"An increasingly awkward issue"
lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Sep 27 05:50:44 MDT 2001
NY Times, September 27, 2001
Issue Now: Does U.S. Have a Plan?
By R. W. APPLE Jr.
WASHINGTON, Sept. 26 Two weeks after the devastating attacks on the World
Trade Center and the Pentagon, the question of the hour here is this: Does
the Bush administration have a well-defined plan of action in what it calls
the war on terrorism, or is it groping its way toward a plan?
The plan seemed clear enough when President Bush addressed Congress last
week, announcing an American-led global assault on terrorism and saying he
had called the armed forces to alert for a reason: "The hour is coming when
America will act and you will make us proud."
The rhetoric was rousing, but what form of military action to take appears
to be an increasingly awkward issue.
For the moment at least, people in Washington who usually have a pretty
clear notion of what the government is up to including senators, senior
diplomats and national security specialists express doubts. Perhaps,
several said in recent days, the seeming confusion is all part of a design
to keep the enemy in the dark, but perhaps it is something else.
One broad hint that no dramatic attack is imminent came on Tuesday from
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who said of the struggle against the
terrorists, "This is not something that begins with a significant event or
ends with a significant event." He spoke instead of "incremental steps."
A seasoned Republican military strategist said: "Afghanistan is obviously
the initial target, but it isn't easy to decide exactly what to do. There
is always the danger of going off half-cocked. It's crucial that we make
the first attack an effective one, and I suspect that we don't have enough
reliable intelligence yet to make key decisions."
That, in effect, is what the United States told its European allies in
Brussels today. According to European participants in a closed meeting,
American officials cautioned against expectations of any early attack and
appealed for help in gathering information on which to base eventual action.
The talk in Brussels was less of any early military action than of trying
to break terrorist networks through other means, such as enhanced and
better coordinated intelligence gathering.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers briefed by administration officials this week
report that they were given no detailed information. A number said they had
no real sense that President Bush had yet decided what kinds of forces to
use in Afghanistan and when he should start to use them.
Nor are political and diplomatic questions in sharp focus yet.
The Defense Department rushed long-range B-1 and B-52 bombers to the region
almost at once. But they have no obvious targets. Bombing Kabul might only
create more refugees, who would most likely pour into Pakistan, potentially
destabilizing a country on whom the United States is heavily dependent for
intelligence on the whereabouts of the terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden.
Bombing in the ruggedly mountainous countryside is problematical.
"We could do a lot more harm than good," said a State Department official.
"Remember, we didn't get anything out of the carpet-bombing the B-52's did
in Vietnam, and we had a lot better target information there than we're
ever likely to have in Afghanistan."
Another potential plan, involving action by Afghan dissidents against the
country's militant Islamic Taliban rulers, ran into difficulty almost as
soon as it was publicly discussed.
The best way to bring those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks to
justice, Mr. Bush said, was "to ask for the cooperation of citizens within
Afghanistan who may be tired of having the Taliban in place."
That seemed like a reference to the Northern Alliance, a loose anti-
Taliban coalition that controls only about 10 percent of Afghanistan. Mr.
Bush said Washington was "not into nation-building," or building a post-
Taliban Afghanistan under a new government, but Pakistan protested just the
"Any such move by foreign powers to give assistance to one side or the
other in Afghanistan," said Abdul Sattar, Pakistan's foreign minister, "is
a recipe for great suffering for the people of Afghanistan." It might also
be a recipe for creating chaos in Afghanistan, with warring groups
competing for dominance. That might make it harder, not easier, to bring
Mr. bin Laden to justice.
With so few other attractive options, Senator John McCain, Republican of
Arizona, urged Mr. Bush to press on and tackle Afghanistan's Taliban
He said: "This first phase of the global war against terrorism and against
bin Laden and his Afghan protectors will be a failure if it leaves in place
the regime that aids and abetted these acts of war against the United
At the moment, action by United States special forces, perhaps supported by
tactical air strikes intended to minimize civilian casualties, seems the
least worrisome option from a political perspective. But even that, warned
a retired American diplomat with broad experience in the region, will have
to be carried out with "careful attention to cultural and religious
sensitivities." Missteps, he said, could "destroy American alliances with
Arab countries whose support we desperately need."
The biggest debate within the administration over whether the United
States should attack Iraq as another supposed sponsor of this month's
attacks appears to have been set aside for the moment, pending the
completion of phase one. But the strongest advocates of this option inside
the government, led by Paul D. Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense,
continue to argue for it, and they have picked up support on Capitol Hill
among conservative Republicans.
Privately, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has told Mr. Wolfowitz that
any attack on Saddam Hussein's government would shatter the coalition that
he has been painstakingly assembling.
More battles inside the war cabinet probably lie ahead.
President Bush, currently enjoying a 90 percent approval rating, appears to
have ample time to unfold his strategy. There is "no blood lust in the
country at the moment," as a prominent Republican put it.
But eventually he will have to show Americans real progress in the
antiterrorist campaign, and pressure for that would mount if another major
attack took place here.
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