Published: September 17, 2001

WASHINGTON, Sept. 16 — When President Bush and his top aides talk about military action to end Afghanistan's support for terrorism, they are focusing on attacks to punish the Taliban and undermine their control over the country, not a full-scale American occupation.

No war plan appears to have been agreed on, and officially the Bush administration insists that no options have been excluded.

The administration, however, is preparing a powerful military strike if the Taliban, as expected, refuse to hand over the terrorist Osama bin Laden and shut down his terrorist network.

The blow would be intended not only to destroy terrorist bases in Afghanistan but also to demonstrate to other nations that there is a heavy cost to be paid for those who shelter enemies of the United States.

A principal option is to intervene militarily in Afghanistan's civil war on the side of the Taliban's foes: the beleaguered rebel alliance that claims just a sliver of Afghanistan's territory. It was just weakened further with the assassination of its leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud, who died Saturday, after a bomb attack committed just two days before the raids in New York and Washington.

At the same time, the United States would apply additional pressure, for example, by persuading Pakistan to close off financial channels to the bin Laden organization and the flow of fuel to Afghanistan.

Such steps might fall short of a knockout blow to the Taliban. Complicating the administration's planning, the element of surprise has been lost. The Taliban and Mr. bin Laden's men are expecting a bombing attack and have been evacuating their camps and bases, according to American intelligence.

But there is a recognition that to go further by carrying out a Soviet-style occupation with thousands of troops would place the United States at odds with much of the Islamic world and is fraught with danger.

The administration seems to be grappling for a plan involving air power, and potentially ground troops, that is more forceful than the cruise missile strike that the Clinton administration launched in 1998 against Mr. bin Laden in Afghanistan -- with little effect -- but that is less than the huge air and ground offensive that the United States launched in the Persian Gulf war.