In military parlance, it's called gathering in the victory: turning military success into a sustained win by making sure the political goals that justified war are achieved.
With the US-backed military effort in Afghanistan chalking up a rapid succession of tactical victories, officials are turning with urgency to what may be the far more difficult task of setting up a stable - and politically acceptable - government in Kabul.
For Afghanistan, that means replacing the hard-line Taliban regime with an effective national government that represents all the Afghan people. For the United States, that also means the Al Qaeda terrorist organization won't have a home in the country.
But getting there won't be easy. To begin with, US officials warn that, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday, "We still have a ways to go" on the military front. Also, the US, the United Nations, and a growing list of countries keenly interested in Afghanistan's future must create a political solution at a time when just one of the country's forces, the Northern Alliance, has the upper hand. Already, this force is showing some resistance to outside mediation.
Broadly, stabilizing Afghanistan is expected to take two major steps. First, some kind of security force is likely to be sent in under the UN banner and made up of soldiers from predominantly Muslim countries. Second, a provisional government drawing from all of Afghanistan's tribes and ethnic populations will probably be set up - perhaps for a couple of years and under a unifying representative like the exiled former king, Mohammad Zahir Shah.
According to a blueprint drawn up by the UN's special envoy for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, that would bridge the installation of a more permanent government, perhaps by a traditional loya jirga or grand council of Afghan tribal leaders.
In New York on Tuesday, Mr. Brahimi outlined to the UN Security Council a plan for a two-year transitional government. He said the UN would help organize a security force, to be manned largely by Muslim countries. But he also said it could not be a traditional UN peacekeeping force, which would take too long to assemble.
In Washington, President Bush expressed support for the UN effort in Afghanistan. But he said any post-Taliban government will have to be open to all ethnic groups, must not export "either terrorism or drugs," and must respect human rights - including freedom of religion.
Mr. Bush's words and a whirlwind of diplomatic efforts reflect underlying concern that military success against the Taliban and Al Qaeda may not fulfill the diplomatic goals. Officials are mindful that the alliance - already accused of atrocities against Taliban soldiers - was not a magnanimous ruler when it controlled Afghanistan in the early 1990s.
To help smooth relations between the country's groups, the US dispatched its recently named special envoy, James Dobbins, to Pakistan to meet today with opposition leaders from Afghanistan's Pashtun population. The Pashtuns are dominant in the Taliban-held south and oppose any overarching government role for the alliance, with its Uzbek and Tajik majorities.
Meanwhile, some contradictory signals from alliance leaders in Kabul are troubling the diplomatic process. The alliance continues to claim it backs the idea of an interim government that would be broad-based and include all the country's political factions except the Taliban. But at the same time, alliance officials were setting up yesterday in government ministry buildings. In some cases, ministerial chairs were being occupied by former ministers who had been ousted by the Taliban victory in 1996.
Then, too, alliance leaders claim they support the idea from the UN's Brahimi for a broad council to set up a provisional government. But the alliance is resisting suggestions, including from the US, that such a council convene outside Kabul and preferably outside the country.
Such contradictions only make the quick creation of an inclusive provisional government more important, experts say. "The longer the Northern Alliance is by itself and running things unobstructed, the more difficult it will be for [the US and other international powers] to impose a broad post-Taliban regime," says Jack Goldstone, a specialist in nation-building at the University of California at Davis.
An international security force could help stave off efforts by the alliance to consolidate its power, but even a force made up largely of troops from Muslim countries would pose certain threats. "It would be essential that such a force remain strictly under a UN umbrella," says David Forte, an expert in Islamic law at Cleveland State University. "Otherwise, you could have Islamic regimes seizing the opportunity to further their own political agendas."
Skepticism about alliance intentions has still others cautioning about what lies ahead.
History suggests the Taliban are "saving their bullets for another day" in retreating south, says Andrew Kuchins, a Russia and South Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace here. The alliance's past actions and initial behavior in victory are also worrisome, he adds - as is talk of a central provisional government. "There's no reason to be optimistic about a government with central authorities," Mr. Kuchins says. Afghanistan's history begs for "some kind of confederation, with far more authority to the regions and tribal groups."
Still, Mr. Goldstone says there is one reason to be optimistic about the alliance this time: Its leaders know they got where they are with outside help. "They know very well that if they act up, that support can be withdrawn."