WASHINGTON – The new year brings new complications for the Bush administration as it tries to finish the job inside Afghanistan.
The U.S. military must still find Osama bin Laden, which could mean a long-term commitment of American troops. Afghanistan itself remains unstable, despite a new government and international peacekeepers.
Then there is the Pakistan-India standoff: In the short run, it could hinder America's efforts to find bin Laden.
In the long run, it's "a grim warning" that the U.S. worldwide war on terror can get bogged down in deadly local conflicts -- and may even worsen them, said Tony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"It's been easy to talk about victory in Afghanistan," Cordesman said. "But it is becoming clear that real victory in a global war on terrorism will be far more difficult."
President Bush acknowledged last week that he fears the Pakistan-India standoff could unravel the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism.
India accuses Pakistan of harboring terrorists who launched a Dec. 13 suicide attack on India's Parliament, killing 14. Pakistan's president, a key ally in America's war against terror, is moving to round up Islamic extremists, but faces a difficult situation lest he destabilize his own government.
On a practical, immediate level, the crisis impedes America's ability to hunt down bin Laden by threatening Pakistan's ability to secure its border with Afghanistan, Cordesman said.
Any massing of Pakistani troops at the Indian border, for example, could draw Pakistani forces away from their recent deployments at the border with Afghanistan. They were stationed there, particularly in the Tora Bora region, to stop fleeing Taliban and al-Qaida, including bin Laden.
Bush has been working to calm the tensions, assuring India the United States will cooperate in its fight against terrorism, but also praising Pakistan for announcing the arrest of the longtime head of one extremist group on Monday.
"If someone attacked the U.S. Capitol, I'd feel angry too," Bush said during his vacation in Crawford, Texas. "However ... I explained to the Indian prime minister that while I understood his anger, I was hoping they were not headed for war."
The United States hopes to leave the entire region, and especially Pakistan and Afghanistan, more stable than before, to prevent terrorists from operating there in future, U.S. officials have said.
Bush last week cautioned Americans that troops may be in Afghanistan "for quite a long period of time." The mission won't be complete until leaders like bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar are found -- and until Afghanistan is stable, the president said.
Helicopters filled with U.S. Marines in full combat gear took off from a base in southern Afghanistan on Monday, hunting for Omar.
As for bin Laden, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee says the latest reliable reports suggest he is still alive, but it's unclear whether he's still in Afghanistan or has fled to Pakistan.
Meanwhile, soldiers from the Army's 101st Airborne Division are preparing to take over an air base at Kandahar, giving the Marines who have been stationed there a chance to prepare for other missions, the Pentagon says.
And thousands of Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners still are being held throughout the country, and must be interrogated to determine if any should face military tribunals.
A new interim government controls Kabul with help from an international peacekeeping force. But outside the city, armed men loyal to local tribal chiefs are the only authority in many places, and bandits and looters abound.
Although the president refused to say when the job inside Afghanistan will be complete, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said recently that he wouldn't be surprised if U.S. troops were still seeking terrorists in Afghanistan next spring or summer.
"There is a lot to do," Bush said last week. "And the American people just must understand, when I said that we need to be patient, I meant it."