The media coverage of America's war on terrorism has been so positive that it conceals the true state of affairs. The fighting in Afghanistan has been portrayed as the whole of the war - after all, it's a lot easier to report on real fighting in a concrete location than on a murky concept like a shadowy, loosely-bound network of terrorists located over the world. Since the war in Afghanistan has been a great success and is nearly over we are lead to believe that the same is true for the war against terrorism as a whole. In fact, the real war has mostly slipped from public consciousness. Who remembers that the defeat of the taleban was not even a goal of the American government until the taleban refused to extradite Bin Laden? The taleban's defeat is now being held up as the final victory. Amid stories of unveiled women and smiling girls going to schools that were once off-limits to them, journalists report stories that let us know the terrorists have learned their lesson and world is safe once more.
Let's recall why this all started: the Americans needed to destroy Al-Qa'ida. Since Al-Qa'ida had its senior leaders operating out of Afghanistan, under the protection of the taleban, the plan was to go into Afghanistan and take them out. Somewhere along the way we declared victory over the taleban and forgot about the original plan. What happened to Al-Qa'ida's leadership? Are they still hiding in Afghanistan, have they migrated to Pakistan, do we even know who they are? Although the conflict resulted in a major military victory it seems the majority of the leadership simply left for another sanctuary.
The Bush administration keeps repeating that although the war is going well it will take years to see concrete results. The reason for their cautionary tone is that the real war is not taking place in Afghanistan. The real war is a war to destroy Al-Qa'ida's support and sanctuaries all over the world. That means arresting operatives in the United States, collaborating with friendly governments to help locate terrorist cells in their countries, pressuring neutral or unfriendly governments to deny sanctuary to terrorists, and disrupting Al-Qa'ida's funding. This war will be a slow, long-term process that involves intelligence-gathering, coalition-building, political negotiation and the enactment of new laws. This process will sometimes have to be secretive, as in the case of intelligence gathering. Other times, it will depend on the willingness of other governments to pass laws that will make it more difficult for Al-Qa'ida to shift money between its cells. This is the war that's not making the nightly news for the simple reason that's it not possible to turn it into a five-minute story with nice visuals.
Of all these challenges the most pressing is what to do about Pakistan. It seems certain that much of Al-Qa'ida's Afghanistan operations have moved there, yet any outright hostility towards Pakistan would cause America to lose support from its coalition partners.
Like most countries in the Middle East, Pakistan's government remains in power by balancing the interests of its liberal and fundamentalist supporters. Pakistan's fundamentalists - and there are quite a lot of them - happen to have a strong affinity for both the Taleban and Al-Qa'ida. Despite the Pakistani president's pro-western rhetoric, he has done little to actually root out terrorists because he knows doing so would piss off his more extremist supporters and loosen his already fragile grip on the country. Even if he did want to crack down on Al-Qa'ida network within the country, the many Al-Qa'ida sympathizers in the government could easily make any crackdown ineffective. As it stands, most of what used to be Al-Qa'ida's network in Afghanistan seems to be alive and well in Pakistan. Washington has a major problem: it can't simply ignore the fact that Pakistan is sheltering its enemies, yet it knows that applying any more pressure would upset the balance between Pakistan's liberals and fundamentalists that keeps its American-friendly government in power.
As the case of Pakistan shows, America's war against terrorism does not have simple solutions, and sometimes its many goal interfere with each other. Because having the support of the coalition is indispensable, Washington cannot simply invade Pakistan, even if it had the resources. At the same time it must deny Al-Qa'ida that sanctuary. Any solution to this problem, like most future progress in the war, will be delicate and time-consuming.
Even inside Afghanistan America's problems are not over. When the Taleban abandoned the cities ahead of the invading Northern Alliance, the media portrayed it as a rout. In contrast with the press' optimistic proclamations, the Taleban were neither disarmed nor defeated. Rather than fight against overwhelming odds they made the only sensible choice: they retreated to fight a guerrilla war. The majority of Taleban soldiers were never captured but simply blended in with the local population. The feuding factions that make up the Northern Alliance don't care about America's problems with terrorism; its warlords will make no effort to hunt down Taleban soldiers unless it furthers their own interests. Once American soldiers leave it's likely that both the Taleban and Al-Qa'ida will attempt to regain influence by making deals with Northern Alliance commanders.
The war has just begun, yet enthusiasm and support for it may quickly decline once the videos of victorious soldiers stop coming in. The real test will come over the next few years as Americans will keep paying the price in taxes, reduced civil rights and political favours for help from countries like Russia and Israel. The era of quick and decisive victories in the war on terrorism has ended with Afghanistan.