Wednesday, September 08, 2004
Two articles we commend to your attention, both from the October issue of the Atlantic:
- Bush's Lost Year, by James Fallows
By deciding to invade Iraq, the Bush administration decided not to do many other things: not to reconstruct Afghanistan, not to deal with the threats posed by North Korea and Iran, and not to wage an effective war on terror. An inventory of opportunities lost
But the biggest question about the United States—whether its response to 9/11 has made it safer or more vulnerable—can begin to be answered. Over the past two years I have been talking with a group of people at the working level of America's anti-terrorism efforts. Most are in the military, the intelligence agencies, and the diplomatic service; some are in think tanks and nongovernmental agencies. I have come to trust them, because most of them have no partisan ax to grind with the Administration (in the nature of things, soldiers and spies are mainly Republicans), and because they have so far been proved right. In the year before combat started in Iraq, they warned that occupying the country would be far harder than conquering it. As the occupation began, they pointed out the existence of plans and warnings the Administration seemed determined to ignore.
As a political matter, whether the United States is now safer or more vulnerable is of course ferociously controversial. That the war was necessary—and beneficial—is the Bush Administration's central claim. That it was not is the central claim of its critics. But among national-security professionals there is surprisingly little controversy. Except for those in government and in the opinion industries whose job it is to defend the Administration's record, they tend to see America's response to 9/11 as a catastrophe. I have sat through arguments among soldiers and scholars about whether the invasion of Iraq should be considered the worst strategic error in American history—or only the worst since Vietnam. Some of these people argue that the United States had no choice but to fight, given a pre-war consensus among its intelligence agencies that Iraq actually had WMD supplies. Many say that things in Iraq will eventually look much better than they do now. But about the conduct and effect of the war in Iraq one view prevails: it has increased the threats America faces, and has reduced the military, financial, and diplomatic tools with which we can respond.
"Let me tell you my gut feeling," a senior figure at one of America's military-sponsored think tanks told me recently, after we had talked for twenty minutes about details of the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. "If I can be blunt, the Administration is full of shit. In my view we are much, much worse off now than when we went into Iraq. That is not a partisan position. I voted for these guys. But I think they are incompetent, and I have had a very close perspective on what is happening. Certainly in the long run we have harmed ourselves. We are playing to the enemy's political advantage. Whatever tactical victories we may gain along the way, this will prove to be a strategic blunder."
- The Long Hunt for Osama, by Peter Bergen
Where has he been? How did we ever let him get away? Our correspondent—one of the few Western journalists ever to have met Osama bin Laden—traces the al-Qaeda leader's footsteps in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and describes the sometimes hapless American pursuit
And therein lies the crux of the problem. With only a small number of American "boots on the ground," the U.S. military chose to rely on the services of local Afghan proxies of uncertain loyalty and competence—a blunder that allowed many members of al-Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden himself, to slip away. The blunder meant that, as a senior U.S. military official told me, "we don't know for sure when bin Laden disappeared."
Mashal told me that there were three routes out of Tora Bora. The young and the energetic took the difficult, snow-covered passes south toward Parachinar. Others took the road to the southeastern Afghan city of Gardez. Older fighters headed east into Pakistan. According to Mashal, bin Laden took the Parachinar route, aided by members of the Pashtun Ghilzai tribe, who were paid handsomely in money and rifles for their efforts. And so was lost the last, best chance to capture al-Qaeda's leader, at a time when he was confined to an area of several dozen square miles. Bin Laden may now be somewhere in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province—and if so, the area involved is approximately 40,000 square miles, a largely mountainous tract the size of Virginia.
This past January, Lieutenant Colonel Brian Hilferty, the senior spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, announced, "We're sure we're going to catch Osama bin Laden and [the former Taliban leader] Mullah Omar this year." His prediction came at about the same time that the U.S. and Pakistani governments announced a plan to conduct more-intensive operations to find bin Laden. The joint "hammer-and-anvil" strategy involved Pakistan's moving 70,000 soldiers into the tribal regions to flush out al-Qaeda forces, which would then, at least theoretically, flee across the border into the arms of U.S. forces waiting for them on the Afghan side. But the plan was trumpeted at every turn—and as a result, any al-Qaeda member with an ounce of common sense very probably left the tribal areas earlier this year. "Al-Qaeda are not so foolish that they would be sitting waiting there for a year for the Pakistan army," Syed Mohsin Naqvi told me.