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U.S. Beginning to Look Past Taliban for Next Move

Strategy: Emboldened by successes in Afghanistan, the Bush administration considers the rewards and risks of broadening the war on terrorism.


WASHINGTON — Afghan Taliban rulers have been routed, the Al Qaeda terror network breached and Osama bin Laden put on the run, a fugitive with a $25-million bounty on his head. Suddenly, some important goals in President Bush's war on terrorism seem within grasp.

"A despotic regime is on its last legs," proclaimed Secretary of State Colin Powell after a series of military successes for U.S.-backed opposition forces.

American officials caution that much remains to be done--militarily and politically--before victory can be declared in Afghanistan.

Clearly, the biggest unclaimed prize remains Bin Laden himself, the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, a man Bush has said he wants "dead or alive."

The recent U.S. advances could help stoke international support for Bush's larger objective of confronting and dismantling "every terrorist group of global reach."

Big order, U.S. officials concede.

They offer few details on specific goals beyond Afghanistan. For instance, is Iraq next? What about terrorist cells in Syria and Iran? No one will say.

The U.S.-led campaign "is still on phase one, which is not yet complete," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer says.

In his Sept. 20 speech to Congress, Bush demanded the surrender of Bin Laden and his lieutenants, the destruction of terrorist training camps and the release of "all foreign nationals," a reference to eight Christian aid workers imprisoned by the Taliban.

The aid workers, including two Americans, were rescued earlier this month as the Taliban fled the Afghan capital of Kabul. Al Qaeda training camps have been flattened by U.S. bombs. Bin Laden remains at large, but Mohammed Ataf, his top deputy and Al Qaeda's military chief, was killed in a bombing raid.

Separately, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld issued a set of specific goals when the U.S. airstrikes began Oct. 7. They included:

* Acquiring intelligence necessary for planning attacks against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

* Changing "the military balance over time" away from the Taliban, in part through ties with anti-Taliban groups such as the Northern Alliance.

* Frustrating Al Qaeda's ability to use Afghanistan freely as a base and showing Taliban rulers that harboring terrorists "carries a price."

* Providing humanitarian relief to Afghans.

Nearly all these objectives have been met.

In fact, the pace of achieving the military goals was outstripping the search for a post-Taliban administration. Establishment of an ethnically diverse, broad-based new government for Afghanistan has become another U.S. objective.

"From a U.S. prospective, the events of the past week are a bewildering success," said Steve Cimbala, a Penn State University professor who specializes in international terrorism. "The question becomes, where do we go next?"

"I get nervous when public officials, especially presidents, state objectives as grandiose as, 'We're going to stamp out terrorism,' " Cimbala said.

Still, Bush sought to build on that momentum when he repeated the larger aims of the anti-terrorism campaign.

"Afghanistan is just the beginning of the war against terror," he told a military audience in Kentucky. "Across the world, and across the years, we will fight these evil ones and we will win."

Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said Arab and Muslim states, in particular, are paying close attention.

"When it looked like we were getting bogged down, then they were even more firmly sitting on the fence. Now, we look like winners. And efficacy counts for everything in this part of the world, which increases our leverage," Indyk said.

He said the next phase "is going to become of much more interest, particularly in the Middle East, as it looks like we are achieving our objectives in Afghanistan."

Progress also was reported on other fronts. Justice Department officials cited headway in the international effort to choke Al Qaeda's source of funds.

"Some of our goals are on the way to being accomplished, but it's by no means over. Not the military part, not the political part," said Judith Kipper, a Middle East analyst with the private Council on Foreign Relations.

"These things always have phases," she added. "And, obviously, there's not much left in Afghanistan to bomb."

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