For all the drama in the fall of Kabul and Kandahar, the endgame of the Afghan campaign is likely to be more critical to the future of Afghanistan, the Asian subcontinent and the United States, according to U.S. analysts.
But the endgame involves far more than the fate of Osama bin Laden.
The potential for postwar trouble is already apparent with the escape into the countryside of armed Taliban troops from the former regime's final stronghold, the southern city of Kandahar, and reports of Al Qaeda fighters fleeing across the border into Pakistan.
Political problems also loom large. Ethnic factions and tribal leaders are already complaining that they're not adequately represented in the interim administration set to take power Saturday.
"You can't just turn off the lights, close the door and go home after you've rolled up the last Taliban soldier or tracked down Osama," said Judith Yaphe of National Defense University in Washington. "For Afghanistan, the war is just the beginning."
Whatever the will of the Afghan majority or intent of the United States, the presence of armed opponents and the internal squabbling will continue to make Afghanistan highly volatile and vulnerable to reversals.
"The endgame is critical if you want to prevent history from repeating itself," Yaphe said. "If we're not careful, we'll re-create a cycle that will sustain a failed state, with the potential for warlord-ism and opportunities for terrorists."
In other U.S. campaigns in the region, the endgame has led to problems that persist to this day.
In Iraq, postwar plans unraveled in 1991 when the first Bush administration called for an uprising among northern Kurds and southern Shiites against the regime of President Saddam Hussein. But, as part of the cease-fire terms, the U.S.-led coalition allowed Baghdad to keep its air power, which it used brutally to put down the massive uprisings. The result: A decade later, Hussein still leads Iraq.
In Lebanon, the final phase of a U.S. peacekeeping mission fell apart when Marines were ordered in 1983 to support a right-wing Christian militia by opening fire on a Muslim militia--thus taking sides in the civil war. The result: The Marines came under increasing attack until they were eventually ordered to abandon both peacekeeping and Lebanon. The civil war raged for another seven years.
"What we learned in Iraq was that it's not enough to win the war," said Kenneth Pollack, a former National Security Council staffer now at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank. "If you don't leave the right conditions behind, then you'll have squandered much of what you achieved in the military campaign so far."
Afghanistan is likely to remain combustible for months, if not years, U.S. experts predict.
The first danger is that defeated Taliban fighters who remain armed could take to the hills and regroup. Steeped in religious fanaticism, now powerless and most without alternative skills, they could either strike out or engage in lawlessness to undermine the new authorities.
They could also wait out the presence of U.S. troops or an international security force in the region and then spring back in another form, according to Peter Tomsen, the last senior U.S. envoy assigned to Afghanistan before the Taliban takeover.
This problem could be further complicated by Al Qaeda forces that have sneaked across the border and Bin Laden followers who never left Pakistan. The Al Qaeda infrastructure has processed thousands of fighters, and not all have been making a last stand in Afghanistan, Tomsen said.
They could eventually filter back, even hooking up with residual Taliban soldiers, to destabilize Afghanistan.
"The problem with Afghanistan is not winning the conventional war, but the guerrilla war that could follow, as the Soviets and British discovered," said Pollack. "In each case, the initial conventional campaign was pretty easy. What followed was the hard part.
"We're winning a great conventional victory, but we also have to make sure that no guerrilla war develops later," he cautioned.
The second broad danger is that one or more ethnic groups or tribes could decide they're not happy with the political arrangements and opt to launch attacks, harass the interim administration or otherwise undermine the fragile transition.
The complex tale of Pul-i-Khumri, a key industrial city on the main highway north from the capital, Kabul, illustrates the potential dangers.
The Northern Alliance finally quashed a revolt Saturday by the local clan of Jaffar Nadiri fighting for control of the strategic town. Nadiri is leader of the minority Ismaeli sect and a member of the Northern Alliance, a loose coalition of sometimes rival ethnic and religious groups.
The revolt was put down by troops loyal to Gen. Mohammed Qassim Fahim, an ethnic Tajik, who is scheduled to become the new defense minister this week.
Reports from the region indicate that the Nadiri clan might have had support from Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek who is the alliance's second most powerful military commander. He originally threatened to boycott the new government because Uzbeks did not receive more positions in the interim administration.
And that's the tale of only one town.
The United States and other interested parties will need to pay special attention to Afghanistan's ethnic makeup and ensure that all sides are represented throughout the initial six-month transition period to avoid the kind of disaster that occurred after Washington took sides in Lebanon, said Augustus Richard Norton, a onetime U.N. peacekeeper in Lebanon and now a Boston University political scientist.
Said Yaphe: "We have to be careful that Afghanistan doesn't disintegrate into anarchy with total chaos and warlord-ism as the different factions and tribes and warlords compete for territory and power and settling old feuds, which is what happened last time the Northern Alliance was in power. When left to their own devices, they kill each other to achieve gains. That's why people were initially relieved when the Taliban came in and stopped the killing and imposed law and order."
The internal dynamics will be particularly important during the six-month transition, the analysts predict. All political forces will be jockeying intensely for position in the provisional government that is set to take office in six months to write a new constitution and pave the way for a permanent government and a new ruling structure.
"Ethnic divisions will continue to be a big factor, and we can only hope that Afghanistan slowly devolves into regional fiefdoms that tolerate each other enough to keep the peace with Kabul, which would become an open city where they can make deals to prevent the country from falling into civil war," said James Placke, a former U.S. diplomat in the region.
The stakes of the endgame cannot be underestimated, analysts warn, as the recent history of Iraq illustrates.
"We have a curious notion that the war ended in 1991," said Charles Duelfer, the top American U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. "Saddam Hussein doesn't have that view. He also may be right when he says they're winning."
Not only has Hussein survived a full decade, but he has also begun to lay the groundwork for a successor in his second son, Qusai.
"We thought we could outlast Saddam," Duelfer said. "But instead there's a dynasty being formed. And we've got a long-term problem where containment hasn't worked."