WASHINGTON -- The handful of valiant American warriors fighting the "other" war in Afghanistan is not a happy band of brothers. They are undermanned and feel neglected, lack confidence in their generals and are disgusted by Afghan political leadership. Most important, they are appalled by the immense but fruitless effort to find Osama bin Laden for purposes of U.S. politics.
This bleak picture goes unreported because journalists are rarely seen in that rugged country. It was painted to me by hard U.S. fighters who are committed to the war against terrorism but have a heavy heart. They talked to me not to undermine policy but to reveal problems that should and can be corrected.
Afghanistan constitutes George W. Bush's clearest victory since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The Taliban regime has been overthrown, eliminating al Qaeda's most important base. But the overlooked war continues with no end in sight. Narcotics trafficking is at an all-time high. If U.S. forces were to leave, the Taliban -- or something like it -- would regain power. The U.S. is lost in Afghanistan, bound to this wild country and unable to leave.
The situation in Afghanistan, as laid out to me, looks nothing like a country alleged to be progressing toward representative democracy under American tutelage. Hamid Karzai, the U.S.-sponsored Afghan president, is regarded by the U.S. troops as hopelessly corrupt and kept in power by U.S. force of arms.
Those arms are not what they seem. The basic U.S. strength in Afghanistan is 17,000 troops of "straight-legged" infantry -- conventional forces ill-prepared to handle irregulars. The new unit assigned to Afghanistan is the 25th Infantry Division, which has been stationed at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, and has not seen combat since the Vietnam War.
More important than this conventional infantry division are two commando units known as Black SOF (Special Operations Forces) and White SOF. Black SOF, by far the more numerous of the two, is assigned to capture Osama bin Laden. Nothing would do more to boost President Bush's sagging popularity than getting the designer of the 9/11 attacks.
The problem, however, is that nobody I have talked to in the military thinks his capture is likely or may even be possible. The American fighting men think "UBL" (as he is called) is hiding in Pakistan, impossible to find. Most exasperating to the men in the field is the manpower and effort expended on what they consider to be a helpless cause.