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Imagine American commandos engaged in cave-to-cave combat in the craggy mountains of Afghanistan, and lightning-quick raids on terrorist encampments in Lebanon.

Imagine American spies infiltrating shadowy nameless terror groups, and nations worldwide working to choke off Osama bin Laden's cash lifeline.

Imagine Arab nations quietly joining sides with America in a war that will appear in flashes, then fade, then reignite again in other places over the course of years.

And imagine more American deaths, abroad and maybe even at home, than in any war in 30 years.

That's what defense experts see when they look forward to America's new war on terrorism.

"It may be a war, but it will be a very different kind of war, unlike any we have ever fought," said Brent Scowcroft, who was national security adviser to former President George Bush.

To be specific, former national security advisers such as Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Robert MacFarlane suspect there won't be constant air raids and there won't be front lines and there won't be a D-Day.

Instead, there will be long and grueling military, financial and diplomatic battles that are likely to begin at any time with an attack in Afghanistan. That's where bin Laden, mastermind of the worldwide al-Qaida terror network, is thought to be hiding.

But American military forces would be seeking more than bin Laden. They would be seeking to destroy the terror camps he runs in Afghanistan's forbidding hills and to root out his accomplices, including members of the country's ruling Taliban regime.

"That's not something you do with cruise missiles and bombs falling from 30,000 feet," America's weapons of choice in the Persian Gulf War a decade ago, Scowcroft said.

But the war might start with falling bombs. Modern military conflict often begins with bombs dropped on airports and radio towers, prompting speculation that the airport and communications facilities in the Afghani capital of Kabul could be targeted.

Experts said intense bombing raids would quickly show the world that the United States is serious about avenging the carnage of the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center.

"There has to be some sort of response that can't be indefinitely delayed," said Brzezinski, national security adviser to former President Jimmy Carter. "You have to respond to the fact that more than 5,000 Americans were killed in cold blood and in a particularly brutal fashion."

But a quick bombing raid would be only the beginning of a much longer and more complex military action. Bombing might be intended only to clear the way for small units of highly trained troops to get into isolated areas where terrorists might be training or hiding.

Sources familiar with the military said small specialized units, such as Army Rangers and Green Berets, most likely would be involved in what could end up being small but gruesome attacks on individual terrorist cells.

Going all out for victory

"We're going to have people on the ground somewhere, sometime, and we're going to have to face those people -- go into the shadows where they live and work and take them out," House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said on NBC's "Today Show" Friday.

It won't be easy.

"There will certainly be violence and losses," said MacFarlane, national security adviser during the Reagan administration. "We would be using all means at our disposal to win."

Good intelligence -- namely, discovering where the terrorists are will be the key to success for any such ground actions, MacFarlane said. Such raids probably wouldn't even occur until America's spies get the information the military needs to know where to strike.

How this will be done remains a mystery -- as does almost everything else about the Pentagon's plan. Military officials, for obvious reasons, are releasing little information about exactly which units they might deploy.

But more than 100 Air Force planes are on their way to the Persian Gulf, as is a contingent of 2,100 Marines. An armada led by a Navy aircraft carrier is sailing toward the region, too, where it will join two U.S. aircraft carriers already there.

And in the Adirondacks this weekend, the Army's 10th Mountain Division -- which specializes in combat in rugged terrain -- will conduct a "readiness training exercise," base officials said.

Scope of action debated

The exact scope of American military action also is unclear. Foreign policy experts both inside and outside the Bush administration still are debating that point.

Hawks, led by officials in the Defense Department, advocate a widespread attack on terrorism that would include action far beyond Afghanistan. Suspected terrorist hotbeds such as Lebanon's Bekaa Valley would be targeted, too, as would nations such as Iraq that secretly support terrorism.

Doves, led by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, favor much more limited military action focusing solely, for the time being, on Afghanistan. They say a broader military attack could endanger the stability of key U.S. allies, most notably Pakistan.

Since Afghanistan is a land-locked country, U.S. forces will have to rely on Pakistan to the south, along with reasonably friendly former Soviet republics to the north, as staging grounds for any attack.

That poses a risk, especially to the military government of Pakistan, a nation of 145 million people that has nuclear weapons -- as well as a growing fundamentalist Muslim movement that opposes any Pakistani aid to the United States.

"We have to be careful because we could easily destabilize that government," said Michael S. Swetnam, president of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies and co-author of a book on bin Laden. "The last thing any of us wants is an unstable government with nuclear weapons."

Diplomacy seen as crucial

Governments of other friendly Muslim countries, such as Jordan or Egypt, could find themselves under pressure, too, from fundamentalist uprisings in the wake of U.S. military action.

"That's going to be tricky," said Lawrence Cline, a former Army intelligence officer who recently received a doctorate in political science from the University at Buffalo.

That being the case, diplomacy will play a key role in the war against terrorism. Brzezinski said the anti-terrorism coalition that the United States assembles must include moderate Muslim governments, just so the war doesn't look like a war on Islam.

And that's just the beginning of the diplomatic effort.

More foreign aid or better pro-American propaganda could be part of the package.

"We're going to have to find the means of addressing the causes of these political hatreds," to nip terrorism in the bud, Brzezinski said.

In addition, the United States will have to enlist governments around the world in an effort to shut off the cash flow to terrorists such as bin Laden.

"Right now, there are thousands of ways to launder money for terrorist organizations," Scowcroft said. "We need to dry up that money for terrorism."

'An uphill struggle'

Meanwhile, America's spies will have to worm their way deep inside terrorist organizations.

"We need to find out before they launch attacks what they're planning to do," Scowcroft said. "Defensive measures are never going to win this game. It will be an uphill struggle that will take a lot of time."

And there are likely to be losses on the road to victory, and perhaps even more terrorist attacks on American soil.

"What we saw on Sept. 11 represented a quantum leap in the scale of modern terrorism," Brzezinski said. "Organized terrorist groups are going to look at last week as the new standard for success."

That being the case, President Bush and other national leaders say the nation must prepare for a long, tough battle. American forces could capture some terrorists, but miss others. Terrorists could hide for months or years and then suddenly strike again.

In other words, the United States could be facing a stop-and-start war with no end in sight.

"What is victory?" asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at a press briefing Thursday. "I say that victory is persuading the American people and the rest of the world that this is not a quick matter that's going to be over in a month or a year or even five years."


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