond the capital of Kabul. The U.S. speaks optimistically of Karzai building an Afghan national army, but power struggles between local warlords threaten to scuttle that plan and plunge the battered country into a new season of chaos.

The Pentagon believes there may be as many as 50 pockets of resistance like Shahi Kot left, and emphasizes that the campaign to eliminate remaining elements of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan will continue long after that place is cleared. It will be a hard, cave-to-cave fight that will probably mean more U.S. casualties. And the longer U.S. forces remain deployed, the greater the pressure will be to take on more of the "nation-building" responsibility the Bush administration has tried hard to avoid.

America's attention may have moved on to talk of returning to battle in Iraq, but Shahi Kot is a reminder that the Afghan campaign is far from over. And that while technology will almost always sway the battlefield odds in favor of the U.S., there are no ground wars without casualties on both sides.