It is a long war, often unseen by Americans, and has no foreseeable end. It requires the US to align itself with regimes that might not otherwise be to its liking, but this is overlooked for the benefit of the war. Lots of money is spent, some citizens believe the war tramples their rights, and with no victory in sight, support for the war wanes.
This is the war on drugs - which the US has been waging at home and abroad for three decades and counting.
Now, as the US launches another international war, this one on terrorism, the parallels with the widely discredited war on drugs are worth contemplating. Is this new "ideas" war - which President Bush says will be a "different kind of war" - different enough to avoid the quagmire of the war on drugs?
Officials and former warriors in the drug war say yes. For starters, this war doesn't have to deal with millions of "terrorism consumers" undermining the struggle, while the combination of huge profits and a huge global market makes the drug war particularly difficult to advance.
But they also warn that this war, like the drug war, will display a down side as necessary foreign allies, questionable on other fronts, are recruited to the cause. It will also require of the public patience and broad backing of the government, two elements missing from the war on drugs.
"In many ways this war will be easier to fight," says Gen. Barry McCaffrey, former White House drug czar under the Clinton administration. "In the drug war, we have 5 million addicts craving the very product we're trying to stop, but I'd be astonished if we have even 1,000 terrorists in America, of all kinds."
While the government certainly starts out with more unified support than it has ever enjoyed in the drug war, others say disappointments during a long war with few obvious victories would take their toll. In the past, focus on terrorism has "had a short half-life," says Paul Bremer, who chaired the National Commission on Terrorism.
"People will have more patience with a long fight against terrorism, because they now realize how terrorism threatens the very sinew of civilization," says Myles Frechette, who was US ambassador to Colombia - the world's largest supplier of cocaine - in the mid-1990s. "Still, if five years from now Osama bin Laden is still out there in some cave, he may not be doing anything, but there will be voices raised, saying the war against terrorism was a failure."
Mr. McCaffrey notes that some are "already saying nothing is happening, when in fact a lot is happening, but it's not military or flashy. There have been hundreds of arrests and hundreds of investigations under way around the world, so these organizations have been thrown off."
Like the drug war, the war against terrorism will be played out to a significant degree overseas, and require a carrot-and-stick approach to solicit the cooperation of key countries. Much as the US has a certification process to condemn or reward drug-supplying countries, President Bush says countries will have to choose: They are either with the US, or with terrorists.
But as the case of Afghanistan and the war on drugs demonstrates, the division of "good" and "bad" countries based on one criterion can backfire.
Afghanistan's Taliban government may soon feel the wrath of US military might, but only months ago, the Bush administration gave the Taliban millions of dollars - a reward for enlisting in the war on drugs by banning the growing of opium poppies.
In May, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced $43 million in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, including $10 million specifically in recognition of the Taliban's announced ban on poppy production.
Since then, US officials have increasingly come to suspect that the Taliban continues to supply the global market for illicit drugs with stocks it has saved up. Now, some international narcotics experts believe chief suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks, Osama bin Laden, derives at least some money from the narcotics trade.
"We have to pay more attention to money as a nexus between the drug trade and terrorism," says Ted Carpenter, vice-president of the Cato Institute and a drug-trade specialist. That link between drug revenues and Colombia's major subversive groups - which the State Department lists as terrorist organizations - is already well known. But the link in Afghanistan and Central Asia remains in the shadows, he says.
Despite Afghanistan and its poppies, the war on terrorism will likely witness the same kind of cozying up to unlikely allies, as the US seeks to build the broadest possible international coalition. The US will subordinate some of its own principles for the urgent need to curtail terrorism, experts say.
Speaking recently in Washington, Mr. Bremer said concerns about human rights will be subordinated to our military objectives. And he is clear about what those objectives must include: "There is no solution that does not include a regime change in Afghanistan."
But to accomplish that, the concessions to key partners may be large. "Pakistan's cooperation will come at a price," says Mr. Carpenter. That means less pressure on Pakistan to democratize, and more pressure on the US to sell arms to Pakistan.