11 September 2001>News Stories>Issue Now: Does U.S. Have a Plan?

Issue Now: Does U.S. Have a Plan?

RW Apple Jr . NYTimes . 27 September

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 same.

"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 government directly.

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 States."

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.