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Rumors of war

Special Report | Job No. 1 for the United States is fighting the global war on terror, but problems around the world simmering since well before Sept. 11 are threatening to come to a boil

Issue: "Global shame," June 15, 2002

At the Pentagon it's known as GWOT, an acronym bearing the imprint of the president who came into office swearing off nation-building and refusing to meddle in the affairs of far-off nations. Now he finds both things central to Job No. 1: the Global War on Terrorism.

U.S. response began on the morning of Sept. 11 when officials shut North American airspace to block further incoming terror strikes. Historians will sift the details of what must become the most unconventional war to date but perhaps a suitable first war of the 21st century. They will note the financial freezes and manhunts and paper trails searched from Munich to Malaysia, the sudden fame of a Florida flight school, the mysterious deaths of a recreational hunter and postal workers, nasal swabs of bureaucrats and lawmakers, and how an earthquake-an earthquake!-shook New Yorkers back into the streets in the middle of an autumn night.

Pentagon officials now say they began to formulate a battle plan for Afghanistan Sept. 12 while the smell of jet fuel still permeated the halls at headquarters. That day orders went out to ship senior commanders to Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. By Sept. 24, they say, they were ready to attack. On Oct. 5 the word came, and the first B-2 Stealth bomber took off from Diego Garcia bound for Afghanistan with two pilots only on board. During that 41-hour mission, the pilots took turns at the controls between naps in a discount-store lawn chair. The first Stealth bomber flew two complete missions-84 hours-without turning off its engines, dropped 16 bombs, and lost only one-half quart of oil.

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Navy fighters flying from three aircraft carriers commenced a 95-a-day rate of sorties over Afghanistan that would continue through the opening days of the war. Unmanned Predators and Global Hawks, both crafts technically in testing phase, also took to the air over Afghanistan, bringing near-real-time images back to command posts. At the same time, Air Force cargo planes took off from Germany to drop thousands of food packets to Afghans. It was perhaps the first page of the epic in how U.S. forces go to war in the unipower, American Age.

The next page belongs to special forces, who became the yeomen of the war, fighting above altitudes for which they had trained, sometimes in three feet of snow, painting laser targets for the air forces above while penetrating cave strongholds below. Ground troops linked up with local forces, eventually crumbling the Taliban regime and setting al-Qaeda terrorists on the run. Twenty-four servicemen have died in the effort. Eight American journalists have been killed in Afghanistan, along with Daniel Pearl of The Wall Street Journal, who was killed in Pakistan while reporting on the war.

Now Pentagon officials are again at the drawing boards, tracing plans for other battlefields. They say they are planning not only for Iraq but also for Iran and sundry places where the United States may find itself challenged without advance warning. That includes, at present, India and Pakistan, where tensions along the border could quickly impinge on U.S. strategy and forces in the Afghan war.

And when war is over, reconstruction begins. Building lasting good government is the hard part. In Afghanistan tribal factions and infighting pose real threats to lasting peace. Tribal minorities still hold most of the power, which prohibits grassroots leadership from arising. U.S. officials are aware that today's interim government leaders are yesterday's warlords.

Relief worker Dan Cooper makes this analogy: "It's like the international community has taken a big old tree, cut it down then set it up in the middle of town. Everyone walks around the tree and says, 'Isn't it beautiful?' But when they walk away, the tree falls over."

Pakistan and India

America is either with us or with the terrorists," said Omar Abdullah, a member of India's parliament, after yet another attack across India's border in Kashmir by Islamic militants. Raids by armed extremists are keeping tensions high between the two. They force the United States to treat as a main event what should be a sideshow in the global war on terrorism.

India and Pakistan for 30 years have fought over Kashmir, a beautifully rugged and poor extremity of their shared 1,800-mile border. Since both countries tested nuclear weapons in 1998, an escalating conflict-as it is now playing out-poses risks beyond the remote area.

India began pouring troops along the border after Islamic militants attacked its parliament in December. Historically the militants conduct raids across the border and the better-armed Indian troops shell their Pakistan strongholds in return. Now both sides have nearly a million fighters stationed there and tension is high. Despite Pakistan's assistance in the war on terrorism, Islamic militants have not been removed from Pakistan's side of the border. President Pervez Musharraf has been tough on radical Islamic groups, but the Kashmir war of nerves displays just how entrenched are their roots in the country. When the militants storm an Indian camp, as they did on May 30, killing three policemen and wounding others, they threaten to turn the border standoff into a regional war. Daily casualties from the fighting are running up to several dozen killed and wounded.

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