THE bipartisan support for the war in Afghanistan is fraying at the edges over how to keep the peace in that country.
Criticism is mounting among some Democrats that President Bush has not done enough to prevent a return of chaos among rival warlords, thus possibly destabilizing Pakistan, giving Iran a foothold in Afghanistan, or allowing terrorist groups to once again use the country as a base.
While such criticisms make juicy TV sound bites and campaign fodder, they ignore a few on-the-ground realities.
For one, the war still is going on in Afghanistan. American forces are combing mountains and villages for remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. That could take many months. These forces are in combat mode against a specific enemy, and cannot be diverted to keep the peace between rival ethnic factions.
Second, US special forces already are deployed with local military commanders in a joint, continuing search for terrorists or their supporters. Their presence alone supports the fledgling government in Kabul as it builds a national army, with US help, that can eventually unify the country within a year or two.
In the meantime, a peacekeeping force of 4,000 soldiers, led by the British and known as the International Security Assistance Force, has secured the capital. It both protects the new central government and sends a signal to the warlords that the world doesn't intend to let Afghanistan fall back into chaos.
The immediate question is whether that force should be expanded to other major cities and act as a local police force. The likelihood, though, of foreign soldiers competing well for authority in those fiefdoms appears slim. The circumstances are far different from the United Nation's deployment of foreign troops in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Macedonia, places that have had central rule for a long time. Two decades of war has left Afghanistan in pieces that can only be stitched back together piece by piece.
What will help bind Afghans is their own renewed nationalism and the lure of billions in foreign aid to rebuild the country under civilian rule. Foreign troops can only do so much.
And using Americans as peacekeepers is dangerous, since they could be high-profile targets for glory-seeking snipers.
The possibility of the Taliban or its like rising again is remote. Afghans themselves should see to that. All the US can do is support them in building a secure, united nation.