As the Bush administration intensifies talk about toppling Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, military officials are confronting what some see as a looming problem: that by launching a war in the Persian Gulf, the administration will divert attention and resources from the military campaign against al Qaeda and terrorism.
Although Pentagon officials are proceeding to refine plans for a war against Iraq, military officers warn that a major campaign in the Middle East would place a serious drain on intelligence gathering and Special Forces units, two central components of the military's efforts to hunt down al Qaeda and Taliban members in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
How to balance these conflicting stresses on U.S. forces is among the key factors being assessed by war planners, and could contribute to the shape and timing of any military campaign against Iraq. At the moment, with Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader, and his lieutenants still being sought along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan and elsewhere, some military officials worry that the administration may be shifting the focus to Iraq too soon.
"I'd prefer later than sooner," said a senior officer involved in the Pentagon's deliberations. "Can you imagine how it would look if we go to war against Iraq and there's another terrorist attack in the United States at the same time? People will wonder what we're doing."
Defense officials said that spy satellites, reconnaissance aircraft and other intelligence resources employed in Afghanistan would have to be concentrated even more heavily on the Gulf region if President Bush decides to attack Iraq. Additionally, Special Forces members who speak Arabic and Farsi or have other expertise in the region -- and in the past year have been used extensively in Afghanistan -- would likely be diverted to an Iraqi campaign.
Despite the increasingly forceful language of Vice President Cheney and other administration officials, military planners say that, barring a provocation by Iraq, no attack on Iraq is likely until January at the earliest. They note that the administration must complete military planning, move troops and equipment into place, negotiate basing and overflight agreements with regional allies, and consult with Congress before it could launch a war.
As they make the case for action against Iraq, advocates argue that taking on Hussein would not be a diversion from the war on terrorism but an essential complement to it. They cite what they say is Iraq's support of terrorist groups and the threat posed by Hussein's government as a source of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.
Some administration advisers have suggested that an invasion of Iraq could be mounted using a force much smaller than the more than 200,000 ground troops called for in larger options under consideration. But senior military officers familiar with the planning expect that arguments for a bigger force will prevail to ensure adequate troops for dealing with such worst-case situations as a prolonged battle to seize Baghdad.
Whatever doubts the Pentagon's top-ranked officers harbored earlier about moving against Iraq, they are said to be in agreement now that the United States could fight and win a war against Iraq. Where hesitations persist is over how quickly the campaign should be mounted. There also is continued concern about the absence of friendly nations siding with the United States and the lack of a clear plan for Iraq once Hussein is removed.
Worry in the armed services about widening the war effort was reflected in a question last week from a Marine sergeant at Camp Pendleton in California, who asked visiting Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld whether the United States has the resources and manpower to sustain conflicts on two fronts.
"You can be darn sure that you folks will not be asked to do anything that we won't be able to do, do darn well, and win," Rumsfeld replied. But Rumsfeld declined to reveal his thoughts about how long a new war in the Gulf would take and whether a protracted conflict would overtax the military.
Until last year, U.S. policy had required the Pentagon to be able to fight two major regional wars simultaneously. Many defense experts doubted that the armed forces were adequately equipped and manned to accomplish this. In a broad review of defense policy, the Bush administration changed the requirement, mandating that the armed forces be structured so they could secure a "decisive victory" in only one conflict at a time, even as U.S. commanders were directed to continue planning for the possibility of operating "in two theaters in overlapping timeframes."
With a war against Iraq looming, and counterterrorist operations underway in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the Pentagon appears on the cusp of reaching this limit, or exceeding it.
"I think it would be a three-front war," said Marine Lt. Gen. E.R. "Buck" Bedard, deputy commandant for plans, policies and operations, who nonetheless expressed confidence that the military was up to the job. "It would be Iraq, it would be globally everywhere else and it would be the threat back here in the United States, which we've never had to focus on before when we've gone out to prosecute something away from our shores."
Some of the initial demands on U.S. military forces imposed by the war on terrorism have eased in recent months. The numbers of warships and aircraft committed to the 11-month-old operation in Afghanistan have been scaled back, and Pentagon contractors have worked to replenish inventories of "smart" bombs that were used extensively in Afghanistan.
Boeing Co., which manufactures Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) -- the $20,000 kits that fit onto unguided bombs to turn them into precision weapons -- has ramped up deliveries from 750 a month last winter to 2,000 by the end of the year and 2,800 by next summer. Intercontinental Manufacturing Co., which makes unguided bombs, also recently received a Pentagon order to increase production, an Air Force spokesman said.
Additionally, the flurry of Pentagon counterterrorism initiatives last winter that sent military trainers and support teams into the Philippines, Yemen and Georgia has waned. The Philippine and Yemen missions ended this summer, and no new programs elsewhere have been announced.
Still, the war in Afghanistan remains a significant drain, with more than 7,000 troops in country, 2,200 Marines permanently positioned in the northern Arabian Sea and a Navy carrier battle group floating in the region.
U.S. troops, spearheaded by Special Forces teams, continue to scour the remote reaches of eastern Afghanistan on the assumption bin Laden and other senior al Qaeda members may be crossing back and forth from Pakistan and moving between mountain hideouts. At sea, U.S. naval forces in the region received orders last week to expand their interdiction operations to search not just for fleeing al Qaeda members but also for materiel that terrorists might use.
With the al Qaeda network weakened but far from defeated, senior Pentagon officers say the hunt for terrorists in Afghanistan and elsewhere is sure to rely heavily on a combination of timely intelligence and quick-response forces.
"The intel we get is very good, but the terrorists move frequently, so you need to be able to get the intel and do something about it quicker than they can move on to their next location," Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters last week.
Pace indicated that the scope for potential anti-terrorist action remains broad, rattling off a list of countries that included Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Lebanon, Syria, Libya, Georgia, Colombia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and North Korea.
"I may have missed one, I probably have," he said. "But all those places are either knowingly and willfully supporting terrorists or have terrorist organizations present."
Asked whether the United States had sufficient forces to wage war on Iraq as well as terrorism, retired Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton, who stepped down last autumn as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the issue was less one of resources, which he considers sufficient, but attention span, which he worries about.
"If we get drawn into something in Iraq, then our focus will go very heavily there, and it will be hard to sustain the momentum in the war on terrorism," he said. "That's the biggest danger that I see."