A war grows longer, ever more complex

In a speech yesterday, Bush reiterates the need for patience as US forces target a regrouping Al Qaeda.

Six months on, America's war on terrorism – now the country's longest-standing military operation since the Vietnam War – is becoming ever more complex.

Just look at yesterday's swirl of events. Secretary of State Colin Powell was heading home without a cease-fire in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The continuing violence means Arab states are increasingly unlikely to join any US effort to attack Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

British troops, meanwhile, were helicoptering into redoubts in Afghanistan in another effort to round up Taliban and Al Qaeda remnants. In the US, President Bush was reiterating what US officials have been saying from the first day of the Afghan offensive – that the path ahead is long and remains treacherous.

"We're making good progress, but it's important for Americans to know this war will not be quick and this war will not be easy," Mr. Bush said about the war on terrorism in a speech at the Virginia Military Institute yesterday. The president won't find any argument there from analysts, who point out that even in Afghanistan, where the military operation at first seemed cut-and-dried, Al Qaeda and the Taliban are trying to regroup, and the country's fledgling new government is far from stable.

On the ground, a coalition led by British armed forces is spearheading a search-and-destroy operation in the country's southeastern mountains. It is the first combat deployment involving British forces, and perhaps reflects the continued learning curve of the Pentagon as it tries to gain the upper hand in the porous border area near Pakistan. According to reports, the Bush administration has concluded that its biggest error in the war so far was failing to commit US ground forces in its first assault on Tora Bora in December. Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was apparently there at the time of the attack, but escaped.

In his speech yesterday, President Bush said that more terrorist cells can be expected to regroup as the spring thaw comes.

"The president knows this is only the first inning of the ballgame, and he wants Americans not to lose sight of that," says retired Rear Adm. Stephen Baker of the Center for Defense Information in Washington.

In that first inning, the scorecard looks like this: Two runs so far, both in the disruption of the Al Qaeda network and the toppling of the regime that harbored them. Along the way, 1,000 Taliban and Al Qaeda have been taken into custody. Four of the top 10 Al Qaeda leaders are either dead or under arrest, and five plots against US embassies abroad have been foiled.

But much remains to be done. Osama bin Laden, for one, presumably remains at large, and 21 of the 22 of the FBI's "most-wanted terrorists" have yet to be arrested. At the same time, critics say it's been a mistake for the Bush administration to leave peacekeeping in Afghanistan largely to others, even as an outbreak of factional fighting and direct attacks on Afghan government leaders and US troops endangers stability in the country.

While not addressing the peacekeeping issue, the president appears to be trying to dampen the claims that the US was not committed to Afghanistan for the long term. He reiterated, however, that he is fighting a war against "global terror" and in that larger arena, too, complications have arisen – notably, in the Mideast.

Analysts say that the Palestinian suicide bombings and the Israeli incursions into Palestinian territories mean that the US is no longer in a position to move militarily against Iraq and pursue its goal of "regime change" there.

At the same time, critics of the president's Middle East policy – in which he largely stayed on the sidelines, jumped in rhetorically on the side of Israel, then switched to a more balanced approach – say his black-and-white view of terrorism does not transfer to the nuanced grays of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

But Bush struck a more unequivocal note yesterday. "Every leader, every state must choose between two separate paths, the path of peace, or the path of terror," he said, speaking about leaders in the Middle East.

Yonah Alexander, director of the Potomac Center for Terrorism Studies, says Bush has sent mixed messages by his shifting positions on the Mideast. "It's very confusing," he says.

• Howard LaFranchi contributed to this report.

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