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After Afghanistan: Prepare for more sacrifice

Things are going pretty well.

The war in Afghanistan looks as if it's about over. We haven't got Osama bin Laden yet, but a bunch of Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders are in American custody and probably headed for an extended stay in Guantanamo.

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New military techniques used in Afghanistan suggest that if other terrorist targets are to be hit, we have the capacity to do it with much greater precision and far fewer American casualties than in previous major conflicts.

President Bush and Russia's Vladimir Putin have looked into each other's eyes and found peace. India and Pakistan are backing away from nuclear obliteration. The world at large appears relatively stable.

On the American home front, although airline passengers might show more than passing interest in the shoes of their neighbors, we have gone almost four months without a feared second terrorist wave since the Sept. 11 attack. Louis Rukeyser and his "Wall Street Week" colleagues think the stock market is on the brink of a boom. The New York Times thought it safe to drop its special "Nation Challenged" section.

A year after he became the most underrated president since Harry Truman, President Bush is getting a strong vote of confidence from 75 percent of Americans, largely on the basis of his swift victory in Afghanistan, but also because he has been able to communicate an image of command, sincerity, and piety.

Are we getting back to normal? Not exactly. President Bush has persistently warned of a long fight ahead. This is not the time for complacency. Two major problems confront him and the nation. One is the revitalization of the economy. The other is "homeland security." History suggests that no matter how well he tackles them, his popularity ratings are unlikely to maintain their present astronomical levels.

That the American economy has remained so stable in the face of terrorism's attack is remarkable. Clearly the economy is sound. Although recession has brought unemployment to many, corporations that have slimmed down and cut overhead will, in the long run, emerge stronger and more productive.

In the meantime, projected government surpluses have taken a hit. Bush vows not to raise taxes, and indeed would like to cut them further. But as the Bush administration prepares the first real budget of its own, as distinct from one that it largely inherited, it is faced with the prospect of making significant cuts in government spending. Some belt-tightening may lie ahead for Americans.

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Meanwhile, much cost and effort must be borne by Americans before homeland security reaches the standards that the new realities of terrorism require. The airlines have been notoriously lax in ensuring passenger safety and even now seem more intent on explaining what they cannot do, rather than facing up to what must be done.

Baggage screening now comes under federal jurisdiction, but sniffing dogs and sophisticated equipment for bomb and weapons detection are insufficient, and airports still have personnel working in secure areas who are illegal immigrants, using forged identity documents and stolen Social Security numbers.

Canada has tightened its border controls with the US, but the Mexican-US border remains porous and the US Coast Guard concedes that its fleet of ships and aircraft needs modernizing if it is to guard America's maritime boundaries effectively. The US Commission on National Security/21st Century, which completed its work last year, recommended that the Coast Guard, the Customs Service, and the Border Patrol be transferred to a new independent National Homeland Security Agency.

The commission, co-chaired by former Sens. Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, warned before the Sept.11 terrorist assault of the likelihood of such an attack. The commission concluded glumly: "In the face of this threat, our nation has no coherent or integrated governmental structures." The new agency the commission recommended would be charged with planning, coordinating, and integrating various US government activities involved in homeland security.

While an Office of Homeland Security has been set up with former Gov. Tom Ridge at its head, it does not have the scope, authority, or funding that the commission envisaged. Coordination among various federal, state, and municipal agencies with responsibilities for homeland security often remains poor.

Clearly, inconvenience and some sacrifice may yet lie ahead before the American economy is robust again and security is as assured as it can be. Americans showed great fortitude and unity in the face of terrorist attack and the war launched against its perpetrators. Now they will need the same fortitude and unity to win the peace.

John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor, and editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News.