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Careful steps taken to set up attack
Pressure to avoid killing civilians and the need to build an international coalition has led the Bush administration to bide its time before launching military strikes against suspected terrorist strongholds.
As anticipation builds that U.S. military force could be unleashed soon against terrorist targets in Afghanistan, senior officials at the Pentagon, State Department and White House described in interviews this week a range of reasons why President Bush rejected the temptation to retaliate immediately after the Sept. 11 acts of terrorism.
The scarcity of easily identifiable targets, an urgent request by the FBI for more time to round up U.S.-based terrorism suspects, the need to build evidence against the perpetrators of the Pentagon and World Trade Center attacks, uncertainty as to the whereabouts of alleged terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, even a distaste in the White House for repeating the quick-strike strategy of Bush's predecessor, President Bill Clinton, all contributed to the determination to wait before moving against bin Laden's Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon needed time to gear up troops for deployment to Central Asia--the other side of the world. Bush wanted as many options as possible, and that meant the military had to move vast forces, including two aircraft carriers, more than 100 warplanes, thousands of Marines and undisclosed numbers of elite Special Forces personnel.
Not all of the pieces are in place. Two aircraft carriers and two Marine-carrying ships are en route. Elements of the Army's 10th Mountain Division at Ft. Drum, N.Y., have deployment orders but had not moved out as of Thursday.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld added a stop in Uzbekistan, on the northern border of Afghanistan, to a swing through the Middle East this week. He was expected to discuss using the Central Asian country as a springboard for military action against Al Qaeda.
Secretary of State Colin Powell met with the Uzbek foreign minister in Washington on Wednesday. His and Rumsfeld's diplomatic efforts are all part of an administration campaign to gain tangible military support for the U.S. mission against terrorism.
"We are in the process of attempting to set the conditions for a sustained effort," Rumsfeld said in Saudi Arabia.
Key to setting the conditions for attacks on terrorists is the support, whether enthusiastic or merely tacit, of key Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Oman and the nations ringing Afghanistan.
While investigators built up evidence against bin Laden, the CIA also had to develop what military officials call "actionable intelligence," which is information about the location and movements of an enemy so U.S. forces can strike.
Memory of 1980 fiasco
Also hanging over the Bush administration was the memory of Desert One, the Carter administration's aborted 1980 effort to use the Special Forces to rescue the U.S. hostages in Iran. Eight servicemen died in a fiasco of colliding aircraft.
"If you fire the bullet," said retired Army Gen. George Joulwan, "you want to hit the target."
Predictions that the public would clamor for immediate revenge proved false. Instead, opinion polls and comments by lawmakers suggest that the administration's "this will be a long campaign" message has sunk in.
"Most of us believe that the president has time," Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Wednesday after a closed meeting at the State Department with Powell. "The American people understand the importance of making sure this gets done right."
Administration officials did consider an immediate strike following the Sept. 11 attacks but quickly dismissed the idea.
"People asked, `What can we do immediately?'" said a senior defense official. "When we looked at the potential for what we could do, it really looked hollow."
Bush cemented his opposition to immediate reprisal strikes on the first weekend after the deadly hijackings when he called his top advisers to the presidential treat at Camp David, Md.
Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, convened an evening meeting Sept. 14 with Vice President Dick Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld and other key officials.
"We need to be effective, not do something for effect," Rice told them, according to one White House official.
The next day, in a seven-hour session headed by Bush, the administration developed the concept of a broad-based war on terrorism that would involve all instruments of U.S. power, including financial, legal and diplomatic as well as military. Bush called Rice in Sept. 16 and asked her to take notes.
"This is what we're going to do," he said. What the president dictated amounted to the strategy Bush laid out days later in his speech to a joint session of Congress.
In footsteps of father
Setting out to build a coalition, much as his father had done before the 1991 Persian Gulf war against Iraq, Bush issued an ultimatum to Afghanistan's ruling Taliban regime to hand over bin Laden and roll up the Al Qaeda strongholds.
Bush said the Taliban must "act immediately." In fact, the administration was not yet ready to take action against the Taliban and was hoping that quiet diplomacy by neighboring Pakistan would bring results. It took more than a week after the speech before it was clear the Taliban wasn't going to comply.
The administration used that time to forge ties with Afghan opposition groups, particularly the Northern Alliance, and to develop plans, announced by Bush on Thursday, to provide $320 million in humanitarian assistance to needy Afghans.
Although officials will not describe it this way publicly, a clear effort is being made to undermine the Taliban politically to avoid having to do so militarily. Without the protection of the Taliban, security officials say, Al Qaeda cannot survive in Afghanistan.
While the military developed plans of attack in Afghanistan, the FBI was asking the administration for more time to complete its roundup of possible bin Laden associates operating in the U.S. who might pose a threat in the wake of American military action overseas.
Still, at some point, says retired Air Force Gen. Larry Farrell, "You're going to have to show results to the American people."
In a morale-boosting visit to the State Department on Thursday, Bush's biggest applause line came when he said of the U.S. war on terrorism, "Now is the time."