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U.S. warns war on terror is just beginning

Navy Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem
U.S. Navy Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said Wednesday it is unclear yet whether the Taliban's losses are a total collapse.  

CRAWFORD, Texas (CNN) -- U.S. officials cautioned Wednesday that the war on terrorism is far from over despite substantial military progress on the ground in Afghanistan.

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said Wednesday that pursuit of the al Qaeda terrorist network "may still last years."

"We don't know when all the al Qaeda people will be brought to justice," Fleischer said. "The president still believes patience is required. Just because Kabul has fallen is no guarantee that al Qaeda will be captured shortly. This may still last years until we find the people responsible for the attack on the country."

At the Pentagon, U.S. Navy Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said it was unclear whether the Taliban were retreating or just regrouping their forces. It is premature to characterize the Taliban's losses as a total collapse, he said.

"We still have the job of finding and getting al Qaeda. We still have the job of finding and getting the Taliban, the leadership specifically," he said.

While visiting the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters that it was "gratifying" to see the Taliban fleeing some of Afghanistan's major cities, but he added the campaign isn't about to end soon.

"Our task is to find the Taliban and al Qaeda leadership, and we haven't finished that task yet," Rumsfeld said. "But the president is determined to root out the terrorists wherever they are, to find them, to bring them to justice or bring justice to them."

Officials: Taliban fall a secondary goal

Bush administration officials said they believe significant progress has been made in the military campaign in Afghanistan. At the same time, they said the Taliban's fall is a secondary goal and the work in Afghanistan is just beginning in many ways.

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Fleischer said the fall of Kabul does not carry the strategic or military importance that the fall of a nation's capital would have had in previous wars.

"In a traditional war [when] a capital city falls, it is a real sign of military success and progress. In this case, it's a sign of progress," Fleischer said. "But when the enemy doesn't rely on a capital city as much as a cave, a shadow or a hiding place, it's less important that a capital city falls than to shut down the hiding places. Caves are now more important than capital cities."

A senior U.S. official told CNN the military situation on the ground in Afghanistan is "changing quickly and for the better in our view." As for the political situation, "it is very uncertain and confusing and obviously a point of concern."

However, one advantage has been achieved, officials said. Four times as much humanitarian food aid is flowing into Afghanistan than was arriving via airdrops at the beginning of the air campaign, Fleischer said.

Officials said increasing humanitarian aid and securing its delivery to starving Afghans is a top priority.

Within the administration, concern is mounting that the retreat and possible fall of the Taliban, which many U.S. officials believe is not long off, will create the perception that it is time to end the operation's military phase.

"We should get excited but not intoxicated and remember the main event here is Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda," said a senior U.S. official.

'We don't believe we've won the war'

After facing questions about a potential quagmire in Afghanistan just two weeks ago, the White House is now peppered with concerns about "winning the war too fast," another senior official said.

"We don't believe we've won the war," the official said. "We said one of our objectives is to get the Taliban and al Qaeda on the run, and we are doing that. In many areas, the Taliban appear in retreat, and there appear to be fresh defections. But there are other objectives."

Due in part to the administration's concern about losing control of what one top official described as the "expectations game," Vice President Dick Cheney opened an economic speech Wednesday in Washington by saying "there is a long way to go" in the campaign against terrorism.

"The al Qaeda network is a global network," he said. "They've got cells all over the world. There is no reason to believe this operation is about to end. The way to look at it is that it's a very good beginning to a long campaign."

As he welcomes Russian President Vladimir Putin and his wife to his Texas ranch, President Bush will seek to learn what military lessons Putin and other top Russian officials gleaned from the Soviet Union's failed invasion of Afghanistan, top advisers said.

"Putin has a lot of experience and knowledge about seeing Afghan forces retreat from the north and burrow into the south," one top official said. "That will be a big topic for the president -- understanding that experience and learning from it."

CNN Senior White House Correspondent John King and White House Correspondent Major Garrett contributed to this report.


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