Afghanistan: The War Escalates

Stung by critics wondering when victory might come, the U.S. inches closer to a ground campaign

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CHRIS USHER/CORBIS SYGMA FOR TIME

President George W. Bush's first meeting with the Homeland Security Council

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A handicap for this Administration is that it has no credible uniformed stalwart to make the case for the war on a daily basis — as Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf did during the Gulf War. And so the sober, 69-year-old Rumsfeld has become the Administration's go-to guy. With Dick Cheney mostly at his undisclosed location, Rumsfeld is the government's resident grownup, an acerbic spokesman who can convey condescension and playfulness in the same breath, as he did last week when chiding a reporter for "beginning with an illogical premise and proceeding perfectly logically to an illogical conclusion."

Rumsfeld's aides say he is unruffled by criticism of the war's progress, in part because it has come from all sides. "There are starting to be some questions, like [Senator Joseph] Biden suggesting we risk being viewed as a high-tech bully and McCain wanting us to do more," says a top adviser. "So we're in the middle, which is a pretty good place to be." But the disgruntlement impressed Rumsfeld enough for him to devote much of his briefing Thursday to a history lesson on the deliberate pace of previous U.S. wars, and to pointedly remind his audience of what precipitated the conflict: "The smoke is still rising from the World Trade Center." The White House has given Rumsfeld the job of reassuring nervous members of Congress; he spends two hours every day in meetings with the press and lawmakers. "I wouldn't do it if I didn't think it was important," he says.

Late last week he began a mission with stops in Russia, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to defend the war and buck up support among coalition partners. On the agenda in Uzbekistan will be an expanded U.S. use of bases there as America begins to contemplate something it very much wishes to avoid: inserting a substantial ground force into the region.

One of the chief complaints leveled at Rumsfeld and the Pentagon's strategists is that they failed to predict or prepare for the Taliban's ability to withstand an aerial assault. Western and Pakistani military officials openly hint that an American ground force may be required to remove the Taliban and install a successor government. Military commanders are exploring the idea of grabbing territory inside Afghanistan to use as a staging area for hit-and-run attacks against al-Qaeda. Seizing and holding an airstrip would involve as many as 15,000 troops, and there's little chance of inserting them before spring. Waiting that long would provide a psychological and material boost for the Taliban, which will use the winter months to regroup. But the U.S. never had much choice. Even if the military had begun mobilizing to fight a ground war on Sept. 12, it's doubtful that it would have been ready to launch one by now.

In Pakistan many analysts say the U.S. went into combat too soon, without first blanketing Urdu-language media outlets with the American case for intervention. Instead, since Sept. 11, thousands of impressionable Pakistani militants have volunteered to fight with the Taliban. "We don't understand politics," says Janzeb Khan, an unemployed 25-year-old in Peshawar. "We just see what is happening in Afghanistan, and we know it is right for every Muslim to join them in this war." It's no wonder that a senior Administration official greeted news of the U.S.-British propaganda machine with fatalism. "It's a great idea," the official said. "Too bad no one thought of it a month ago."

Ultimately the allies' efforts to sell their war strategy will work only as well as the strategy itself. And inside the war rooms, there is a growing belief that the strategy for winning this war requires at least as much ruthlessness as the carpet-bombing B-52s displayed last week, and probably much more. A senior U.S. official in Pakistan says American ground forces will ultimately need to mount lethal raids in the heart of Taliban country, to prove to the regime that the U.S. is willing and able to cut them down. Facing off against the Taliban on its turf won't be easy, and the human toll could be horrific. But that's the point in a merciless war. Last week Rumsfeld acknowledged as much when he defended the military's use of flesh-shredding cluster bombs on Taliban trenches. "They are being used on front-line al-Qaeda and Taliban troops," he explained, "to try to kill them." Americans rarely hear so blunt a sales pitch. From here on in, they'd better get used to it.

— Reported by Massimo Calabresi, James Carney, Mark Thompson and Karen Tumulty/Washington, J.F.O. McAllister/London, Hannah Beech/the Taloqan front, Anthony Davis/Jabal Saraj, Alex Perry/Tashkent, Johanna McGeary/Peshawar and Rahimullah Yusufzai/Kandahar

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