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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, January 12, 2002

Afghan war: How do we know we've won?

We're told that the war in Afghanistan is but the first step on a long journey; that we must be patient as the United States pursues its mission to destroy all terrorists with global reach.

Certainly the effort in Afghanistan, so far, has been extraordinarily successful when measured in terms of American casualties or frightful ordnance delivered with stunning accuracy.

The campaign seems to be turning to a new, more dangerous phase, however. American commanders seem less willing to allow their tribal Afghan surrogates to do all the dirty work on the ground, in part, perhaps, because they're proving less than trustworthy at times.

That became even more apparent this past week when an Afghan warlord negotiated the surrender of seven Taliban leaders and released them, frustrating a standing U.S. request that they be handed over to U.S. control.

The seven include three powerful and feared Cabinet ministers, one of whom played a leading role in fomenting the Taliban's repressive laws and the destruction of the Buddha statues at Bamian. A youth blamed for the death last week of an American soldier also is reported to have escaped his Afghan captors.

This development suggests that some Afghan fighters nominally on our side are still in part loyal to their defeated countrymen and that the U.S.-backed interim government may be unable and sometimes unwilling to meet U.S. expectations.

More to the point, however, it also raises some questions about exactly what our war aims are in Afghanistan and when we will know they have been fulfilled.

No. 1 on our list, of course, was the capture or demise of Osama bin Laden and those of his al-Qaida colleagues responsible for the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States. Clearly it is in our interest to interrogate these people to unravel their networks in other parts of the world. What's not clear at the moment is whether bin Laden has artfully given us the slip or been vaporized by one of the 10,000-pound "daisy-cutter" bombs sent his way.

But what of Afghanistan? The Taliban put itself in harm's way when it refused to turn over bin Laden, who is not an Afghan, and has been duly deposed. What other consequences remain to be meted out? It is crystal clear that America didn't go to war in Afghanistan over the Taliban's repression or its treatment of women, however revolting those practices were. The proximate cause was all about the Sept. 11 attacks, and the Taliban's chief failure was to get out of the way when we went after the perpetrators.

Although President Bush indicated little interest in "nation-building" when the war in Afghanistan began, it appears that something of that sort, at considerable expense, is in the offing. That's all to the good.

Yet U.S. bombs are still falling and "collateral" civilian casualties are still being regretted. Sen. Dan Inouye suggests the end is in sight, perhaps a couple of months off.

But how will we know when we've succeeded? It's time for the Bush administration to produce some clarity here.