War Without End

Yesterday, George W. Bush alighted on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and all but declared that the war in Iraq had ended. Today, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld showed up in Kabul and pronounced the Afghan war all but over, too.

No one doubts that the United States has won both of those wars, by any reasonable reckoning. But as both the statements acknowledge, winning a war and ending it are very different matters.

Bush's speech on the carrier, just before it reached its home port in California after operations in the Persian Gulf, had been widely anticipated as a formal declaration that the war was over. Instead, the farthest he could go was to say that, "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended," a fact which should have been apparent to any casual observer any time over the past two weeks. And half a world away, Rumsfeld appeared with President Hamid Karzai and had a similarly couched hedge. "We clearly have moved from major combat activity to a period of stability and stabilization and reconstruction activities."

A lot of soldiers in both places were surely shaking their heads. In Iraq, 150,000 American troops remain and most of them will stay for the foreseeable future. As Rumsfeld himself acknowledged, it remains a dangerous and unstable place. Despite the hot weather, all of the soldiers are under orders to continue wearing helmets and body armor--and with good reason. Grenades have been tossed into American compounds, snipers have picked off soldiers at night and their vehicles have been ambushed from highway overpasses. Those incidents, it's true, are relatively few, but the potential is certainly there. So many weapons have been found in Baghdad that the Third Infantry Division is confiscating them at the rate of 50 truckloads a day--and still finding more. Looters infest the streets of every major city, fires are set by vandals so frequently that most are left to burn, and gunfire is often heard day and night. No American official or soldier sleeps anywhere but under heavy guard. Any sort of interim Iraqi government is weeks away, at best.

Things are much more stable in Afghanistan, if Afghanistan could ever be considered stable. A weak central government holds sway in Kabul only, and only under the protection of 4,500 peacekeepers. Warlords rule the provinces under a series of deals, often sealed with cash, between them and the Americans. And 8,500 American combat troops continue to scour the mountains looking for remnants of Al Qaeda.

The goals of both those wars have only imperfectly been met. No weapons of mass destruction of note have yet to be recovered in Iraq, though it's true, as Bush said, that Iraq wouldn't be able to share such weapons with terrorist groups. And Saddam Hussein's regime has been smashed, even though he and most of his top henchmen remain on the loose. In Afghanistan, or perhaps next door in Pakistan, Osama bin Laden remains on the loose, although Al Qaeda's ability to wage terror has been strikingly reduced.

But the president's and the secretary's declarations had little to do with whether these wars were indeed over. Instead, they were clearly an attempt to draw a line under the war so that the adminisration can focus more attention on domestic issues as campaign time grows near.

In Iraq, the president was hampered further by concerns about the Geneva Conventions. If the war were actually declared over, the United States would have to repatriate the more than 6,000 Iraqi prisoners of war it still holds. And under international law, the United States would no longer be able to pursue its playing deck of 55 most wanteds, from Saddam on down. In Afghanistan, the problem is different. How can you declare a war over when, after a year and a half of fighting, scarcely anything has changed?

Major combat operations may be over, but Iraq still looks very much like a war zone, and it probably will for a long time to come. Afghanistan will always look like a war zone, but it will also probably have American troops as a major feature of its landscape. In today's world, wars both old and new don't really end, they just fade away. Or at least our leaders hope they will.