Bush's Osama Problem
Wednesday, July 18, 2007; 2:00 PM
Nearly six years after President Bush pledged to capture him "dead or alive," Osama bin Laden is not only still at large, but he and his al-Qaeda organization have apparently benefited greatly from Bush's decision to invade Iraq.
That's not just me saying so. It's the inevitable conclusion from the declassified summary of a White House intelligence report released to great fanfare yesterday.
It turns out that bin Laden and his al-Qaeda leadership are safely ensconced in Pakistan. They're still trying to attack us. And the U.S. occupation of Iraq has provided them with a potent rallying cry, recruiting tool and training ground they would not have had otherwise.
The White House has time and again used the specter of al-Qaeda to cow Capitol Hill into doing its bidding. Similarly, Bush and his aides have lately gone to great lengths to conflate the multifaceted insurgency in Iraq with al-Qaeda. After all, when it's Bush vs. al-Qaeda, how many Americans will side with al-Qaeda?
The report's release shot al-Qaeda back into the headlines. But this time, the al-Qaeda stories have a potentially devastating twist for the administration: As it turns out, Bush's policies may have helped bin Laden more than they've hurt him.
Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "The White House faced fresh political peril yesterday in the form of a new intelligence assessment that raised sharp questions about the success of its counterterrorism strategy and judgment in making Iraq the focus of that effort.
"Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush has been able to deflect criticism of his counterterrorism policy by repeatedly noting the absence of any new domestic attacks and by citing the continuing threat that terrorists in Iraq pose to U.S. interests.
"But this line of defense seemed to unravel a bit yesterday with the release of a new National Intelligence Estimate that concludes that al-Qaeda 'has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability' by reestablishing a haven in Pakistan and reconstituting its top leadership. The report also notes that al-Qaeda has been able 'to recruit and indoctrinate operatives, including for Homeland attacks,' by associating itself with an Iraqi subsidiary.
"These disclosures triggered a new round of criticism from Democrats and others who say that the administration took its eye off the ball by invading Iraq without first destroying Osama bin Laden's organization in Afghanistan."
Abramowitz also notes that "Al-Qaeda's participation in the Iraqi violence has figured particularly heavily in recent administration arguments for a continued U.S. troop presence there, because White House strategists regard it as a politically salable reason for staying and continuing to fight."
But, he writes: "Some terrorism analysts say Bush has used inflated rhetoric to depict al-Qaeda in Iraq as part of the same group of extremists that attacked the United States on Sept. 11 -- noting that the group did not exist until after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. These analysts say Bush also has overlooked the contribution that U.S. actions have made to the growth of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which has been described as kind of a franchise of the main al-Qaeda network headed by bin Laden."
Abramowitz quotes former CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar as saying: "Iraq matters because it has become a cause celebre and because groups like al-Qaeda in Iraq and al-Qaeda central exploit the image of the United States being out to occupy Muslim lands."