At some point, a former senior official agreed, "You hope you get the 'intel hit' "--a fix on Bin Laden's location, allowing a direct strike against him.
But the right combination of bombing, special operations and Afghan opposition fighting on the ground may take some time, which is why the Bush administration sought diplomatic support from many countries and the right to use bases in Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia and Oman.
"The diplomacy has been very impressive, but I think the diplomacy is pretty much complete now," said L. Paul Bremer III, a former State Department counter-terrorism chief. "Until now, there have been political arguments for holding off. But the only thing that needs to be done now is for the military to assure the president that he has adequate forces in place to launch hostilities. And I would expect that will begin soon."
Along the way, the United States has acquired two more missions: feeding millions of starving Afghans inside and outside the ravaged nation's borders, and stabilizing a new Afghan government if and when the Taliban falls.
President Bush embraced the first humanitarian mission enthusiastically this week, announcing $320 million in food aid--some of which likely will be dropped inside the country by air.
Rumsfeld said he had "no doubt" that airdrops would occur, but said they would come only after it was clear that the Taliban's antiaircraft weapons--including Stinger missiles initially supplied by the CIA during the country's conflict with the Soviets--"would not pose a problem."
As for the longer-term reconstruction of Afghanistan, Bush tried to turn that aside, telling reporters, "We don't do nation-building."
But his own aides began focusing on that mission last week, and a senior State Department official, Richard Haass, was dispatched to Rome to talk with Afghanistan's 86-year-old deposed king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, who has offered to help form a new government.
"We don't do nation-building, but we may have to do some in this case," said Arnold Kanter, who was a senior official in former President Bush's administration. "We wouldn't feel good if the outcome of our action is a bunch of warlords going after each other again. . . . But even if you accept only modest criteria for a new Afghan government--that it treat its people humanely and not harbor terrorists--it's not a gimme."