WASHINGTON — As U.S. troops wage their fiercest battles yet in Afghanistan, President Bush's war on terrorism is spreading to other dangerous battlefronts in a global campaign with no apparent end or boundaries.
In a strategy reminiscent of the Cold War, U.S. military trainers, advisers and special forces troops are offering their expertise to virtually any potential ally. More than 600 U.S. military personnel are already at work in the Philippines. Others will soon head to Yemen and Georgia, a country that was part of the former Soviet Union.
Pentagon planners are exploring possible missions in Somalia and Sudan. Iraq, Iran and North Korea _ the three countries that Bush branded the "axis of evil" - remain top targets. The Bush administration also is looking for ways to provide military assistance to Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, and to increase involvement in Colombia, where the government is struggling against a 17,000-member rebel army.
The war's expansion has taken the anti-terrorism campaign to a second phase, with a host of new risks. In nearly every theater of operations, U.S. military advisers will have to deal with fanatical enemies, unreliable allies and complex local rivalries. The spreading war also will put new strains on the Defense Department, the intelligence community and the international coalition that found common cause in Afghanistan.
White House and Defense Department officials acknowledge they have no idea where, when or how the anti-terrorism campaign will end. Members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network are believed to have cells in more than 60 countries.
"We're in for a long struggle," Bush told a group of Iowa Republicans recently. "It's going to require patience of the American people."
Six months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, public and congressional support for Bush's strategy remains strong. But voices of dissent - or at least caution - are emerging as the scope of the effort comes into focus.
For some, the escalating war on terrorism stirs uncomfortable memories of Vietnam, where U.S. involvement started with a small number of advisers and ended with 58,000 American soldiers dead.
"This makes Vietnam look like a piece of cake," said Stanley Karnow, a Vietnam War historian. "My apocalyptic view is that World War III began on Sept. 11. Afghanistan may turn out to be the easiest battlefield of all."
Pentagon officials say they are fully aware of the difficulty and risks of a global engagement.
The strains already are starting to show. More than 70,000 reservists have been called up, stocks of precision-guided munitions are running low and the war is costing about $1.8 billion a month.
"The end game? I don't know," one senior Defense Department official said, insisting on anonymity. "This is a long-term thing. How can you ever count on having shut down every terrorist cell? The hope is to defeat al-Qaida and to demoralize the terrorists and Islamic extremists to the point that it subsides."
In a worst-case scenario, the United States could find itself at war with Iraq and North Korea while dealing with a handful of smaller regional conflicts. That seems unlikely, but other dangers loom as more possible threats.
Most of the new or contemplated battlegrounds in the expanded anti-terrorism war are in unstable countries embroiled in complex ethnic, tribal or religious conflicts. Each new theater of operations comes with unique challenges, forcing U.S. officials to adjust strategies and tactics.
"I don't think you can fit any of these countries into prefabricated bottles," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., a Vietnam veteran and a leading voice on foreign policy. "That's why it's so difficult for us. There is no one standard model or blueprint you can play across the board."
Some of the most likely trouble spots:
- The Philippines. Some 160 Navy SEALs, U.S. Army Green Berets, Marine and Air Force special operations troops, backed by about 500 support and technical troops, are engaged in a six-month effort to help the Filipino government crush the Abu Sayyaf, an Islamic criminal organization that specializes in kidnapping.
The group has two American hostages, Martin and Gracia Burnham, missionaries from Wichita, Kan. It demonstrated its brutality last year by decapitating another U.S. captive, Guillermo Sobero of Corona, Calif.
Although Abu Sayyaf has previous ties to bin Laden, most experts think it is more interested in banditry than Islamic extremism or international terrorism.
The U.S. troops are supposed to provide technical support, training and advice, but some will accompany Filipino soldiers into combat and are authorized to defend themselves if attacked. The advisers will have to deal with a host army that has a history of human rights abuses and a well-equipped enemy that zips among the Philippines' 7,000 islands on high-powered speedboats.
Filipino nationalists and opposition politicians worry that the U.S. role will escalate if there are any American casualties. Filipino support for the mission could erode if the U.S. role grows.
American troops also face the risk of conflict with other Islamic militias in the Philippines, especially the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a separatist group that poses a far greater threat to the country's stability than Abu Sayyaf does.
"I think they're going to find it much more complicated than they expected," said Paul Hutchcroft, a Philippines expert at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "Anybody can look at this and see a number of major obstacles to any kind of quick success. It's necessary for the U.S. military to be tiptoeing, and that's not the forte of the U.S. military."
- Yemen. The details of American involvement are still under negotiation, but the Yemeni government has asked for military assistance, helicopters and communications equipment to root out al-Qaida elements.
The terrorist threat in Yemen, a country of about 18 million people on the Arabian Peninsula, became obvious in October 2000 when suicide bombers drove a boat loaded with explosives into the USS Cole in Aden. The explosion killed 17 sailors and wounded more than 35.
Bin Laden's family came from Yemen, and the suspected architect of the Sept. 11 attacks still has relatives there.
Although Yemen requested U.S. help, it may prove to be an unreliable ally. The overwhelmingly Muslim country borders Saudi Arabia, a center of extremist Islamic ideology, and its network of local warlords resembles Afghanistan's.
The Yemenis "don't want to go out and put a stick in a hornet's nest. They don't want to do anything more than they have to do," said Charles Dunbar, a former ambassador to Yemen and the head of the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. "Yemen is, in many ways, a carbon copy of Afghanistan. It could get very bad."
- Georgia. The Pentagon is expected next week to detail plans to provide training and hardware to help the former Soviet republic go after al-Qaida fighters who are hunkered down in a lawless northern valley known as the Pankisi Gorge.
The gorge, which borders Russia's strife-torn republic of Chechnya, is also a base for Chechen rebels, whose fight for an independent Muslim country was aided by money, arms and personnel sent by bin Laden and Afghanistan's former Taliban regime.
Georgian officials say some 200 U.S. trainers will help 1,500 Georgian officers and soldiers create a rapid deployment force that specializes in anti-terrorist operations. The United States already has sent Georgia 10 unarmed Huey transport helicopters, under a deal that was arranged before the war on terrorism.
Officials of both governments say the Americans will not participate in combat operations. But the planned U.S. presence has angered some senior Russian officials, who view the region as their traditional sphere of influence. Russia has troops in Georgia's rebellious republic of Abkhazia, preventing the Georgian government from regaining control of the area.
A major risk of American involvement is the possibility that a crackdown on al-Qaida fighters could claim casualties among Chechen rebels and refugees who are living in Georgia, inviting retaliation by the battle-hardened Chechen forces.
"The risk of mission creep there is quite large," said Fiona Hill, a specialist on the Caucasus region at the Brookings Institution, a centrist policy research center in Washington. "We don't have particularly good intelligence. There's an incredibly difficult political situation on the ground. There's instability across the whole region."
Another senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the program would focus on respect for human rights and ways to avoid civilian casualties.
- Indonesia. Islamic militants who trained in bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan are believed to be scattered across the country in cells that are part of al-Qaida.
Current U.S. law prohibits American military training and equipment for Indonesia because of its brutality against pro-independence voters in East Timor in 1999.
Congress in December approved a measure that would allow Indonesian officers to receive "nonlethal training" at U.S. military educational institutions, including education in the laws of war and human rights.
But even if that training can go forward, the cooperation may amount to little. The government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri has been less than enthusiastic about participating in the U.S.-led anti-terrorism campaign.
The government, struggling to contain ethnic and religious unrest, fears that participation in the campaign could provoke a backlash by Indonesia's 170 million Muslims, many of whom oppose the American-led military operations in Afghanistan.
- Colombia. Although not directly linked to the war on terrorism, escalating U.S. involvement in Colombia would put more strains on the Defense Department.
Support is building at the White House and in Congress to loosen limits on military assistance to Colombia's beleaguered government, which has been unable to contain a surge in attacks by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
The rebels have no known links to al-Qaida, but have become increasingly fond of terrorist tactics. Colombia leads the world in kidnappings, with more than 3,000 annually. At least 14 American kidnapping victims have been murdered.
(correspondent James Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.)
McClatchy Newspapers 2007