WASHINGTON — Lack of on-ground intelligence and need to rally coalition has delayed military strike.
In the hours and days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, as many Americans expected retaliatory missiles to begin streaking across their TV screens, Washington's impulse, too, was to strike back at the new "enemies" of civilization.
But nuts-and-bolts military realities - and, above all, a major intelligence shortfall - quickly led the Bush administration to rule out immediate action by US forces, and instead to weigh military strikes as just one facet of a multipronged campaign against terrorism, according to current and former US military officials.
Today, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld continues talks in strategically vital states from Saudi Arabia to Uzbekistan, the Bush administration is winning high marks in some circles for not lashing out. Instead, it has been methodically laying the groundwork for US military action against the Al Qaeda terrorist network of Osama bin Laden and its key supporters in Afghanistan's Taliban regime.
"We're not leaping into this, we're moving into it in a measured way," Mr. Rumsfeld said at a recent Pentagon briefing, although he acknowledged later that the "instinct" after the attack had been "to respond in kind."
Gen. Hugh Shelton, who retired as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Monday, agreed "it's very easy, when you're faced with a crisis, to default automatically to the military, because we can move fast and we can do things that show up well in the television or in a newspaper." But he says "not overreacting and going after it with just the military ... is the right thing to do."
Still, while President Bush insists that there is no "timetable" for a showdown with the Taliban, military action directed at Afghanistan appears increasingly inevitable as the radical Islamic regime fails to meet US demands to hand over Mr. bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders.
"By all indications, things are coming to a head," says Daniel Goure, a former Pentagon official now with the private Lexington Institute. "They [Bush and his advisers] articulated fairly maximum demands without any anticipation they would be met, in effect pushing this to a fight."
Moreover, if measured by the tempo of deployments and coalition building of the past decade's military campaigns, notably the Gulf War and the Kosovo conflict, the Bush administration can hardly be accused of dragging its feet, analysts say.
In three weeks, the US has not only moved forces into place and engaged scores of nations in the fight against terrorism, but has also dramatically shifted its hands-off, unilateralist approach to foreign policy. The administration "has done a 180-degree shift almost overnight, and almost in unison," says Mr. Goure.
By all accounts, the main constraint to US military action lies in a lack of intelligence - especially human intelligence - needed to identify meaningful targets.
"Military options come down to a very straightforward discussion: What is the target, and how do I attack it? We can't get past Step 1," says retired Gen. Merrill McPeak, Air Force chief of staff from 1990 to 1994.
WHILE the military's technical ability to collect intelligence data has mushroomed, its ability to analyze the information has fallen behind. "You get stacks and stacks of information, and nobody can translate all of it and make sense of it," says retired US Army Col. Daniel Smith, a former Defense Intelligence Agency official now at the Center for Defense Information in Washington.
Then, too, the information gathered is highly centralized and compartmentalized. It's not tailored to the needs of the individual military commanders and troops who would use it, says General McPeak.
Solid intelligence is especially vital to help pinpoint any actions by the elite Special Operations Forces, such as the Army Rangers and Delta Force, which US officials say will likely play a key role in the war on terrorism. "You need to have everything ready at the right moment to execute" an operation and not waste the efforts of the highly trained special forces, says a veteran military officer speaking on background.
Another time-consuming factor for the US military is designing a strategy that will give US forces maximum flexibility to operate, while limiting their vulnerability to counter-attack.
Rumsfeld's trip to the Mideast and Central Asia is believed to be aimed in part at smoothing the way for the use of bases as staging areas in places such as Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan. Political instability makes Pakistan a problematic location.
"For the US to put bases in Pakistan makes no sense, it creates a vulnerability for us," says McPeak. "We need to present a very small target. Small targets are submarines, camouflaged soldiers like special forces, and stealth aircraft - these are Information Age systems."
Finally, in what is proving to be the biggest military mobilization since the 1991 Gulf War, nitty-gritty problems arise in simply getting US forces in place - not only the warplanes and ships, but the parts, weapons, fuel, and command-and-control facilities. "We can magisterially wave our baton and say: 'Forward troops,' " says retired Rear Adm. Tom Marfiak, a former senior planner for the US military command responsible for the Middle East. "But a sergeant might reply: 'Sir, I'd change that parachute pack if I were you.' "
What all this means, military experts say, is that Bush is wise to resist political pressures from the American public and Congress for quick action. "Americans are a 'we-want-it-now' society," says Rear Admiral Marfiak, head of the Naval Institute in Annapolis. "It would be great if we could do the movie thing and send in John Wayne, but it probably won't happen that way."