Washington While managing the endgame of the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, the Bush White House also gives serious thought to what comes next in its war on global terrorism and to the long-term significance of the eclectic battlefield strategy it has improvised in Central Asia.
Phase Two of the terrorism war will focus on Sudan, Somalia, Yemen or any other weak state where Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network might try "to regenerate itself," says an official with knowledge of White House thinking. "First we have to resolve the problem of al-Qaida in Afghanistan, and then resolve the problem of al-Qaida elsewhere."
This analysis will confound both hawks and doves who have rushed into a premature debate over striking Iraq hard and next in the war on terrorism. Each camp, for its own reasons, wants to tie the hands of a president who has insisted on keeping options open at each step.
This does not mean that Bush is ruling out extending the war on terrorism into Iraq at some point. But he is not ready to make that decision now. "There has been no serious discussion of it" by the president's principal advisers, I was told.
The extemporaneous approach to the Afghan war was set early in a White House meeting involving President Bush, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and a few others. Rice, a dedicated Cleveland Browns fan, used a football analogy to alert the president to what lay ahead:
"We will be calling audibles every time we come to the line," one participant recalls Rice saying to Bush then. Bush as coach would set the game plan. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his generals would then change tactics as they saw opportunity or need. That quick-change quality will carry on into Phase Two, which still could turn to Iraq if it offers aid to al-Qaida.
I asked Rice this week about the next steps in the war. She declined to discuss operational details. But she laid out elements of what can now be called the Bush Doctrine that point unmistakably to weak, pliable states as being of more immediate concern to her and to Bush than is Iraq:
"You have to be willing to root out terrorists where you find them. And you have to do it in a way that destroys the network" and its command and control system, she said. "Al-Qaida isn't just state sponsored. It hijacked a state" to set up training camps and use all of Afghanistan's assets for terrorism.
"The Bush Doctrine emphasizes that states are responsible for what goes on inside their borders," whether they cooperate in or merely tolerate that activity, she continued. "The president is saying that those who harbor terrorists will be treated as terrorists themselves." This was correctly seen as an important shift, she noted, and gave rise to media descriptions of a doctrine.
Bush aides estimate that 30 to 40 countries have al-Qaida cells on their territory. "Afghanistan is not going to be available for bin Laden's terror work, and we have to make sure another site does not open up somewhere else," said one aide, specifically noting Sudan, Somalia and Yemen as countries of concern and potential targets for Phase Two.
"We are willing to work with states that want to do better in making sure their territory and assets are not used for the purposes of terrorism," Rice told me. I took this to be a positively worded but clear warning that time is running out on countries that have tolerated or encouraged al-Qaida activity. The unvarnished version of the message: Clean up your act. Now. Or else.
Marrying strategic air power to horseback charges has been only one feature of the "adaptive planning" that Bush aides say distinguishes the Afghan campaign. They also find, not surprisingly, confirmation of some of their bigger ideas as well.
"All the talk in the last decade was that the missions for American forces abroad would be exclusively in humanitarian and peacekeeping operations," said one official. "That turns out to be wrong. This campaign already shows that the world needs a big, technologically sophisticated force that can break itself into parts to be used in pretty unconventional ways. What we are seeing is military transformation happening on the ground."
I suspect the administration currently underestimates the terrorist logrolling that has gone on between Baghdad and al-Qaida. But it is clear to me that Bush still has Saddam Hussein on his screen. The question right now is not if, but when and rightly so.
Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.