Once the Afghan campaign is complete, America will turn the focus of its anti-terror offensive to countries such as Somalia, Yemen, the Philippines and Indonesia, but not against Iraq, a top Pentagon official has indicated.
In one of the clearest expositions yet of the Bush administration's strategy, Paul Wolfowitz, the US deputy defence secretary, said Somalia was an obvious refuge for al-Qa'ida members, "because its government is weak or non-existent". He said the CIA would look for proxy forces as it had done with the help of anti-Taliban groups in Afghanistan.
The case of Yemen was similar, albeit less extreme, Mr Wolfowitz said. Parts of the country are outside the control of the central government and could provide bases for cells of Osama bin Laden's terrorist organisation. Urged by America, the Yemeni authorities have launched raids in these areas, but the results are unclear.
The remarks of a man regarded as the administration's superhawk on Iraq add credence to what many in America suspect – that for all the tough talk, Washington has not yet worked out a detailed strategy to go after the Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein.
Iraq had given no sign that it wanted to combat terrorism, and continued to fire intermittently at American and British warplanes patrolling the no-fly zones, Mr Wolfowitz told The New York Times yesterday. But in general, he said, "Saddam is keeping his head down".
The debate over Iraq has raged almost as long as the military campaign in Afghanistan – with one school including Mr Wolfowitz itching to finish off the job it believes was left undone in the 1991 Gulf War, and others, notably Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, favouring a more cautious approach.
The administration has two options: to pursue Iraq as a state that gives aid to terrorism, or to force a showdown on the narrower issue of the return of UN arms inspectors, expelled by President Saddam in 1998. Before Christmas, President Bush was dropping heavy hints that he intended the latter.
But without proof of Iraqi involvement in the 11 September attacks, America would have little global backing for action. The options are also limited. No one is talking of action on the scale of the Gulf War, in which 500,000 US troops were sent in to liberate Kuwait, while a repeat of the more limited bombing of Operation Desert Fox, launched after the UN inspectors' pulled out in 1998, would probably make no difference.
Meanwhile, the credibility of the opposition Iraqi National Congress – a big element in much of the war-gaming here – has been badly dented by the recent suspension of funding from the US State Department, and by scepticism on its real influence within Iraq.
In contrast, extremist Islamic groups in the Philippines and Indonesia are simpler targets. In the former, American troops might give "direct support" to special forces seeking to end the insurrection by the Abu Sayyaf militant group in the country. "If they could clear Abu Sayyaf out of Basilan island, that would be a small blow against the extended al-Qa'ida network," Mr Wolfowitz said.
In Indonesia, the writ of the Jakarta government did not run to areas controlled by Islamic radical groups in parts of the vast nation, the world's most populous Muslim country, which could provide shelter for al-Qa'ida operatives, he said. Indonesia supported the campaign against terrorism but was inhibited by fear of a public backlash.
Mr Wolfowitz said the Pentagon's limited co-operation with Indonesia's armed forces "needed to be reviewed in the light of 11 September".