WASHINGTON -- Defeating the Taliban, it turns out, may have been the easy opener.
After months of what seemed mostly mopping up, the sudden escalation of the war in Afghanistan makes clear that tracking down and eliminating the well-armed, mostly hidden al-Qaida is going to be tougher.
Victory in Afghanistan may take a long time, as President Bush has repeatedly said.
It also may be costly, as the rising casualty count shows. American ground troops for the first time are taking the lead role and engaging in full-scale battle while their Afghan allies mostly play backup and support.
''We are entering a phase where we will physically go to places on the ground inside Afghanistan to clear out pockets of resistance. ... And yes, it is more dangerous,'' the war commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, said Monday.
Sensitive to the public's reaction, White House officials drew up a communications battle plan that would remind Americans that casualties are a part of war, and insist the United States is winning.
Despite Bush's persistent past reminders that there could be casualties, Americans may have had a false sense that the worst was past, the White House believes.
Pentagon officials, apparently trying to combat that view, made a point of saying Monday that more battles lie ahead inside Afghanistan, and that the United States will not flinch.
''I think we have to expect that there are other sizable pockets (of al-Qaida), that there will be other battles of this type,'' said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
Added Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: ''The only choices for al-Qaida are to surrender or to be killed. And we're prepared to go on as long as that may require.''
Yet the al-Qaida forces that America faces have escaped before -- and have numerous ways to do it again.
In mid to late December, a small number of U.S. troops working with and directing local Afghans managed to push al-Qaida fighters out of the mountains at Tora Bora. But many al-Qaida simply escaped, apparently going across to Pakistan and then returning to Gardez, south of Tora Bora, where many are now.
This time, of the 2,000 allied troops involved in the new assault, half are Afghans and half are Americans and coalition soldiers, Franks said. The Americans are in the middle of the fight, and the Afghans serve more of a support role by trying to block escapes.
The offensive may have taken some Americans back home by surprise because, since Tora Bora, only a few U.S. strikes at al-Qaida have been publicly acknowledged, said John Pike, a defense analyst at Globalsecurity.org in Washington.
Many more such operations have probably been launched in secret, Pike said. The public probably only hears of those that result in accusations the wrong people were hit, he said.
Pentagon officials have been saying for weeks that al-Qaida fighters were reconstituting in eastern Afghanistan.
''We've been following that, allowing it to develop until we thought it was proper time to strike,'' Myers said.
Now there are several hundred al-Qaida fighters dug into the mountains, valleys and cave complexes around Gardez. They are well-armed, and have the type of experience using rocket-propelled grenades and shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles that can prove deadly to American helicopter pilots.
Despite the efforts to block any escapes, ''It is very easy to move across borders and then come back in. It's very easy to slip into the mountains, into tunnels and caves and stay there for periods,'' Rumsfeld said.
When might it end? Pike said he expects U.S. troops to be on the watch indefinitely for signs of al-Qaida fighters regrouping.
Rumsfeld said when Afghanistan's central government gets stronger, and the country in general becomes more secure, such operations might eventually tail off.
''But that's some distance off,'' the defense secretary said.
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