US weighs options beyond Afghanistan

Washington is keeping open the possibility of military action against Somalia or Iraq.


As President Bush weighs further military action in the global war on terror, one blunt statement seems to sum up his approach: "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."

Since Mr. Bush set out that stark choice, Washington has moved aggressively to sort out friend and foe. So far, officials say, three camps have emerged: nations fully committed to tracking down and eliminating terrorist cells, recent "converts" still suspect for their past tolerance for terrorists, and stubborn state supporters of terrorism.

From this spectrum, one can begin to discern the likely roles for the US military beyond Afghanistan, where the first phase of the war is approaching a denouement.

Already, the United States is extending hundreds of millions of dollars worth of military aid - including weapons, training, and military advisers - to countries that have emerged as partners in the counterterrorism fight. Recipients include the Philippines, Turkey, and Uzbekistan. Columbia and Yemen are also candidates, defense officials say.

"We can add some effort and have a big impact," says a senior defense official, referring to military counterterrorism aid. "We're trying to beef those [programs] up." In a related effort, the Pentagon is also seeking to expand or reestablish military-to-military ties with countries such as Pakistan and Indonesia, viewed as crucial allies in combating terrorism.

Countries still in question

Next, the Bush administration is gauging the need for US forces to intervene against terrorists in countries such as Sudan and Yemen, whose willingness or ability to root out the networks is still in question.

Since Sept. 11, four of the seven states listed by the State Department as terrorism sponsors - Sudan, Syria, Libya, and Iran - have taken steps to help the US-led counterterror dragnet, such as making arrests, sharing intelligence, and offering military support. Yemen, too, is "trying harder to be responsive," says a senior Pentagon official. "These are countries that bear watching," says another defense official. "They have not completely converted, but we are seeing the right types of things."

Finally, Washington is pointedly keeping open the option of military action against hostile regimes that continue to harbor terrorists and/or weapons of mass destruction (WMD), such as Somalia and Iraq, defense officials say. North Korea is also under close scrutiny as a potential exporter of WMD to terrorists, they add.

In the short term, one possibility is for US forces to launch quick, targeted strikes against Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups that the Pentagon says are hiding in Somalia. Some defense officials consider Somalia much like Afghanistan - a weak, lawless nation infested with terrorists.

In the longer run, the Pentagon has not ruled out a full-scale US campaign to unseat the government of Iraq. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's backing of terrorism - coupled with his WMD and hatred for America - makes Iraq a prime candidate for US military action, suggest defense officials and prominent Pentagon advisers.

"We are looking at Iraq from multiple perspectives - not only its terrorist habit ... but the weapons of mass destruction, which have gotten worse since UNSCOM [UN weapons inspectors] was driven out three years ago," says a senior Pentagon official. "Iraq is just a dangerous state, purely and simply. And sooner or later ... it's something we have to be concerned about."

Still, officials stress that Bush has made no decisions on Iraq, and leading State Department officials advocate a cautious, go-slow approach focused on sanctions. At the same time, however, the rhetoric both in and outside the Pentagon suggests it is more a question of how and when - than whether - the US should move to overthrow the Baghdad regime.

Senior officials now at the Pentagon, State Department, and White House, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and assistant secretary Peter Rodman, have in the past argued vigorously for the regime's removal. They signed a 1998 letter urging President Clinton to make that a goal of US policy.

'Zero' likelihood of reform

Secretary Rumsfeld and others hold little hope that the regime will give up its dictatorial ways or terrorist and WMD habits. "I would say the likelihood of Iraq reforming itself is zero," Rumsfeld put it recently.

Pentagon officials say Iraq is a threat to America - and a destabilizing force in the Middle East - regardless of whether it was directly involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. They also argue that the support of allies, while preferable, is not essential for the US to act against Iraq. "It may be that we are prepared to expend some political capital," said a senior defense official.

Some Pentagon advisers including Richard Perle, chairman of the Defense Policy Board, contend that, as in Afghanistan, overthrowing Saddam could be done by bolstering opposition groups and supporting them with American air power and a limited number of US ground troops. "I think the force [required] would be comparable, not larger" than that used in Afghanistan, Mr. Perle says.

In Congress and defense circles, there are calls to implement and possibly expand the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, which set aside nearly $100 million for military weaponry and training for Iraqi opposition warriors.

"That's something on our minds," a senior defense official says of the act.

Meanwhile, contingency plans for future military action are well under way, defense officials say. "If need be, we could do something in Iraq tomorrow," says one defense official. "Others take more time and buildup. It depends on what your mission is: Is it to send a message, take out suspected sites of WMD, or overthrow the regime?"

Washington is beefing up military counterterrorism assistance for several far-flung countries. More than $140 million has already been pledged to the Philippines, Uzbekistan, and Turkey. Secretary of State Colin Powell will allocate millions more once Congress passes the 2002 foreign operations bill, according to State Department officials. Following are examples of the military-aid packages being put together for countries:

Uzbekistan was recently granted $25 million for counterterrorism in the form of foreign military financing (FMF) - for weapons and other military purchases - under the 2001 emergency supplemental bill passed by Congress in September. Uzbekistan, a key ally that has allowed US forces to establish bases on its soil for the Afghanistan campaign, is targeting the radical Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, one of the terrorist organizations listed as threatening to the US.

Turkey, another US ally in Afghanistan, was allocated $20 million in military financing for counterterrorism under the emergency bill, according to the State Department. Turkey would be a vital ally in any US campaign against Iraq, Pentagon officials say.

The Philippines last month won a grant of $92.3 million for a C-130 transport plane, Huey helicopters, a patrol boat, and thousands of rifles with ammunition. In addition, the US is providing military advisers to help the Philippine Army in antiterrorist strategy and training. Last month, about two-dozen US military officers visited the southern island of Basilan to evaluate how the two countries can cooperate against the Abu Sayyaf rebels, who have had links to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network.

Columbia is seeking more than $700 million for military assistance and other resources to fight drug traffickers, whose profits allegedly fund world terrorists as well as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC), a 17,000-strong Marxist guerrilla group.

Yemen is discussing a $400 million aid package from the United States and US allies, which could include special-forces training. Since Sept. 11, Yemen has aided the US antiterror drive by arresting possible Al Qaeda members, freezing bank accounts, and allowing US officials to interview suspects in the Oct. 12, 2000, bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in the port of Aden.

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