Little Time Remains For Afghan Attack

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- The time window for U.S.-led military action in Afghanistan is narrowing fast and several indicators point to a possible strike any time from early next week, experts said Wednesday.

As it builds up forces within striking distance of Afghanistan, Washington is playing down the prospect of imminent action against Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network and their protectors in the ruling Taliban movement.

Three weeks after the suicide airliner attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, U.S. officials are still requesting help from partners as diverse as Saudi Arabia, Russia, NATO, Pakistan and Uzbekistan.

But a host of factors including politicians' travel plans, the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, public opinion, the weather and Muslim holidays all point to a short window of opportunity for action between Oct. 8 and mid-November.

There was a danger of the global coalition supporting U.S. action unraveling and Western public support for the use of force dwindling if Washington delayed much longer.

Most of the political preliminaries are done. The Taliban have rejected U.S. President George W. Bush's ultimatum to hand over bin Laden. NATO and the European Union have fully endorsed a U.S. riposte, and Russia has thrown its support behind the "war on terrorism."

The United States has also arm-twisted Israel and the Palestinians into a semblance of a ceasefire and sought to meet Muslim concerns by voicing support for a Palestinian state.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is on a tour of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Oman and Uzbekistan trying to pin down the use of key facilities and other support.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is due to visit Pakistan and possibly other countries from Friday. Analysts assume military action would not start while they are away from home.

At the same time, humanitarian aid convoys are reaching Kabul with an apparent green light from Washington to take relief supplies to Afghan civilians before any U.S. strike.

Christopher Langton, analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said there was barely a month to act before the icy Afghan winter set in and made it hard to use helicopters, ground troops or special forces.

Diplomatic, domestic political and military factors all pointed to early action, but Bush's final decision would depend on whether Washington had vital intelligence on bin Laden's whereabouts, he said.

Diplomatic sources said Washington and London would also want to complete operations before the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan begins in mid-November to spare religious sensitivities.

Diplomats have said that U.S. and British special forces are already operating inside Afghanistan.

Langton said scouts would have to be in position to mark targets for air and missile strikes and to conduct on-the-spot damage assessment afterward, since satellite reconnaissance would not detect whether fighters hiding in mountain caves and tunnels had been hit.

Even close U.S. allies say they have no inside information on when military action might begin. "I know nothing, but I wouldn't make any firm plans beyond the weekend if I were you," one NATO insider said.