With fewer victories, will US support war?
To sustain backing, Bush team seeks to avoid projecting war as hunt for one man.
WASHINGTON — At the onset of the US-led military campaign in Afghanistan on Oct. 7, the warnings were rife. The airstrikes would unleash a flood of refugees, civilian casualties would incite opposition among Afghans and across the Muslim world, and the United States would slide into a drawn-out conflict against zealous, hardened holy warriors.
Yet after only two months, an efficient, almost surgical use of US troops and airpower destroyed the Taliban regime and left the terrorists it sheltered either dead, isolated, or on the run.
The US successes in Afghanistan so far have muted Washington's critics at home and overseas, while bolstering American public support for a broader war on terror.
Today, Washington's challenge is to maintain the public's focus on a sustained war on terrorism wordwide - with or without the quick taking of Osama bin Laden. To do this, the Bush administration has been refining its message to avoid projecting the war as the hunt for one man.
"This is not a war against Osama bin Laden; it's a war against terrorism," says Jeffrey Whitman, a former US Army officer and associate philosophy professor at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa. "President Bush doesn't want to personalize this war the way his father did for [Iraqi leader] Saddam Hussein - or that will backfire."
Overall, the conduct of the US-led campaign in Afghanistan has helped create a reservoir of American popular support for future military action. Three out of four Americans today support US military strikes against suspected terrorist bases in other countries, such as Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen, according to a Dec. 18 ABC news poll. Almost as many people favor the deployment of US forces to Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
Moreover, Americans appear to be mentally prepared for a long, difficult war against terrorism. Overwhelmingly, they say the hardest part of the war is yet to come, and believe the war is likely to last for years rather than months, polls show.
"Americans have a great deal of faith in the military," says Tom Nichols, a professor of strategy at the US Naval War College in Newport, R.I. "By and large, they believe that if the military is ordered to do something, it's doable and the mission will succeed. Afghanistan has reinforced that viewpoint."
Overseas, meanwhile, the US action in Afghanistan has so far not generated the widespread popular opposition from the "Arab street" that pundits originally predicted.
"You don't see Islamic radicals rallying enthusiastically for Osama bin Laden. They are seeing him as a loser," says George Quester, an expert on military policy and terrorism at the University of Maryland in College Park.
At the same time, the routing of Al Qaeda and defeat of the radical Taliban regime in Afghanistan have sent a powerful message of American resolve to other states, spurring governments such as Yemen's to launch their own preemptive crackdowns on suspected terrorist groups within their own borders.
"If the question was, 'can we punish someone in a way that is meaningful?', the answer, not just here but around the world, is 'yes - we can not only punish the terrorists but push you out of office,' " says Mr. Quester.
Much of the credit for the smooth first phase of the war on terror goes to US commanders, military strategists say. They conceived of a calibrated campaign to destroy the Taliban regime and Al Qaeda terrorist network in Afghanistan, while at the same time avoiding civilian casualties and applying only as much US force as needed to get the job done. US forces have also correctly stayed focused on fighting terrorists and their backers, while leaving the post-war work of peacekeeping to others, they say.
Striking the balance between attaining key military objectives and using appropriate force has not been easy, however. For example, US care to identify targets and use precision weapons has helped minimize civilian deaths, but may also have allowed some Al Qaeda and Taliban members - including Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar - to escape so far.
US Defense officials stress, however, that although Mr. Omar and Mr. bin Laden remain at large, their ability to attract followers and plan operations has been sharply curtailed by their defeat in Afghanistan.
"He [bin Laden] is not the problem, the entire problem," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in downplaying the importance of the bin Laden hunt last week. "The Al Qaeda is the entire problem. And the other terrorist networks are the problem."
Highlighting the need to focus on the networks, Rumsfeld said that US forces in Afghanistan "undoubtedly have prevented other terrorist activities" by gathering vital intelligence that has led to arrests of suspected terrorists in other nations.