AL QAEDA'S GREAT ESCAPE

The Military and the Media on Terror's Trail

By Philip Smucker

Brassey's. 229 pp. $26.95

Intrepid war correspondent Philip Smucker hung around Pakistan and Afghanistan during late 2001 and early 2002, no simple task given the limited access, the rugged terrain, the primitive living conditions and the mortal danger. On assignment for the Christian Science Monitor and the Daily Telegraph of London, Smucker wanted to see whether military forces doing the bidding of President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would capture Public Enemy No. 1, aka Osama bin Laden.

As everybody knows, bin Laden escaped. Smucker filed what might have been the earliest detailed account of that escape in the Christian Science Monitor of Dec. 13, 2001. Now he explains, in book form, the why and the how to accompany the who, what, when and where.

The book is a devastating critique of Bush, Rumsfeld, other politically oriented strategists imposing their will on U.S. military forces and -- as the subtitle suggests -- quite a few of Smucker's fellow journalists. The critique is delivered with such humor and irony, however, that casual readers could easily underestimate its full impact. For all but the most avid Bush-Rumsfeld detractors, the humor and irony will be welcome. Smucker is a superb stylist; it is difficult to grasp how reading about something so depressing can be so much fun.

The book instructs pleasurably from the first page, as Smucker and his Afghan guide explore a remote tribal area of Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan. Smucker notices a sign reading "Winston Churchill's Picket." Winston Churchill, later to become the renowned British statesman? Yes, it turns out that just before 1900, Churchill spent time as a journalist in that very spot, writing about a frontier war dear to the empire. When Smucker learns that Churchill published a book about his experiences -- "The Story of the Malakand Field Force" (1898) -- he obtains and just about memorizes it. Then, in a brilliant touch, he opens his own chapters with apt quotations from Churchill's book. It is as if almost nothing has changed in that part of the world for more than a hundred years.

But the news reported by Churchill is not the same as the news Smucker reports. Churchill knew something about indigenous warriors from Pakistan, Afghanistan and other seemingly exotic territories whose thought patterns were so different from those found in the ruling U.S. and British citizens. He also knew quite a bit about government propaganda -- trying to make a losing cause seem not so bad. But Churchill knew nothing about airplanes flown into two New York skyscrapers and the Pentagon. Everything Smucker writes must be read in the shadow of Sept. 11, 2001.

When he wrote that al Qaeda terrorists had escaped their Tora Bora hideaway despite the vaunted U.S. military combining with native warriors to stop just that eventuality, Bush administration spokesmen all the way up to Rumsfeld said otherwise. As Smucker notes, "If it had not been for the Pentagon's diligent efforts to deny that bin Laden could have slipped out the back door, the story might well have been lost among all the other stories, rumors and propaganda. Instead, the Pentagon's denial mode boosted interest in our story of bin Laden's slippery moves."

Often, it seemed, the only winners at Tora Bora were the so-called Afghan allies of the United States, ill-chosen by CIA operatives who probably had no idea how to evaluate the competing factions. "It became all too apparent that our cherished Afghan allies were working on the principle that a payoff in the hand is better than a captive in the cage," Smucker reports, referring to the flow of sizable amounts of cash, ultimately from U.S. taxpayers, into the pockets of indigenous warriors, supplemented by payments from the other side. "While our 'allies' fought up one valley, they knew that their supposed enemies were being smuggled down another valley on their way out to Pakistan."

From Smucker's perspective, lots of journalists appeared to be just as credulous as Bush, Rumsfeld et al. Though his severe criticism of the media transcends insider gossip, it might be easy to dismiss because so much of it is in the context of the grandstanding Geraldo Rivera. When the television personality showed up at the front, Smucker was simultaneously awed and dismayed. He notes that "Rivera was brave. Whatever you said about him, he was more daring than many of us. From day one of the battle for Tora Bora, he had insisted on sleeping in the hills with his crew."

But on the same page, after noting Rivera's inexcusable showmanship in front of the camera, he writes that "Geraldo wasn't the only reporter in the field too involved in the story to question the motives of the warlords or U.S. military tactics on the ground, tactics that would soon have Osama lovers the world over gloating and chuckling. Other far more esteemed members of the Western press blandly repeated the Pentagon's line without daring to question battlefield tactics. In this way, the American public suffered a double hoodwinking. For not only were they watching our top brass present the charade, the Fourth Estate was selling them one in the disguise of a real battle."

Smucker's skepticism permeates the book but rarely turns into cynicism. He understands that while modern warfare pitting professional national armies against much smaller religious-based yet highly trained groups of partisans might seem heroic to armchair viewers, the entire affair is hopeless. There can be no real winners when hatred is so intense. Writing (and reading) about it all through screens of humor and irony is perhaps the only sensible way to convey the information.