US possesses a large 'hammer,' but how to wield it?

r Military responses to Tuesday's attacks could range from 'surgical' air strikes to an international coalition.

At the end of a week scarred by unprecedented terrorist attacks on American soil, it seems increasingly likely that the United States will retaliate with force.

It may be a matter of months (as it was after the attack on Pearl Harbor), or just days. But the signs are clear.

President Bush - the commander in chief - talks of heinous "acts of war" that must be responded to, and he vows to "conquer" the enemy. Top administration officials are working to build allied support, as Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell did during the Gulf War under former President George Bush. Massive US naval forces - the nation's prime means of extending its conventional military might around the world - are being positioned for possible action. Contingencies are being discussed, as are the lessons of previous failed attempts to strike at those believed to have ordered terrorist attacks against US facilities abroad.

"In the near term, our goal must be to identify the terrorists, and to launch a devastating retaliation against any such movement and any nation that provides them with shelter," says Anthony Cordesman, a national-security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. That's a saber-rattling view many defense experts share, as well as most Americans, according to polls taken after the attacks against the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.

Increasingly, it looks like the attacks were directed by exiled Saudi Osama bin Laden, who is living in Afghanistan under the protection of a government ruled by the Taliban Islamic militia. According to those who have held senior US military and intelligence positions, these are the options for a counterstrike with force:

• A limited "surgical" strike involving ship-based cruise missiles. The US did this in 1998 against targets in Afghanistan and Sudan, following bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, believed to have been masterminded by Mr. bin Laden.

• Larger airstrikes by fighter jets aboard aircraft carriers nearby and Air Force bombers flying thousands of miles from secure airfields (as they did in the Balkans).

• Ground troops, ranging from smaller special forces units tasked with capturing bin Laden and spiriting him out of Afghanistan to larger Army units designed to seize and hold territory.

• A larger coalition of forces, including not only NATO allies, but also neighboring Arab states. This kind of coalition won the Gulf War in short order - not only militarily, but politically. This week, NATO opened the way for such an effort, invoking its mutual-defense clause for the first time since its inception in 1949. This means an attack against any one of the 19 member countries is considered an attack against all.

"We have a very large hammer that can be brought to bear in a number of ways at any time," one defense official told Reuters. "That's not a threat, it's a fact."

But each of the various weapons and tactics that make up that very large hammer has its own set of challenges. Many experts dismiss the idea of a relatively small cruise-missile strike as ineffectual. "What doesn't work is taking out a couple of mud huts in Afghanistan," says Paul Bremer, the former ambassador who chaired the National Commission on International Terrorism last year. Ambassador Bremer (and others) refer specifically to the Clinton administration's sending cruise missiles against Afghanistan and Sudan. Bin Laden escaped the attack on suspected terrorist camps in Afghanistan, and a suspected chemical weapons plant in Sudan, turned out to be a pharmaceutical-manufacturing facility, where civilian workers were killed by American weapons.

Sending aircraft against targets in Afghanistan involves a fairly long flight over Pakistani airspace - something Islamabad seems unlikely to approve, given its own difficulties with extremist Islamic groups and its tacit support of the Taliban. And while bombing strikes by manned aircraft can be devastating, they don't necessarily get rid of the designated "bad guy," as was seen with Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

"We could clearly deliver huge air strikes," says Larry Seaquist, a retired Navy-warship captain. "But to escalate above that, you need feet on the ground." Moreover, says Capt. Seaquist, that would probably take large Army units (not just small special forces) for sufficient political impact.

Considering such options and their unique problems, former CIA Director and retired US Navy Admiral Stansfield Turner says, "You've got inhibitions on all sides."

Military force could also exacerbate deep tensions between the US and many states in the region, particularly if more than one country has been aiding bin Laden (who denies involvement in this week's attacks).

"There's a tremendous amount of anger against the United States, especially in the Arab and Muslim world," says Ray Helmick, a professor of the Middle East at Boston College. "That anger has to be taken seriously."

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