Iraq vs. Afghanistan

"Afghanistan, Iraq: Two Wars Collide" -- Barton Gellman and Dafnia Linzer in The Washington Post, 10/22/04:

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. . . .

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." . . .

Bush conducts the war on terrorism above all as a global hunt for a cast of evil men he knows by name and photograph. He tracks progress in daily half-hour meetings that Richard A. Falkenrath, who sometimes attended them before departing recently as deputy homeland security adviser, described as "extremely granular, about individual guys." Frances Fragos Townsend, who took the post of White House counterterrorism and homeland security adviser in May, said in an interview that Bush's strategy -- now, as in the war's first days -- is to "decapitate the beast."

The president is also focused on states that sponsor terrorism. The danger he sees is a "great nexus," thus far hypothetical, in which an enemy nation might hand terrorists a nuclear, biological or chemical weapon. That danger is what Bush said drove him to war in Iraq.

Bush emphasizes force of will -- determination to prosecute the enemy, and equally to stand up to allies who disapprove. Bush and his aides most often deflect questions about recent global polls that have found sharply rising anti-U.S. sentiment in Arab and Muslim countries and in Europe, but one of them addressed it in a recent interview. Speaking for the president by White House arrangement, but declining to be identified, a high-ranking national security official said of the hostility detected in surveys: "I don't think it matters. It's about keeping the country safe, and I don't think that matters."

That view is at odds with the view of many career military and intelligence officials, who spoke with increasing alarm about al Qaeda's success in winning recruits to its cause and defining its struggle with the United States.

Retired Army Gen. Wayne A. Downing, who was summoned to lead the White House Office for Combating Terrorism a few weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, said the war has been least successful where it has the highest stakes: slowing the growth of jihadist sympathies in populations that can provide the terrorists with money, concealment and recruits. Bin Laden has worked effectively to "convince the Islamic world the U.S. is the common enemy," Downing said. He added, "We have done little or nothing. That is the big failure." . . .

Townsend, the White House terrorism and homeland security adviser, gives two framed courtroom sketches from a former life a place of honor on her West Wing wall. The color portraits, from 1990, depict her as lead prosecutor in a case against New York's Gambino crime family. When she took her White House job in May, she told the Associated Press that the transition from organized crime to terrorism "actually turns out not to be that big a leap." She added, "Really in many ways you're talking about a group with a command-and-control structure."

Jihadist terrorism has always posed what strategists call an "asymmetric threat," capable of inflicting catastrophic harm against a much stronger foe. But the way it operates, they said, is changing. Students of al Qaeda used to speak of it as a network with "key nodes" that could be attacked. More recently they have described the growth of "franchises." [Former White House counterterrorism and homeland security adviser John A.] Gordon and [former deputy homeland security adviser Richard A.] Falkenrath pioneered an analogy, before leaving government, with an even less encouraging prognosis.

Jihadists "metastasized into a lot of little cancers in a lot of different countries," Gordon said recently. They formed "groups, operating under the terms of a movement, who don't have to rely on al Qaeda itself for funding, for training or for authority. [They operate] at a level that doesn't require as many people, doesn't require them to be as well-trained, and it's going to be damned hard to get in front of that."

Bruce Hoffman of the government-funded Rand Corp., who consults with participants in the war in classified forums, said U.S. analysts see clearly that "you can only have an effective top-down strategy if you're also drying up recruitment and sources of support."

Marc Sageman, a psychologist and former CIA case officer who studies the formation of jihadist cells, said the inspirational power of the Sept. 11 attacks -- and rage in the Islamic world against U.S. steps taken since -- has created a new phenomenon. Groups of young men gather in common outrage, he said, and a violent plan takes form without the need for an outside leader to identify, persuade or train those who carry it out.

The brutal challenge for U.S. intelligence, Sageman said, is that "you don't know who's going to be a terrorist" anymore. Citing the 15 men who killed 190 passengers on March 11 in synchronized bombings of the Spanish rail system, he said "if you had gone to those guys in Madrid six months prior, they'd say 'We're not terrorists,' and they weren't. Madrid took like five weeks from inception."

Much the same pattern, officials said, preceded deadly attacks in Indonesia, Turkey, Kenya, Morocco and elsewhere. There is no reason to believe, they said, that the phenomenon will remain overseas.

Such attacks do not rely on leaders as the Bush administration strategy has conceived them. New jihadists can acquire much of the know-how they need, Sageman and his counterparts still in government said, in al Qaeda's Saudi-published magazines, Al Baatar and the Voice of Jihad, available online.

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