President Bush met with his top security aides Saturday at Camp David to map out a war strategy, and he spoke for nearly an hour with Russian President Vladimir Putin to help launch a united diplomatic front to intimidate and isolate the Taliban regime that has refused to hand over terrorist Osama bin Laden.
Bush and his national security team reviewed military and diplomatic options as U.S. Navy aircraft carrier battle groups set up positions in the Persian Gulf region, with the nuclear-powered USS Carl Vinson reported this weekend off Pakistan's coast, the USS Enterprise and its ships nearby and two other battle groups on their way.
Finding and neutralizing the exiled Saudi terrorist and his associates is the first priority of the Bush administration's declared war on terrorism. Once that is accomplished, the use of military force against other groups in other regions is likely to be slow in coming and limited in objective and would need secured support and approval from the international community, administration officials said.
On the domestic front, Bush tried to rally confidence among Americans while acknowledging that crushing declines in the stock market and large airline layoffs in the wake of the terror attacks created a real shock to the U.S. economy. He aimed to reassure Americans worried about the plummeting value of their stock holdings and widespread layoffs in several industries that the U.S. economy still was fundamentally strong.
"No terrorist will ever be able to decide our fate," Bush said in his weekly radio address. "They brought down a symbol of American prosperity but they could not touch its source."
Noting that energy prices have remained stable, the president acknowledged that "the economy has had a shock." But he said last week's action by the Federal Reserve Board to cut interest rates was helping restore confidence. Bush also noted that both Republicans and Democrats in Congress are determined to work together to provide economic relief even as they help fund the military campaign.
After Bush's talk with Putin, his third since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Russian president told Russian television: "We must unite forces of all civilized society" against terrorism. But later, the head of Russia's general staff ruled out Russian participation in any military strikes.
In a significant diplomatic step, the United Arab Emirates, one of only three nations to recognize the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban government, said it would cut ties with Afghanistan. Turkey, another largely Muslim country, said it would allow the U.S. to use its airports and airspace for new operations in the area.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban boasted of shooting down an unmanned spy plane Saturday. Afghanistan's ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, said Taliban soldiers armed with Russian-made anti-aircraft weapons shot down the plane over Tashgurgan Pass in Samangan province.
A Pentagon spokesman declined to comment on the report, but senior Pakistani intelligence sources confirmed that an unmanned reconnaissance plane had been downed.
In the region, military analysts from Pakistan and Russia, the two countries with the most experience in Afghanistan, cautioned that it will be very difficult to wage a successful war on terrorism from the decks of aircraft carriers.
Military experts said the most effective weapons against this elusive enemy probably will be reliable intelligence and the selective use of Special Forces.
During the 1980s, the CIA armed and financed the mujahedeen guerrillas who eventually forced the invading Soviet army to retreat from Afghanistan. Back then, the United States had abundant intelligence assets. That is no longer the case.
`No human intelligence'
"The U.S. has virtually no human intelligence on the ground in Afghanistan," said Najmuddin Shaikh, Pakistan's former ambassador to Washington. "It will take some time to rebuild this."
Russian military experts say U.S. military power can be applied effectively against Afghanistan, but they offer conflicting advice on the best approach. Some urge the Americans to keep it small and focused on bin Laden and his terrorist training camps. Others say that only a massive sweep across the country would root out every last bit of the terrorists' infrastructure.
All agree that a middle-ground approach--a compromise between surgical and overwhelming attacks--would be a disaster.
"The United States has pretty well-organized and well-equipped special operations forces," said Col. Vladimir Kvachkov, a former Russian special forces commander. "Success will be achieved not by the quantity of the troops committed, but by the professionalism of the participants . . . and the quality of the command and control."
Maj. Gen. Alexander Chubarov, who served in Afghanistan and is a specialist on Central Asia, said that "in principle the landing of a military assault force in Afghanistan is possible, [but] the operation can be a success only if the goals are limited and the actions are thoroughly planned."
At the very least, the Russian experts said, moving troops and supplies into place for a major land assault would take time. They pointed to the months that NATO needed to build up troops and logistical infrastructure for a planned ground campaign in Kosovo. And that was with the help of friendly neighboring countries.
Once a ground operation began, resupply would be extremely difficult. Afghanistan scarcely had an infrastructure to begin with, and two decades of warfare in the impoverished land have knocked out what little there was.
U.S. troops would have to build roads, lay airstrips and set up their own communication system, housing units and power supplies. They would have to traverse one of the most heavily mined territories in the world, with an estimated 10 million mines seeded across Afghanistan's 250,000 square miles. In addition to the hardened and fanatical Taliban fighters, they would come up against heavily armed and remorseless drug-trafficking groups that have profited under Taliban rule.
"As sure as daylight, it's an unwinnable war," said retired Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul, who as head of Pakistan's Interservice Intelligence Directorate helped create the Taliban.
"Your enemy is faceless, nameless, invisible. He's spread out over the whole country. There are no targets," Gul said. "Your aircraft carriers and cruise missiles are useless in Afghanistan."
The enemy also has weapons sufficient to its style of fighting--Kalashnikov assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and U.S.-made Stinger missiles that were used to devastating effect against Soviet helicopter gunships.
Gul said a Special Forces operation to snatch bin Laden "would require damn good intelligence, which you don't have." And even with solid intelligence, he said, the risk is high. He recalled the disastrous episodes in Iran, when a plane collided with a helicopter in the desert during an ill-fated effort to rescue U.S. hostages, killing eight servicemen, and Somalia, when rebels shot down two Marine helicopters, killing 18 U.S. soldiers.
"A repeat of that would be very humiliating for a superpower," Gul said.
Pakistan undoubtedly has the best intelligence on the Taliban, and Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, has promised to share it with Washington.
He also has agreed to open Pakistani airspace to U.S. warplanes, on the condition that Israel and India are not involved in any operations.
The more delicate question, however, is allowing U.S. warplanes and troops to use Pakistani bases.
"That will be very hard to sell to the Pakistani people," said Kamal Matinuddin, a retired general and diplomat who has written several books on Afghanistan.
The United States is not popular in this part of the world, and the bellicose rhetoric it has aimed at Afghanistan, one of the most forsaken countries, has aroused strong anti-American sentiment in Pakistan. If U.S. troops are based in Pakistan, they would become immediate targets.
Musharraf's red line
Musharraf knows he can go only so far in supporting the United States without risking a serious domestic backlash, said Matinuddin.
At this moment, Pakistan and Washington seem to be engaged in a delicate dance to discover just where Musharraf's red line is.
"The red line that was true on the 10th of September is not the one that is true now, but how far it has shifted, I don't know," said Shaikh, the former Washington envoy.
The United States is reported to be interested in air bases near the border cities of Quetta and Peshawar, but thus far, according to diplomats, no formal request has been made.
If Pakistan rejects a U.S. basing request, or if the United States decides it is better off not putting troops in Pakistan, the alternatives are not attractive.
Iran has a long border with Afghanistan and a deep distrust of the Taliban. Iran condemned the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but it remains on the State Department's list of states that sponsor terrorism, and there is no practical way to base U.S. troops there.
Russian officials floated the idea of offering the U.S. use of their bases in the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan but have since backed away.
U.S. officials have been in Moscow to discuss possible cooperation with the Russians. Top military officials from the Central Asian countries, along with their counterparts from other former Soviet republics, are to meet in the Russian capital this week.
American officials also are talking directly with the Tajik government. But Tajikistan could not on its own offer the use of the bases, which are run and funded by Moscow. And Russian analysts suggest the Kremlin now sees more risks than rewards in participating in any U.S. military action.
The Taliban regime in Afghanistan has vowed to launch a holy war against any Muslim country that cooperates with the United States.
"Russia worries about a response from the Taliban that may cause a lot of trouble and damage to Russian citizens, facilities and enterprises in Central Asia and in the Caucasus, as well as in Russia itself," said Alexei Arbatov, a federal deputy who specializes in Russian-American relations. "We are simply not ready to open a second front. We are quite busy with Chechnya and everything related to it."
Russia last year threatened to bomb terrorist training camps in Afghanistan that Moscow says provide recruits, weapons and expertise to the Chechen separatist rebels. But Moscow later backed off the threat. It has contented itself with supplying weapons, money, military infrastructure and possibly pilots and advisers to the Northern Alliance, a loose grouping of forces opposed to the Taliban.
Tribune foreign correspondent Colin McMahon in Moscow and Tribune news services contributed to this report.