U.S. forces are reportedly conducting scouting missions inside Afghanistan while American ships, planes and troops mass in the region. But Bush administration officials are downplaying the likelihood of imminent military strikes against terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden and his supporters in Afghanistan.
A senior Pentagon official on Friday dismissed recent published suggestions that a lack of solid intelligence information about Osama bin Laden's whereabouts is holding up U.S. military action.
Instead, this official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the overriding concern of military planners is how to communicate to the Afghan people in particular and the Muslim world in general that U.S. forces have no intention of striking out indiscriminately.
"We're only going after the bad guys," the official said, referring to terrorists and their supporters based in Afghanistan.
He said the Iraqi population now knows that when U.S. planes patrolling the so-called no-fly zones in the north and south of Iraq launch missiles, they are aimed at precise military targets and civilians can go about their business without fear.
But that is not the case in Afghanistan, leading to the military preoccupation with the communications question. However the official declined to discuss any communications strategies that may be under consideration.
The official conceded there have been benefits from the measured approach taken by the Bush administration to military action. He says it has helped the United States garner more support from countries that had been initially apprehensive about the American reaction to the September 11 strikes.
Meanwhile, General Henry Shelton, outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of the U.S. armed forces, told reporters that a quick military retaliation would be easy in a crisis. But he said it is not necessarily the most effective course of action, especially in pursuing those behind the September 11 suicide terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
"From a military standpoint, you know, it is very easy, when you're faced with a crisis, to default automatically to the military, because we can move fast and we can do things that will show up well in the television or in a newspaper, the general said. "On the other hand, if you really want to be effective, you have to understand that in some situations, such as the one that this country's faced with now, we have a lot of tools, and we'll be much more effective if we bring it together and apply it at the enemy's center of gravity."
Pentagon officials say it is hard to know what the real intent of the attackers was on September 11. But they do not rule out the possibility that the bloody terrorist strikes were specifically aimed not only at creating death and destruction, but also at provoking the U.S. military into hasty actions - actions that would be widely criticized among Muslims and Muslim countries and perhaps lead to even more terrorist strikes.