WASHINGTON — Until this week, there appeared to be a peculiar disconnect between the political world, where debate raged about "after Afghanistan, what?" and the real world, where a fierce battle among mountain crags suddenly made clear that the struggle in Afghanistan was far from over.
In the political world, there was debate about the next battleground, centering on Iraq. The shadow of an election eight months away was already evident as Senate leaders Tom Daschle and Trent Lott argued on television about whether patriotism permitted questions from Congress about President Bush's future plans.
But in the real world, Americans were involved in significant numbers in the heaviest ground fighting yet in Afghanistan, and President Bush felt obliged to repeat that regrettable American casualties would not deter him from his mission.
Vice President Dick Cheney was supposed to be speaking against the backdrop of a liberated Afghanistan when he made his long-planned trip this weekend to the Middle East. Before the Gulf War, he had toured Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, lining up support for the campaign against Iraq. Now he has to discuss the post-Afghanistan stage of the war against terrorism.
But, with helicopters under attack and huge air-sucking bombs exploding outside mountain caves, Mr. Cheney may have trouble convincing Arab leaders that the post-Afghanistan era has arrived.
As long as the Taliban/Al Qaeda forces show a capacity to regroup and offer resistance, the interim head of government, Hamid Karzai, will have trouble consolidating his position. He is asking for an expansion of the international security force.
The war in Afghanistan has not been a political issue in this country as long as it appeared to be successful and about over. But the Bush administration may have exposed itself by early self-congratulation about the liberation of the country, which was not an original war aim anyway. It may also have been a tactical mistake to invest so much political capital in the elimination of Osama bin Laden, about whom the president has lately sounded very uncertain.
"He's been awfully quiet," Mr. Bush said in Michigan on Monday. "I don't know why. But I know he's on the run, if he's running at all."
The Democrats seem not yet ready to make an issue of the unfinished war. But Senator Daschle has ventured to say on television, "We're not safe until we have broken the back of Al Qaeda, and we haven't done that yet. I think the jury is still out on future success."
Senator Lott shot back, "How dare Senator Daschle criticize President Bush while we are fighting our war on terrorism."
For almost six months now, since Sept. 11, the loyal opposition has been more loyal than opposition. Under pressure of the renewed fighting in Afghanistan and uncertainty about future battlegrounds, that could change.
Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at NPR.