Protracted war tests US resolve


The overriding lesson from this week in the "war" on terrorism may be that Americans need to prepare themselves for a conflict that - in terms of length, if not cost - will be unrivaled since the US pulled out of Vietnam nearly 30 years ago.

True, from Day 1, President Bush and his national-security coterie have been telling Americans that the fight will not be over anytime soon. It will have to be fought on many fronts. The costs could be high, including more attacks on the US. And victories - to the extent that they are publicly revealed at all - could be years in coming.

Yet the reality behind the official Washington rhetoric is just beginning to set in, as the military campaign completes its third week, and the news from both the battlefield of Afghanistan and the battlefield of America shows the difficulties in quelling an elusive band of terrorists.

Among the challenges now becoming more obvious:

• The appearance that the US is losing the battle for hearts and minds, as almost daily reports of

bombing errors and civilian casualties mount.

• The complexities of finding political stability in a post-Taliban Afghanistan.

• The approach of the region's brutal winter and the Muslim holy days of Ramadan.

• What looks increasingly like a state-based anthrax attack on Americans that many officials here believe could be tied to the Sept. 11 hits on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

All this will test the Bush administration's ability to convince Americans, notorious for their short attention span, to stay committed to what could become a "perpetual war," going on for years. At the moment, US public resolve remains high.

"Support for military retaliation is so strong that the possible consequences of going to war - at this point - clearly don't outweigh the public's determination that it is the right thing to do," says Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup poll. "Question after question in poll after poll has put in front of the American public ideas about what a real war might entail in terms of human and financial consequence. In response after response, the public perseveres in its support for retaliation."

For example, says Mr. Newport, "this past weekend, we asked about the possibility of up to 5,000 military or civilian deaths resulting from military action, and found that three-quarters or more of those interviewed still supported the concept of a military response, even in the face of these types of casualties."

These guys are tough

The Pentagon this week seemed to make a point of trying to lower expectations. At a Defense Department briefing, spokesman Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, who works for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked what he'd learned about the strengths and the vulnerabilities of Taliban and Al Qaeda forces.

"They are proven to be tough warriors," he acknowledged. "We're in an environment they, obviously, are experts in, and it is extremely harsh."

Yet beyond the air and ground war, there are other indications that Americans need to prepare themselves for an enduring conflict. For example, military and intelligence officials warn that the conflict could be prolonged and the US position weakened by a Taliban program of "denial and deception" that seeks to influence public opinion around the world.

In several areas, says a senior defense official, the Taliban has begun housing its troops in mosques and other village facilities. The regime, said by the US to be sheltering suspected terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, also is placing such military gear as helicopters next to civilian sites rather than at airfields, according to this source, making it much more difficult for the US to attack without either endangering innocent Afghans with aerial bombing or exposing US ground forces to hostile fire.

"They're using fairly classical techniques," says the official.

The Pentagon this week also asked the defense industry for "help in combating terrorism" - another indication that the war won't be over soon.

In what's called a "Broad Agency Announcement," the Defense Department asked military contractors for aid in "defeating difficult targets, conducting protracted operations in remote areas, and developing countermeasures to weapons of mass destruction." "Its objective," the announcement says, "is to find concepts that can be developed and fielded within 12 to 18 months."

While evidence of the duration of the war is just beginning to sink in, US officials are having a hard time countering the almost-daily reports of civilian casualties in Afghanistan - which, over time, could impact the level of support for the war at home and abroad.

One problem is that the reports are difficult to independently verify. The occasional tour of hospitals, tightly controlled by Taliban officials, is "a time-honored technique designed to have a propaganda effect," says a defense official, seen most recently in Serbia and Iraq. (In some cases, the source says, videos repeatedly showed the same corpses and injured persons.)

How long do we want to go?

While the propaganda war goes on, concern is growing among some lawmakers in Washington about the political difficulties of waging a protracted conflict. "Now we're going to get into the tough calls," says Sen. Joseph Biden Jr. (D) of Delaware, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

"Case in point: How much longer does the bombing continue?" he told the Council on Foreign Relations this week. "Because we're going to pay every single hour, every single day it continues. We're going to pay an escalating price in the Muslim world. We're going to pay an escalating price in the region. And that in fact is going to make the aftermath of our, quote, victory more difficult to reconstruct the region."

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