Battle plan for diverse and elusive target

War on terrorism may have begun like the Gulf War, but similarities end there.

The first dramatic military phase of the war on terrorism echoes the Gulf War of a decade ago: sharp aerial strikes against command-and-control centers, air bases and antiaircraft sites, training camps and troop concentrations in Afghanistan.

Officials say the attacks, which began Sunday night, are likely to continue for at least several days, depending on daylight assessments of damage already inflicted. Only then will US officials be able to determine what's been achieved so far and how to proceed with the anticipated ground assault.

But there, the analogy with the 1991 war with Iraq breaks down. The main target is not one aggressor nation, one army such as Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard, or even one identifiable enemy leader. International terrorism directed against the United States, warn US officials, is far more diverse and elusive.

US military officials say that this is just the beginning of what is likely to be a long and potentially costly war.

"We are in the early stages of combat operations," says Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

One goal, according to US officials, is to bolster rebel groups opposed to the Taliban regime - groups which have warred with each other in the past.

Another goal is to accelerate defections from Taliban forces, some of which have been known to switch sides (several times in the past), depending on the shifting centers of power in Afghanistan.

Attacks so far have involved B-2 "stealth" bombers from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, B-52s from a British air base on Diego Garcia, strike aircraft launched from the flight decks of the aircraft carriers USS Enterprise and USS Carl Vinson, and US Navy battle group destroyers, cruisers, and submarines firing Tomahawk cruise missiles.

Intelligence sources - spy satellites, ground sensors, aircraft, and very likely small commando groups on the ground - are tracking remaining Taliban troops, equipment, and suspected terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.

But even the Pentagon is quick to acknowledge that, despite its overwhelming military superiority, "there is no silver bullet," as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld puts it.

Defeating terrorism planned and carried out by multiple sources operating in many countries - not just bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization, and not just Afghanistan - is a far more ambitious goal.

"Ultimate victory," says Mr. Rumsfeld, will be evident only when the loose network of international terrorism aimed at the US "collapses from within."

The game plan now for the administration is to stress that the US strikes are part of a "liberation" effort rather than merely revenge for last month's terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

In this sense, the battle for public opinion - more important at this point in the Muslim world than in the virtually united US - plays an enormous role. That is why the administration made sure it was ready and able to drop packets of food (featuring "culturally neutral" rations that are mostly vegetarian), medical supplies, and transistor radios (for propaganda purposes), as well as bombs on Afghanistan.

The point, Rumsfeld emphasized as the initial attacks were under way, is to "deny hostile regimes the opportunity to oppress their own or other people.

"In Kuwait, in Northern Iraq, in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, the United States took action on behalf of Muslim populations against outside invaders and oppressive regimes," says Rumsfeld. "The same is true today. We stand with those Afghans who are being oppressed by a regime that abuses the very people it purports to lead."

Setting this kind of political and diplomatic context has always been important when the US engages in combat abroad, and it is even more important when the stated goal is to protect Americans from further terrorist attacks.

Bush administration officials, with major help from British Prime Minister Tony Blair, have patched together a coalition of at least temporary allies in the region willing to allow US forces access to bases and other staging areas essential for likely future attacks.

But that coalition - especially countries in the region - is tenuous at best. Yesterday, there were violent anti-American protests in Pakistan, and Pakistani President Lt. Gen. Pervez Musharraf fired several generals who have been sympathetic to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Expert observers note the cautious and deliberate approach President Bush and his advisors have taken in laying the groundwork for a coordinated and risky effort involving economic, financial, diplomatic, and humanitarian activity, as well as military strikes.

"They resisted the temptation to do something dramatic right away," says David Morgan, a University of Wisconsin historian specializing in the Middle East and central Asia, who has spent much time in Afghanistan. "Overall, I have a great deal more respect for how the administration is handling this than I would have anticipated."

As to whether officials can gauge the success of the early days of the fighting and the overall strategy to fight terrorism, Mr. Morgan says: "I doubt that even the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff knows."

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