The United States stepped up its coalition-building efforts yesterday by asking two key countries – Saudi Arabia and Russia – for help with identifying the organisers of last week's terrorist attacks and bringing them to justice.
The meetings between America's Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and his Saudi and Russian counterparts, Prince Saud al-Faisal and Igor Ivanov, took place with little of the fanfare that has attended the procession of international VIPs to the Oval Office – President Jacques Chirac of France on Tuesday, Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia yesterday and Tony Blair today – but they will have strong bearing on President Bush's prospects of success.
No one is expecting Russia to contribute troops to a multi-national force – if there is to be one – in Afghanistan. What it can bring to the table, US officials say, is bitter but deep experience of fighting in that country, and specialist intelligence knowledge, both on its own account and through the former Soviet central Asian republics of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, where Moscow is still an important presence.
In its own equivalent of the Vietnam War, the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and fought a decade-long war in which 15,000 of its troops were killed. Their opponents, the mujahedin, are among the forces to have gathered around Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on 11 September.
But specialists believe the Russians may have retained some intelligence assets in Afghanistan that can be mobilised in the campaign to hunt down Mr bin Laden.
In return, however, Moscow will probably demand a tacit green light for Russia's campaign to suppress the Islamic fundamentalist-backed insurgency in Chechnya and a slower timetable for America's missile defence programme.
The position of Saudi Arabia, the country of Mr bin Laden's birth and one of only three states to recognise the Taliban regime, is similar – but even more delicate. It has to balance a traditional alliance with the US with its loyalty to Islam and widespread anger at America's perceived anti-Palestinian tilt, seen as a bias against Arabs in general.
Mr Powell wants Saudi help on two fronts: with tracking the backgrounds of the 19 hijackers, 14 of whom were either travelling on Saudi passports or had links with the country; and with choking the flow of money and other support to Mr bin Laden from Islamists. He will also demand more forthright co-operation than Washington received with the 1995 and 1996 terrorist attacks against US personnel in Saudi Arabia, bitterly remembered by the FBI to this day.
America will have a less tricky time with the European allies visiting Washington, who also include the German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer. Mr Blair is due to visit New York before going to Washington for talks with Mr Bush. As the leader of America's closest ally, Mr Blair will be given a full update on America's plans for retaliation.
But behind the public solidarity, many of the visitors were urging caution. Reprisals, they say, must only be directed at those who are unassailably shown to be responsible. Otherwise, there is a risk that retaliation will be seen as a random act of aggression against innocent civilians – stoking up more resentment of the West and increasing the risk of terrorist attacks in the future.
Mr Chirac, who visited the devestation in New York yesterday, said that if evidence emerged that a particular state had colluded in the attacks, France and every other country "would draw the consequences". But he pointedly spoke of "conflict" and not "war" – the term used by every senior US official from Mr Bush downwards.
The Washington administration made clear once again its coalition would be a multifaceted affair. Members "won't all be performing the same tasks," the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said. Some would contribute military help, others diplomatic support, others (such as Russia and Saudi Arabia) would aid intelligence efforts, while others might help to block the flow of funds to the terrorist organisations.Reuse content