WASHINGTON - The war on terrorism after Afghanistan could focus on denying terrorist groups sanctuary in places such as Somalia, Yemen, Indonesia and the Philippines, countries where they have sometimes operated freely, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said yesterday.
Wolfowitz's remarks, in an interview, provided one of the clearest outlines of the military's strategy for the evolving war on terrorism.
Although Wolfowitz has a reputation as one of the more aggressive members of President Bush's war council, his statements suggested that the Pentagon could opt to put off the bigger but politically more difficult targets in the war on terrorism, such as Iraq, and thus avoid conflict with some of its most important Arab and European allies, which have been leery of taking on Baghdad.
Instead, Wolfowitz said, the military is engaged with friendly countries, such as the Philippines and Indonesia, that would welcome U.S. help in ridding themselves of terrorist networks. The Pentagon is also looking hard at possible terror bases in countries such as Somalia and Yemen that are weakly governed and ill equipped to uproot them.
Wolfowitz stressed that he was not providing an explicit forecast for the next step in the war on terrorism and that the Pentagon had not ruled out imminent military action against any country.
But he has been one of the leading advocates in the administration for ousting President Saddam Hussein of Iraq. And he seemed to signal to Iraq and other state sponsors of terrorism that unless they stopped harboring terrorists, they could face increased diplomatic, financial and, if necessary, military pressure from the United States.
He asserted that the United States' devastating air campaign in Afghanistan had induced many nations that had supported terrorism to change their ways and that it would serve as a powerful deterrent against acts of terrorism.
"I'd say almost everywhere one has seen progress," he said. "A lot of that progress is motivated by the sense of American seriousness and the fear of getting on the wrong side of us. To the extent that's the motivation, then obviously you don't want to issue a report card on those people and have them let up, because they're not doing it out of the goodness of their heart."
He also asserted that the Pentagon's main focus remained Afghanistan, which he described as being "at least as treacherous and dangerous now as it was a month or two ago." Last week, a special forces soldier was killed in an ambush near the Pakistan border, an attack that a Pentagon spokesman called yesterday "a setup." Also, remnants of Taliban and al-Qaida forces continue to operate in southern and eastern Afghanistan.
Pentagon officials said yesterday that U.S. B-52 and B-1 bombers had continued attacking one terrorist enclave near the Pakistan border in an attempt to destroy heavily armed al-Qaida forces that have been trying to regroup. The bombers struck the base at Zawar Kili, near the town of Khost, on Sunday for the third time in a week, trying to destroy tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery and other heavy weapons left there, officials said.
"One of the most difficult things in the next few months is going to be establishing which of our allies of convenience in the early stages of this war can become real allies over the longer term, and which ones are going to be major troublemakers, and which ones are going to just switch sides," Wolfowitz said in the interview.