"Boots on the ground" is the way military veterans put it - soldiers in camouflage carrying assault rifles and confronting the enemy directly. As the United States runs out of targets for its air attacks in Afghanistan, this seems the likely next step. And with the prospect of American soldiers in ground combat comes the tricky business of working with rebel groups there fighting the Taliban regime.
Aside from the intramural fighting and side-switching that has gone on for years, such groups have a poor record in trying to run the country themselves before the Taliban chased them out of Kabul five years ago. They have an even worse record on human rights, according to US government and private investigations. And a former Pentagon strategist says, "they are clearly involved in the same opium-heroin trade as are the Taliban."
Collectively, such groups are known as the Northern Alliance, or more properly, the United National Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan - the United Front. For now, military experts say, the US has little choice but to work with such groups - even if they are not necessarily the best ones to form a post-Taliban government in Afghanistan.
Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, says the US must act quickly - before winter sets in - to provide rebel forces with basic equipment (rifles and machine guns, radios, flak jackets, jeeps, and other vehicles) as well as training in basic infantry tactics. This would require US forces inside Afghanistan.
"We'll also have to work very hard to broaden the resistance group," he says, to include Pashtun tribes representing more of the country. (Rebel groups are mostly from the Uzbek, Tajik, and Hazra ethnic minorities.)
While Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and senior military officers acknowledge that airstrikes can do only so much in Afghanistan, they will say little about the prospect of US ground troops there. "I am not in a position of discussing future considerations," Mr. Rumsfeld said at a press briefing Tuesday, but then added: "I have not ruled anything out, nor has the president."
Aside from small special operations groups that may already be gathering intelligence in Afghanistan, US ground forces continue to move into the region more overtly and in larger numbers. This includes elements of the Army's 10th Mountain Division and some troops being transferred from peacekeeping duty in the Balkans to Uzbekistan, plus marine infantry forces expected to deploy initially from the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk in the Arabian Sea.
Helicopter gunships also could be launched from aircraft carriers for night attacks on Taliban forces and Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.
"I think you're looking at a pincer movement from the north and the south," says Daniel Goure, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. Working with rebel groups (which would act either as proxies or as combat partners), such US forces could push the Taliban forces to defend key cities - thus leaving them more vulnerable to airstrikes.
There are other reasons to involve American ground forces, military sources suggest. "Two factors apart from the immediate combat operations seem to suggest that we'll need to put some kind of force in on the ground," says Larry Seaquist, a retired US naval warship captain and Pentagon planner. "We may need to establish some kind of forward support base at a secure airfield in order to provide a transition military force underneath the new government. And we may have to establish some kind of forward logistical air base to support the humanitarian aid operations."
But this should not involve large US ground-force units trying to hunt down bin Laden, Mr. Seaquist adds. "A big military dragnet would probably just get shot up like every other big military ground force has been," he
says, most notably the former Soviet army in the 1980s.
Any US combat partnership with rebel groups is sure to raise the issue of their human rights record - in fact, it already has.
"Abuses committed by factions belonging to the United Front have been well documented," Human Rights Watch reported last week. These include "killings, indiscriminate aerial bombardment and shelling, direct attacks on civilians, summary executions, rape, persecution on the basis of religion or ethnicity, the recruitment and use of children as soldiers, and the use of antipersonnel landmines."
The foreign operations appropriations act for this year prohibits the provision of funds "to any unit of the security forces of a foreign country if the Secretary of State has credible evidence that such unit has committed gross violations of human rights." This includes spending for training such forces, but allows for a waiver of the law under "extraordinary circumstances."
Rumsfeld and others in the Bush administration avoid (if not reject) the notion of "nation-building" once the fighting stops. But observers say the US will have to play a strong role for a long time to come.
"Once engaged - and we now are engaged - we can't back out," says Mr. Goure. "Not only are we in this for the fight, we have to stay for the aftermath."