PART 8: Epilogue
Bush Awaits History's Judgment
Sunday, February 3, 2002
Last in a series of eight articles.
President Bush was in mid-sentence during an interview in the Oval Office in December when he motioned to one of his aides to get something out of the top drawer of his desk. The aide handed him three sheets of paper with small, color photos and thumbnail biographies of the top dozen or so leaders of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network.
"One time early on, I said, 'I'm a baseball fan. I want a scorecard,' " Bush explained. "And I understood that when you're fighting an enemy like al Qaeda, people -- including me -- didn't have a sense of who we're fighting. And I have actually got a chart."
Bush has talked many times about keeping score in the war on terrorism, but the pages in his desk revealed that the scorecard was no mere figure of speech. He pointed to a photo of Muhammad Atef, who served as bin Laden's military chief and was the top planner of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"There's an X right there," Bush said. Atef was killed during the heavy U.S. bombing of Afghanistan in November.
Across the photo of Ayman Zawahiri, the number-two leader in the bin Laden organization, an X had been erased -- but was still faintly visible -- after reports of Zawahiri's death were determined to have been incorrect.
"We thought we had al Zawahiri," the president explained.
Bush's scorecard suggests the degree of his personal involvement in the war on terrorism and confirms the testimony of his closest advisers that he is closely monitoring their work. But the pages in Bush's desk also underscore how much more there is left to accomplish before anyone can declare success in the global war on terrorism. The best available account shows that 16 of the 22 top al Qaeda leaders -- including bin Laden himself -- are still at large. So is Taliban leader Mohammad Omar.
The failure to find them, according to one senior official, reflects a sobering truth. "The intelligence case has not been cracked," this official said.
When the president addressed a joint session of Congress on Sept. 20 to outline the policy that would take the country to war three weeks later, he set out an ambitious goal with a simple pledge to the American people and the world. "Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or justice to our enemies, justice will be done," he said.
The rhetoric has been stirring and very much in keeping with his leadership style in the early days of the crisis: direct and to the point. But the implications are anything but simple. He has committed his administration and the nation to a complex and dangerous campaign of undefined scope or duration, just as he did on the night of Sept. 11 when he said the administration would make no distinction between the terrorists and nations that harbored them.
The initial military campaign liberated Afghanistan from the repressive Taliban regime. But in his interview Bush predicted a long stay for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. "I don't want to put timetables on this," he said, "but we are going to be in Afghanistan, in my judgment, throughout next summer. . . . And I'm not in any hurry, by the way."