WASHINGTON -- President Bush is at a tricky turning point as the war in Afghanistan winds down without the capture of Osama bin Laden or the defeat of the al-Qaida terror network.
He must hold together the fragile coalition of countries led by the United States, sustain the momentum of U.S. public support for his war against terrorism and explore how to expand it to other countries.
How does he do all that?
Move quickly to the next stage of the war on terrorism, even while mopping up in Afghanistan, political and foreign policy analysts said Wednesday. Aides say Bush is close to deciding what to do next.
Conservative hard-liners in the administration want Bush to topple Saddam Hussein, but administration sources say the White House is unlikely to turn to Iraq next.
''Getting bin Laden will take skill and luck and maybe a lot of time. We've got to move on here,'' said former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., who directs the Woodrow Wilson International Center. ''We've got to protect the American people.''
Whether bin Laden is dead or alive, his al-Qaida forces remain a threat as they melt away from the snowy Afghanistan mountains into Pakistan and other sanctuaries. The world is infested with terrorists cells, and the administration is trying to determine which ones pose the greatest threat to America.
''The Afghanistan campaign, of course, is not the only terrorist problem in the world,'' Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Wednesday. ''There are other terrorist networks that threaten us and threaten our friends. They operate in dozens of countries, and we are fully intending to stay after the problem of all terrorists that have global reach.''
The trail could lead to a number of countries that Bush considers to be hotspots, including Somalia, Yemen, Sudan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Whatever route Bush chooses, the next phase will almost certainly be less focused than the Afghanistan campaign -- and harder for the nation to rally around.
It may involve covert acts.
Instead of invading a country, Bush may help nations rid themselves of terrorism.
It won't always involve troops. The administration will keep trying to dry up the financial resources of terrorists and isolating terrorist-harboring nations through diplomatic means.
Somalia is a logical next step, because there is no central authority that can work with the United States to track down terrorist, said Bill Taylor, director of military and political studies at the Center for Strategic and Military Studies in Washington. The African nation also is a natural hiding place for al-Qaida forces fleeing Afghanistan.
Taylor said the operation would be similar to the Afghanistan campaign, with U.S. special forces troops and CIA operatives working with tribes to track down al-Qaida. Administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said U.S. intelligence officials have already been in Somalia.
Yemen forces trained and equipped with U.S funds engaged armed tribesman this week in a bid to capture suspected al-Qaida members. Tanks, helicopters and artillery pounded mountain villages and hillsides in what appeared to be the most serious military operation yet in an Arab country.
Bush's fragile anti-terrorism coalition could unravel if nations with large Muslim populations believe the president is targeting the Muslim world.
Iraq's ties to the Arab world could jeopardize the coalition. Another problem is that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction, a substantial army and no ready-made opposition that could take over for him.
Bush is expected to make his Phase II plans public early next year.
Without bin Laden in custody or dead, the president risks erosion of his approval rating, which stands at more than 80 percent. Polls show Americans will not consider the Afghanistan war a success without catching bin Laden.
Even if bin Laden is found, the euphoria would soon fade. The president will want to fill the vacuum, fearing a collective letdown would steal momentum from the anti-terrorism campaign.
''This is a very difficult transitional time for him,'' said former lawmaker Hamilton. ''We've had remarkable unanimity and focus on Afghanistan, but that becomes more difficult to maintain with every new day and every new target.''
Ron Fournier has covered the White House and politics for The Associated Press since 1993.
Peninsula Clarion ©2014. All Rights Reserved.