While I was on a three-week leave from columnizing, the world changed. Enron took over the headlines, and Afghanistan slipped onto the inside pages.
This means we've entered the slog phase of the antiterrorism war, which isn't nearly as dramatic as Army Rangers parachuting into air bases or bombs raining on Tora Bora. But this phase in which we try to tie up many loose ends unresolved by the fighting is just as important as our defeat of the Taliban.
How we handle the slog phase will show the world whether we've got the stamina to combat terrorism over the long haul. How will we measure success? Obviously, if Osama bin Laden and his top aides are run to ground, that will be cause for celebration.
But less obvious indicators will signal our level of long-term commitment. One key marker: how much help we give to international efforts to rebuild Afghanistan.
The effort to resurrect this shattered country whose roads, schools, hospitals, banks, and agricultural lands lie in ruins is about more than charity. The fate of postwar Afghanistan has become a symbol of American intentions toward this entire strategic region, which includes Central Asia, Iran and Pakistan and not so far away, Iraq.
We are burdened with a reputation for packing up and quitting after past military involvements and leaving the locals to clean up the messes. That happened in Afghanistan after our proxies the Afghan mujaheddin militias beat the Soviets in 1989, and it happened in Iraq after the gulf war.
In Kabul last week, Secretary of State Colin Powell promised that we would give Afghanistan our long-term support. Central Asians and terrorists in hiding and Saddam Hussein, also will be watching to see if our attention span wavers this time.
This week, out of about $4.5 billion committed at a Tokyo conference of donors for rebuilding Afghanistan, the United States pledged $297 million for the current fiscal year. Japan and the European Union made bigger, multiyear commitments, while the Saudis almost matched us (Iran gave nearly double our pledge, spread out over five years).
We're not taking the lead in the rebuilding effort, handing off that burden to the United Nations. But the U.N. effort won't succeed without substantial U.S. involvement and attention. After all, the United States is the 900-pound gorilla in the region.
So what should we be doing?
U.S. efforts should be focused on two issues. First, we should help Afghans establish the minimum of security needed to get basic services restarted. Afghanistan will need a larger U.N. peacekeeping force, which can gradually move into other cities besides Kabul.
The United States doesn't want to contribute peacekeeping troops, but it should not block an international force from eventually being moved into areas like Kandahar and Jalalabad, where it is needed most. We have American forces in those areas, and some U.S. military officials worry that U.N. forces will get in their way.
Second, we should be trying to ensure that substantial international aid gets funneled to the new national government and not to the Afghan warlords whose civil wars tore the country apart in the early 1990s. These men are feared and despised by their own people.
So far, it isn't clear how aid money will be distributed. Many donors and private humanitarian agencies are eager to fund their own projects, without going through the new national government in Kabul. However, without a strategy for distributing aid that ensures the Kabul government enough funds for minimum public services, the country could sink back into anarchy. Much of the money could wind up in the hands of local thugs.
"It won't do any good for private aid groups to contribute money for girls' education if there is no money for the national government to pay teachers," says Barnett Rubin, one of the foremost U.S. experts on Afghanistan.
The success of America's war on terrorism will be measured indirectly by whether those teachers get paid.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.