As a massive US military force sets up battle stations around the Persian Gulf, Washington is engaged in delicate calculations and intelligence-gathering designed to ensure that the crucial first blows of the war on terrorism, if not lethal, at least do not fail.
President Bush and his team are counting on a degree of success in the initial strikes - likely to be airstrikes aimed at destroying terrorist havens and weakening the resolve of Afghanistan's regime to provide protective cover - to set the stage for later, more ambitious phases of the war.
The plan, Bush administration officials suggest, is that well-targeted early attacks in Afghanistan will not only disrupt the Al Qaeda terrorist network of Osama bin Laden, but will also help convince other nations to stop aiding or harboring terrorists.
"Our goal is to alter the behavior of the countries that are sponsoring ... and in some cases directing ... terrorism," says Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "We must get them to change," he adds.
That change, US officials say, might come via higher stakes militarily for countries such as Iraq, Syria, Libya, Iran, and Sudan - which the US officially considers to be terrorist sponsors - leading them to "shift sides," as Mr. Rumsfeld puts it.
"If we take care of the situation in Afghanistan, the Syrias [of the world] will have to make a decision," Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona said in a phone interview Sunday. "If they believe the consequences are high enough, they may make the right decisions."
Mr. Bush on Monday repeated that Mr. bin Laden's Al Qaeda network will be "the first terrorist organization that we're going to deal with." In a Rose Garden appearance, Bush vowed to "smoke them out of their caves and get them running."
"I've asked our military to be ready for a reason," he said.
How to hit a difficult target
US commanders face obstacles even in this first, focused phase of the campaign directed mainly at Afghanistan, military experts say. Afghanistan itself, a landlocked nation with rugged, mountainous terrain located 1,000 miles from the sea, is a difficult target - one that has historically frustrated foreign invaders, including the Russians and the British.
In its favor, the United States is putting in place a wide array of military force in the region, deploying hundreds of bomber aircraft, fighter jets, and support planes, at least three aircraft-carrier groups with accompanying warships, as well as contingents of Marines and Army Special Operations Forces units.
These forces are designed to give the president maximum flexibility and a full range of options - including the use of ground forces - when he decides the time is ripe to act, defense officials say.
"We are ready to conduct sustained land combat operations," said Secretary of the Army Thomas White in a briefing last week. "We're ready to deliver it across the whole array of force structure - heavy, light, air mobile, airborne, special operations."
The military is also using high-tech intelligence capabilities, including tracking tools such as spy satellites, hidden sensors, reconnaissance vehicles, and unmanned "drones" like the one the US military lost contact with over Afghanistan in recent days.
Despite the magnitude and sophistication of US forces, however, military analysts stress that these alone are not enough. Vital to the success of the US campaign, they say, are strategic and intelligence aid from Pakistan, Central Asian republics such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and the loose coalition of anti-Taliban rebel groups within Afghanistan known as the Northern Alliance.
A crucial aid: allies in region
Washington on Monday received fresh offers of cooperation from nations in the region. The Ukraine offered to allow US forces to use its airspace, and Kazakhstan also promised support, possibly including the stationing of US ground forces on its soil. Pakistan, a key US ally in the war on terrorism, has already agreed to provide American forces with intelligence assistance and access to its airspace.
Such cooperation will enhance any US military actions in Afghanistan, especially by allowing American forces to get closer to their targets.
"The closer you get to the action, the better," says Maj. Gen. Donald Shepperd, a retired US Air Force official. Greater proximity will allow US warplanes, such as helicopters and fighter jets, to make a greater number of sorties in a shorter period, he adds.
Assistance from nearby countries also has the effect of strategically isolating the Taliban regime, said retired Gen. Wesley Clark, the former NATO Supreme Commander, in a media interview Monday. "This is the way you bring forces together to get the maximum effect" and "put the squeeze on the Taliban."
In a possible first response by the suspected terrorists to US military inroads, a letter allegedly from bin Laden, faxed Monday to news outlets, urged the "Muslim brothers" in Pakistan to resist American "crusader" forces in the region. Pakistan's government faces strong domestic opposition from radical Islamic groups to its efforts to help the United States.
Experts warn that any military action in such a volatile region carries tremendous risks of backfiring.
"We are dealing here with a region that is explosive ... and could be blown up in the process of helping us," former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski told CNN on Sunday.