WASHINGTON - Now comes the hard part in Afghanistan.
In the shadows, U.S. and British special operations forces are gearing up to go in on the ground.
Citing the need for secrecy, Pentagon officials are reluctant to talk about the prospect of Green Beret troops and other special operators who can be expected to soon swoop in low on heavily armored helicopters from Uzbekistan or the USS Kitty Hawk in the north Arabian Sea. They may even slip across the border by truck or beast of burden, dressed in native garb.
Anti-Taliban rebels say that U.S. and British special operations troops linked with them weeks ago, collecting targeting information and other intelligence. "There is a limited presence of special troops with us in Afghanistan," said Daoud Mir, a special envoy in Washington for the anti-Taliban United Front, also called the Northern Alliance.
Pentagon officials say that Navy strike aircraft and Air Force bombers rule the skies in Afghanistan, after using precision weaponry for the past week to damage the Taliban regime's armaments, radar facilities and aircraft.
Appearing on a Pentagon video, those shattered warplanes looked like a child's broken toys on a beige carpet. There has been little Taliban resistance, save for a few rockets and some anti-aircraft artillery that exploded in puffs far below the high-flying U.S. planes.
Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the air attacks are "stage-setters for follow-on operations."
"Some of these efforts will be visible, but many will not," he told reporters.
'You increase the risk'
Current and former military officers realize the relatively safe aspect of Operation Enduring Freedom is coming to an end. The scores or hundreds of special operators on the ground will face tenacious and hunkered-down terrorists and Taliban militia, a forbidding climate and terrain, millions of land mines, an uncertain amount of workable intelligence and a disparate group of anti-Taliban rebels whose loyalty and military skills are not fully known.
"Any time you put feet on the ground, you increase the risk," said retired Gen. Charles C. Krulak, the former commandant of the Marine Corps. "There are so many things that can happen."
One special operations officer who has worked in the region said the ground effort is doable but difficult.
"It's going to take time. It's going to take a long period, months," he said. "What's the whole goal? It's not just Osama Bin Laden but the whole network. They've been at this thing for years. They know the caves. They have comfortable, well-stocked hideouts."
'All depends on intelligence'
The officer said victory "all depends on intelligence" - in other words, pinpointing the location of the terrorists. So far, Pentagon officials say, they always seem to be a step behind bin Laden; he never sleeps in the same place twice.
The special forces bring to the fight hand-to-hand combat and weapons skills. Their units operate with a dozen or fewer soldiers, from snipers and medics to experts in communications, weaponry and demolition. They boast that they can adapt to any situation.
"They're trained to shoot and survive and be stealthy and fast," the officer said. "The thing that makes them so different is they plan to the nth degree and they rehearse every single contingency, every single what-if."
Still, there have been times when the special operations forces have let their guard down. "Not having contingency plans is what killed them in Somalia. Two helicopters down and no contingency," said one retired officer who served with a Special Forces Group, referring to the deaths of 18 Army Rangers and elite Delta Force commandos in the disastrous search for Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid in 1993.
It was rocket-propelled grenades that brought down those Blackhawk helicopters in Somalia. In Afghanistan similar grenades and more-feared Stinger shoulder-fired missiles that have a range of 15,000 feet could prove deadly to helicopters, which normally fly below that altitude. "Those things would be something the helicopters would worry about," said the special operations officer.
At the same time, the twin scourges of terrain and weather in Afghanistan could hamper military operations, some suggest.
The landscape is brown and treeless, with mountains in northern Afghanistan rising to about 18,000 feet. November snows in some of the handful of mountain passes make transportation all but impossible. Temperatures can fall well below zero.
The troops need to move in on the ground "fairly quickly," a retired senior officer said. If operations are not well along by the onset of winter, "the psychological advantage goes to the other side." Another retired officer said that special operators are skilled in mountains, deserts, woodlands and swamps but doubted that they have much experience in caves, where bin Laden and his network are thought to be hiding.
"We don't do caves," said the officer. "I don't remember a cave training site."
Mines hidden under the harsh Afghan landscape provide another hazard. "Millions," replied a Pentagon official last week, when asked how many. "The Russians know where a lot of them are." Afghan fighters of every stripe have laid others over the past two decades.
The International Campaign to Ban Landmines said in its Landmine Monitor that last year there were an average of 88 casualties per month attributed to land mines and unexploded ordnance in Afghanistan.
Some military officers dismiss the concerns about the cold and the snow and the mines. They argue that special operations forces - and notably the 10th Mountain Division soldiers now based in Uzbekistan - are skilled fighters in harsh, cold weather and in any type of terrain, even caves.
An Army officer said land mines shouldn't be a problem for the special operations forces, who will most likely drop in by helicopter, avoiding the paths and roads where mines would be laid.
Besides trying to obtain maps showing the location of mines, the military also has anti-mine devices that can help, added one Pentagon official. "We think we can deal with the mine threat pretty effectively," he said.
The lack of tree cover or foliage could make it harder for the terrorists and Taliban militia to hide from allied forces, said one Army officer. Moreover, in winter, the enemy's body heat or his cooking fires might be detected by thermal imagery systems. If they try to communicate by radio or phone, their electronic transmissions can be picked up by eavesdropping equipment.
"If they communicate, we're going to get them," said a Green Beret officer. "If they pick up a cell phone or a land line, we're going to vector in."
Genghis Khan's tactics
The special operators may be able to wait out the terrorists - "Even extremists grow tired" - or simply use superior technology and techniques to corner or surround them.
Such tactics may well resemble those employed by the Mongol invaders who rode through the region in the 13th century, using the latest techniques of the day: warriors on horseback armed with heavy-duty bows. "Genghis Khan kept circling and walking toward the center," an officer said.
The anti-Taliban rebels are an open question. The Northern Alliance, a loose collection of ethnic minority Uzbeks and Tajiks, continues to press for U.S. air cover as it battles Taliban forces on a front that stretches from north of Kabul, the capital, to Mazar-e Sharif in the northwestern part of the country to Chaghcharan in north-central Afghanistan.
The Northern Alliance has seen some battlefield successes and claims that more than 1,200 soldiers have defected from the Taliban forces to their ranks since the U.S. bombardment began a week ago - numbers the Pentagon cannot confirm.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said the United States hopes the Northern Alliance and other groups succeed against the Taliban, but he has been silent on direct combat support.
Some officials privately say they don't want to be seen as tilting to one group within Afghanistan, while others acknowledge that open support of the Northern Alliance would alienate Pakistan, a key American ally in the Afghanistan campaign, but one that opposes the Northern Alliance.
Pakistan is a key ally in the area. Last week, C-17 cargo planes began flying into two Pakistani airfields, which will be used for refueling and combat search-and-rescue teams.
Yet former military officers and some members of Congress are pressing for support to the alliance, as well as the other anti-Taliban forces, such as southern tribes and disaffected members of the Taliban, who are largely ethnic Pashtun.
Retired U.S. Army Gen. George Joulwan, former supreme commander of NATO, said it makes military sense to support the alliance. "They've already got a toehold," he said. "I think the Northern Alliance knows that territory better than we do. I would try to make them successful."
Providing covering fire for the alliance could open up a large swath of Afghanistan, providing staging areas for military operations stretching from the Uzbekistan border to Kabul, said Joulwan.
Worries about winter
Rep. Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican who met with alliance members in Rome this month, also backs military help for those rebels. "We only have a two-month window here" before winter sets in, Weldon said.
Another supporter, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, said "a major decision has to be made" by the Bush administration, which is debating how to proceed with the rebel groups.
Rohrabacher said he is convinced that a decision will soon be made to support the rebels. But a diplomat from the region cautioned about the ripple effects of open support for the Northern Alliance should it advance on Kabul and other major cities. "That will solidify the Pashtuns, and there will be civil war," he predicted.
Said one senior defense official on Friday: "Afghanistan makes Bosnia look homogeneous." Creating a stable new government there will be difficult, he added, but the descent into partisan warfare is "even worse" for the region.
Into this ethnic and warlike cauldron will step U.S. ground forces, although many say in relatively small numbers. Adm. Sir Michael Boyce, the chief of the British defense staff, said last week that allied military action could last well into next summer.
Asked about that likelihood Friday, Rumsfeld paused.
"I don't have any idea how long it will take," he finally said.