Determination and Smiles at the Pentagon

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The media may be carping about Osama bin Laden still looming at large and politicians may be nervous that he may have slipped the noose. But behind closed doors in the Pentagon, senior military officers are jubilant, even to the point of sounding cocky, about how their first battle in the war against terrorism has gone, referring to the attack on Afghanistan to take down the Taliban and to uproot the al-Qaeda terrorist base there. Sure, U.S. commandos have been hunting day and night (without success) for bin Laden himself, but from the beginning Pentagon strategists were never optimistic that hed be found quickly. He'll be caught or killed eventually, Pentagon officials insist, but no one seems willing to bet on when.

Instead, senior officers are gloating that their first battle was waged and won on the Pentagon's terms, not in reaction to the politicians or the press. Put together hurriedly after 9/11, the first battle has proceeded with an almost religious adherence to a schedule that ignored diplomatic, media and political distractions. "This war is going exactly as we wanted it to go," one Pentagon official boasted. "We're doing exactly what we wanted to do. And we're doing it on our timetable, not the 24-hour news cycle."

A new kind of war?

[an error occurred while processing this directive]Already Naval officers are privately crowing that the Afghan war has been practically an all-Navy show. Fully ninety percent of the air sorties have been flown by carrier-based planes, and the largest ground contingent in Afghanistan is the Marines, who are part of the Department of the Navy. Navy men privately fumed during the 1991 Desert Storm War because the Air Force dominated the air war. But in Afghanistan, "this is the Navy's war," one sea-going officer said proudly.

In other parts of the Pentagon, military strategists are mulling the possibility that the Afghan battle will be a template for a revolution in warfare against rogue nations. In the future, precision air attacks and bombs much smarter than the ones dropped during Desert Storm will be guided to their targets by small commando contingents on the ground. The air-commando force will destroy strategic centers of gravity with few U.S. casualties. There won't be a need for so many conventional Army divisions, particularly the heavy ones with tanks that take forever to get to foreign battlefields. The Army, as you can guess, is not too excited about this idea.

The elusive mastermind

Despite the near-euphoria over battle successes, bin Laden remains a loose end for the Pentagon. The generals know he eventually has to be found (dead or alive) for the military victory to be complete. There are positive signs: U.S. intelligence believes that senior al-Qaeda operatives posing as foot soldiers are sprinkled among the some 1,000 prisoners controlled by anti-Taliban forces. American commandos and Afghan fighters are still rooting through the caves of Tora Bora; they've checked more than a hundred so far. Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf has promised the White House his forces are watching the border with Afghanistan — and will turn bin Laden over to the U.S. if he's caught.

But that's still a big if. There are still several hundred more caves to be checked, and even in those that have been searched, U.S. commandos can't be sure that they've covered every entrance or exit. Spotting bin Laden, if he tries to cross the border into Pakistan, may be difficult. In one part of Tora Bora alone, a U.S. intelligence source tells me, there are some 240 roads and trails leading to Pakistan. "It's going to be a while before we find him," this source predicts.