THE BUSH RECORD: War on Terrorism

Afghanistan, Iraq: Two Wars Collide

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By Barton Gellman and Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 22, 2004

In the second half of March 2002, as the Bush administration mapped its next steps against al Qaeda, Deputy CIA Director John E. McLaughlin brought an unexpected message to the White House Situation Room. According to two people with firsthand knowledge, he told senior members of the president's national security team that the CIA was scaling back operations in Afghanistan.

That announcement marked a year-long drawdown of specialized military and intelligence resources from the geographic center of combat with Osama bin Laden. As jihadist enemies reorganized, slipping back and forth from Pakistan and Iran, the CIA closed forward bases in the cities of Herat, Mazar-e Sharif and Kandahar. The agency put off an $80 million plan to train and equip a friendly intelligence service for the new U.S.-installed Afghan government. Replacements did not keep pace with departures as case officers finished six-week tours. And Task Force 5 -- a covert commando team that led the hunt for bin Laden and his lieutenants in the border region -- lost more than two-thirds of its fighting strength.

The commandos, their high-tech surveillance equipment and other assets would instead surge toward Iraq through 2002 and early 2003, as President Bush prepared for the March invasion that would extend the field of battle in the nation's response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Bush has shaped his presidency, and his reelection campaign, around the threat that announced itself in the wreckage of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Five days after the attacks, he made it clear that he conceived a broader war. Impromptu remarks on the White House South Lawn were the first in which he named "this war on terrorism," and he cast it as a struggle with "a new kind of evil." Under that banner he toppled two governments, eased traditional restraints on intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and reshaped the landscape of the federal government.

As the war on terrorism enters its fourth year, its results are sufficiently diffuse -- and obscured in secrecy -- to resist easy measure. Interpretations of the public record are also polarized by the claims and counterclaims of the presidential campaign. Bush has staked his reelection on an argument that defense of the U.S. homeland requires unyielding resolve to take the fight to the terrorists. His opponent, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), portrays the Bush strategy as based on false assumptions and poor choices, particularly when it came to Iraq.

The contention that the Iraq invasion was an unwise diversion in confronting terrorism has been central to Kerry's critique of Bush's performance. But this account -- drawn largely from interviews with those who have helped manage Bush's offensive -- shows how the debate over that question has echoed within the ranks of the administration as well, even among those who support much of the president's agenda.

Interviews with those advisers also highlight an internal debate over Bush's strategy against al Qaeda and allied jihadists, which has stressed the "decapitation" of the network by capturing or killing leaders, but which has had less success in thwarting recruitment of new militants.

At the core of Bush's approach is an offensive strategy abroad that Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said complements the defensive efforts he oversees at home. In an interview, Ridge said Bush's priority is to "play as hard and strong an offense as possible," most of it "offshore, overseas."

Published and classified documents and interviews with officials at many levels portray a war plan that scored major victories in its first months. Notable among them were the destruction of al Qaeda's Afghan sanctuary, the death or capture of leading jihadists, and effective U.S. demands for action by reluctant foreign governments.

But at least a dozen current and former officials who have held key positions in conducting the war now say they see diminishing returns in Bush's decapitation strategy. Current and former leaders of that effort, three of whom departed in frustration from the top White House terrorism post, said the manhunt is important but cannot defeat the threat of jihadist terrorism. Classified government tallies, moreover, suggest that Bush and Vice President Cheney have inflated the manhunt's success in their reelection bid.

Bush's focus on the instruments of force, the officials said, has been slow to adapt to a swiftly changing enemy. Al Qaeda, they said, no longer exerts centralized control over a network of operational cells. It has rather become the inspirational hub of a global movement, fomenting terrorism that it neither funds nor directs. Internal government assessments describe this change with a disquieting metaphor: They say jihadist terrorism is "metastasizing."

The war has sometimes taken unexpected turns, one of which brought the Bush administration into hesitant contact with Iran. For a time the two governments made tentative common cause, and Iran delivered hundreds of low-level al Qaeda figures to U.S. allies. Participants in Washington and overseas said Bush's deadlocked advisers -- unable to transmit instructions -- closed that channel before testing Iran's willingness to take more substantial steps. Some of al Qaeda's most wanted leaders now live in Iran under ambiguous conditions of house arrest.


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