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PREPARING FOR THE LONG HAUL

Already, after only three weeks of bombing, the whispers are beginning. Why is the Taliban still in power? . . . You haven't killed anyone important yet . . . Why aren't ground troops in there? . . . Ramadan is coming. You can't bomb then . . . We'll lose support if we keep killing civilians . . . Bombing doesn't do anything; why are we still doing it? . . . Criticism of the conduct of a war is inevitable in a democracy, even important. But as questions arise about American action in Afghanistan, critics and everyone else need to keep two thoughts prominently in mind:

War is a blunt instrument. It does not often follow a straight line. The path from engaging the enemy to whatever kind of victory may be achievable in this shadowy conflict will almost certainly take unexpected and unfortunate turns. We need to understand that.

These decadent thugs have already killed some 4,000 of us in a sneak attack that was specifically intended to kill civilians. It is unfortunate that our bombs are killing innocent Afghans, and we should do what we can to avoid those deaths, but they are not the story. Lower Manhattan is the story.

Strategies may need to be adjusted or changed as the fight against terrorism continues, but as President Bush has said from the beginning, we need to be in this for the long haul. Three weeks is not a long haul. Even three years may not be a long haul.

Frankly, given the brutality of the Sept. 11 attacks, it's hard to believe that Americans would find their taste for fighting back diminished in so short a time. Indeed, recent polls suggest the nation is clear-eyed about the threat, which Sen. Charles Schumer put into a chilling context earlier this month. If Americans lose heart for this war, he said, the terrorists will gain the time they need to develop more sophisticated weapons, possibly including nuclear or deadlier biological ones, thereby opening the door to even more devastating attacks.

The issue is particularly timely, as the Taliban resists collapse and calls for a significant infusion of ground troops increase, creating the risk of American casualties.

Most Americans say they are ready for the kind of commitment this fight is almost sure to require. A poll conducted this month by Zogby International showed that 89 percent of respondents would be "very" or "somewhat" supportive of a war that lasted six months to two years, while 80 percent felt the same about a conflict of two to five years. The country may need that kind of courage.

If Americans are impatient now, what if soldiers begin coming home in body bags? What if troops are captured in Afghanistan, then publicly tortured or executed? Those, too, are possibilities, ones that Americans must steel themselves to withstand. As difficult as such eventualities might be, the terrorists have already shown us what to expect if we don't act to defend ourselves. We shouldn't have to learn that lesson twice.

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