ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – With Friday's announcement that 1,000 U.S. soldiers were on their way to Uzbekistan – the first acknowledged deployment of troops in the region – many Americans were asking one simple question.
What's taking so long?
Much of the U.S. public and the international community has been waiting for almost a month for the Bush administration to strike back at Usama bin Laden, his Al Qaeda network and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan that supports them both. Yet we still haven't seen anything like the videos of sleek, exploding cruise missiles that became staples of military press briefings ever since the Persian Gulf War.
"That’s what I call 'feel-good bombing,'" said Donald Snow, a political-science professor specializing in national security at the University of Alabama, in Tuscaloosa. "It makes you feel good but it doesn't accomplish much of anything."
Snow is the author of the recently published book When America Fights, about potential U.S. military engagements at the beginning of the 21st century.
In fact, according to Stratfor.com global security expert Victor Gubareff, an immediate strike, while viscerally satisfying to Americans, would probably do more harm to U.S. interests than good.
"You might get some the air defenses or military bases, but you're certainly not going to get Usama bin Laden or major military infrastructure," he said.
He noted that other cruise-missile strikes against bin Laden, if anything, increased the alleged terrorist mastermind's stature in the world without even slowing him or his Al Qaeda network down.
Officials have already warned against instant gratification by saying repeatedly this will be a very different type of military operation. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld indicated as much Thursday during his trip to the Middle East and Central Asia, when he said the coming battle may involve less use of military forces than is commonly assumed.
"It undoubtedly will prove to be a lot more like a cold war than a hot war,'' Rumsfeld said in an interview from his Cairo hotel room. "In the Cold War it took 50 years, plus or minus. It did not involve major battles. It involved continuous pressure."
Hitting back at bin Laden certainly won't take that long. But setting up the forces that will be used will take weeks if not months, Rumsfeld and other officials have suggested.
There are an estimated 30,000 troops in or on their way to the region, including three aircraft carrier battle groups, thousands of Marines, hundreds of aircraft and an unspecified number of special operations forces.
But the first and most pressing problem in any operation is to identify the targets. And that hasn't been easy in this case. U.S. military planners freely admit they don't know the location of their prime target – bin Laden himself – or any number of his hideaways.
The U.S. government's boasts about having identified some two dozen terrorist camps in the country are empty, Gubareff said.
"All these camps are surely abandoned," he said. "They're not going to stay around. They're not stupid."
In fact, Gubareff and Snow said, the U.S. has close to no intelligence in the country, meaning that any action it takes would be blind.
"Prior to Sept. 11, we probably had no contingency plans to attack anything in Afghanistan and could barely find it on a map," Snow said. "So now we have to start from zero."
Once the targets are identified, military planners will still have to decide where to base their operations, and how they would be staged and reinforced. That would be an easier question to answer in Europe or the Persian Gulf, where the United States could rely on NATO bases or modern facilities established during the Gulf War a decade ago.
For this operation, the U.S. had to instead approach a host of semi-friendly countries that have offered less-than-ideal political and military climates for American forces. Those countries included Pakistan, which was under sanctions by the West when the crisis began, and the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Pakistan, full of Taliban sympathizers, could be pushed over the edge into political chaos if American troops are stationed there – and that's not a welcome prospect for anyone, because Pakistan has nuclear weapons. And it's not clear exactly what leeway the U.S. military has in that other prime location for a ground assault, Uzbekistan. Depending on what home base is chosen, operations will have to take into account factors like the fact that planes aren't allowed to fly over Iran, making a western approach exceedingly inconvenient.
Ideally, the U.S. would work with opposition groups inside Afghanistan as well. But Afghan Northern Alliance politics is a tangle of mixed loyalties, old grudges and constant betrayal. The assassination of charismastic alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud shortly before the Sept. 11 attacks may have set U.S. plans back even further.
And once the matter of allies and allied bases is settled, there's still the problem that has befuddled would-be attackers for centuries: Afghanistan is among the most daunting landscapes that soldiers have ever had to face.
"As history will demonstrate, there is no good place from which to attack Afghanistan," Snow said. "Everybody who's tried to conquer that place has found out. It's one of the most godforsaken places on the earth."
Mountainous, barren and tortured by extremes of weather, the Central Asian crossroads nation could be a set from "Star Trek." The terrain is so treacherous it can take a man a week to traverse 20 miles. Some parts are completely inaccessible to motorized vehicles, as the Soviets discovered before shifting the focus of their operations to helicopter gunships. But the Soviets then learned that even their modern helicopters were vulnerable to a single surefooted mujahideen with a shoulder-mounted Stinger missile.
The cave-riddled badlands might even prove to be impervious to the strategies favored by people like former defense secretary Casper Weinberger. He said that "when we have identified the targets … we have to destroy them," as the U.S. did with a 200-plane raid on Libya after the bombing of a Berlin discotheque.
"You could bomb them for months and you wouldn't get them," former British Special Air Services soldier and mujahideen trainer Tom Carew said on Fox News Channel. "You can't bomb them out of their caves.
"The terrain is just about the toughest in the world in which to fight."
The American military simply may not be ready for such a battleground. The Taliban can draw on former mujahideen used to climbing and fighting on 10,000-foot heights bathed in blood since Alexander the Great invaded in 329 B.C. The Army's only high-altitude unit, the 10th Mountain Division out of Ft. Drum, trains in the Catskill Mountains, an area known mostly as a summer resort for middle-class New Yorkers.
And then there's the murderous Afghan winter.
"I'm sure the Americans have looked at the calendar, but I hope they realize winter in Afghanistan is just a few weeks away," one retired Pakistani military officer said. "I don't know how well those special forces have trained, but they'd better be darn well prepared if they're going into those hills in December and January."
Military experts here noted the winters are sometimes even too tough for the Taliban and their enemies, the Northern Alliance. Many forces on both sides of the conflict simply go home for the winter and resume their battle in the spring, the retired officer said.
To put it simply, Gubareff said, the United States may soon be in a fight in the most dangerous place in the world.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.