As American warplanes strike front-line Taliban fighters, US military leaders insist that nothing - neither winter weather, Muslim holy days, nor coalition politics - will distract them from their mission of rooting out the Al Qaeda terrorist network and the Taliban regime from Afghanistan.
"We're not holding back at all," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stressed this week, as he encouraged anti-Taliban resistance groups in the north and south to begin their march, including toward the urban strongholds of Mazar-e Sharif and Kabul.
Still, the Pentagon's brushing aside of diplomatic timetables suggests that the Bush administration faces a challenge in juggling political and strategic aims in the war on terrorism. In recent days, Pentagon statements on occasion have contrasted with those of Secretary of State Colin Powell and other coalition players.
Mr. Rumsfeld's insistence Monday that "there's no timetables" on the military campaign came the same day that Pakistan President Perves Musharraf asked the US to end its military campaign before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins in mid-November. On Sunday, Mr. Powell said it would be "in our interest and the interest of the coalition to see this matter [seizing key Afghan cities] resolved before winter."
Rumsfeld's clear warning has been that military imperatives in the drive to defeat terrorist groups should take priority over holding together a diplomatic coalition or meeting political deadlines.
"The mission determines the coalition, and the coalition must not determine the mission," he said last week. Instead, he suggested, a series of shifting, flexible coalitions will serve the ends of the military campaign.
Some military analysts agree that the Pentagon, to succeed, must stay focused on strategic aims. "If we are now going to fight the war in a manner to save the coalition, we will lose this," says Daniel Goure, a former Pentagon official who is now at the Lexington Institute, a defense think tank.
"We have to keep our eyes on the prize of getting the terrorists and [terrorist leader] Osama bin Laden and worry a little less about coalition-building and post-Taliban Afghanistan," says Ivan Eland of the Cato Institute here.
The Pentagon's focus on military goals and its aversion to political entanglements is illustrated in its approach to the main anti-Taliban group, the Northern Alliance, and other resistance forces.
In recent days, the US military has stepped up its assistance to the Northern Alliance, offering air support and military advisers, along with Pentagon promises of food and ammunition.
Meanwhile, Rumsfeld has actively encouraged the Northern Alliance to advance toward Kabul and other key cities.
"We have been ready, and we certainly are ready, to have the alliance forces move, both north and south," Rumsfeld said Monday in response to a question on Kabul. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard Myers, asked about the anti-Taliban force's plans for moving toward the town of Mazar-e Sharif, said, "I think that's starting to come to a head, and we may see some progress in that area here in the not-too-distant future."
Yet the Pentagon has also taken care to avoid allying itself too closely with the Northern Alliance, a loose coalition of minority ethnic groups. US forces, it says, are targeting Taliban and Al Qaeda forces that, "it happens," are arrayed against the Northern Alliance.
As for Afghanistan's future government, the Pentagon is also hands-off.
"Our task is to go in and get the terrorist networks and end that threat from Afghanistan," Rumsfeld said last week. "I have no idea" how a post-Taliban regime might evolve, he added, in a nation that has been ravaged by civil war, out-migration, and starvation and largely reduced to rubble.
Military analysts suggest that the Pentagon may seek to keep up the military momentum in hopes that the political pieces will fall into place in the wake of continued bombings - a scenario that could unfold almost as a "bad cop, good cop" routine, with Rumsfeld in the role of tough guy and Powell in the role of genial persuader.
Rumsfeld and others have indicated, in fact, that they hope pressure on the Taliban will produce more defections by demonstrating "the tide is going to go our way."
Still, analysts say that, as the United States relies largely on the scattered Afghan resistance factions as a proxy ground force, it runs the risk of the Taliban digging in and holding on longer than expected.
"Rumsfeld believes that putting pressure on the Taliban will lead them to crack," says Andrew Bacevich, a former Army officer who now teaches international relations at Boston University. Although "we are a superpower and Afghanistan is a puny little country, they may not."
Citing lessons from past conflicts, Mr. Bacevich also warns of problems in controlling proxy forces. In Kosovo, "the KLA [Kosovo Liberation Army] became a proxy arm of NATO, and we found out how difficult it was ... to get them to do our bidding," he says. "To the extent that we are empowering the Northern Alliance, we may not like what we get."