For anyone who has been clinging to the notion that America can win this war the easy way, the fate of Abdul Haq should serve as a powerful antidote. Few knew how to fight in the rugged Afghan steppes and summits better than Haq, a legendary mujahedin guerrilla who lost his right foot to a land mine while helping rout the Soviets. He left Afghanistan during the post-Soviet power struggle and renounced politics after his wife and son were murdered in his Peshawar, Pakistan, home. But he recently returned to the Afghan frontier, hoping to enlist defectors and warlords in an anti-Taliban southern alliance. Because he was Pashtun--the dominant tribe of southern Afghanistan and the Taliban itself--Haq was a precious asset to the U.S., which desperately wants an erosion of Taliban authority in the south and east, where American commandos have launched the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Last week Haq and 19 lightly armed aides slipped into Taliban territory to persuade fighters to rise up against the regime. But informers trailed him. For two days the Taliban staked out the home where Haq was staying. Early Friday morning Taliban troops surrounded him on three sides. Cut off in the Khyber Pass, Haq placed a call on his satellite phone to his nephew in Pakistan; word of Haq's distress soon reached the CIA. As Haq tried to escape on horseback, the U.S. sent an unmanned Predator surveillance plane to shoot a Hellfire missile at his pursuers. It missed. Soon after the Taliban captured Haq. He was taken to Kabul and executed as a U.S. spy.
For the American military, Haq's demise was a humbling end to a humbling week. Since the beginning of the campaign, the President's men have reminded Americans that this "new" kind of conflict could end up being as protracted as the cold war. And yet for a while the war seemed to be following a faster script--precision bombs clearing the way for a quick ground operation. After less than two weeks, the Pentagon was claiming that its bombs had "eviscerated" the Taliban's military capability. But last week that optimism faded. Dreams of a hit-and-run war gave way to the reality of a long twilight struggle that seems sure to drag into the Afghan winter. After more than 3,000 American bombs, the Taliban still has plenty of fight left in it; Taliban troops have thwarted a Northern Alliance offensive at Mazar-i-Sharif; civilian deaths are climbing; and many coalition partners--most crucially Pakistan--have grown impatient.
The war is only three weeks old, and U.S. and British officials insist things are going as expected. "You always hope for a lucky punch," says an Air Force commander. "But you usually don't get lucky, so you just keep pressing on." Pentagon officials have said some ground operations aimed at crushing the Taliban and al-Qaeda may not get under way until next spring. "We're not setting timetables," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Thursday. In a remarkable admission, Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem said, "I am a bit surprised at how doggedly they're hanging onto power. We definitely need to have patience," he added. "This is going to be a long, long campaign."
Even in a new kind of war against an elusive adversary, some basic rules of engagement have emerged. Knowing them won't guarantee victory, but it may help us get through the dangerous months ahead.
RULE 1: DIG IN--THIS IS GOING TO TAKE SOME TIME