Promises Not Kept
By PAUL KRUGMAN
Five years ago, the nation rallied around a president who promised vengeance against those responsible for the atrocity of 9/11. Yet Osama bin Laden is still alive and at large. His trail, The Washington Post reports, has gone “stone cold.” Osama and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are evidently secure enough in their hideaway that they can taunt us with professional-quality videos.
They certainly don’t lack for places to stay. Pakistan’s government has signed a truce with Islamic militants in North Waziristan, the province where bin Laden is presumed to be hiding. Although the Pakistanis say that this doesn’t mean that bin Laden is immune from arrest, their claims aren’t very credible.
Meanwhile, much of Afghanistan has fallen back under the control of drug-dealing warlords and of the Taliban, which sheltered Al Qaeda before it was driven from Kabul. NATO’s top commander has appealed for more troops; the top British commander in Afghanistan has said that fighting there is fiercer than in Iraq. And the numbers bear him out: since the beginning of 2006, the NATO force in Afghanistan has had a higher rate of fatalities than that suffered by coalition troops in Iraq.
The path to this strategic defeat began with the failure to capture or kill bin Laden. Never mind the anti-Clinton hit piece, produced for ABC by a friend of Rush Limbaugh; there never was a clear shot at Osama before 9/11, let alone one rejected by Clinton officials. But there was a clear shot in December 2001, when Al Qaeda’s leader was trapped in the caves of Tora Bora. He made his escape because the Pentagon refused to use American ground troops to cut him off.
No matter, declared President Bush: “I truly am not that concerned about him,” he said about bin Laden in March 2002, and more or less stopped mentioning Osama for the next four years. By the time he made his what-me-worry remarks — just six months after 9/11 — the pursuit of Al Qaeda had already been relegated to second-class status. A long report in yesterday’s Washington Post adds detail to what has long been an open secret: early in 2002, the administration began pulling key resources, such as special forces units and unmanned aircraft, off the hunt for Al Qaeda’s leaders, in preparation for the invasion of Iraq.
At the same time, the administration balked at giving the new regime in Kabul the support it needed. As he often does, Mr. Bush said the right things: the history of conflict in Afghanistan, he declared in April 2002, has been “one of initial success, followed by long years of floundering and ultimate failure. We’re not going to repeat that mistake.”
But he proceeded to do just that, neglecting Afghanistan in ways that foreshadowed the future calamity in Iraq. During the first 18 months after the Taliban were driven from power, the U.S.-led coalition provided no peacekeeping troops outside the capital city. Economic aid, in a destitute nation shattered by war, was minimal in the crucial first year, when the new government was trying to build legitimacy. And the result was the floundering and failure we see today.
How did it all go so wrong? The diversion of resources into a gratuitous war in Iraq is certainly a large part of the story. Although administration officials continue to insist that the invasion of Iraq somehow made sense as part of a broadly defined war on terror, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has just released a report confirming that Saddam Hussein regarded Al Qaeda as a threat, not an ally; he even made attempts to capture Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
But Iraq doesn’t explain it all. Even though the Bush administration was secretly planning another war in early 2002, it could still have spared some troops to provide security and allocated more money to help the Karzai government. As in the case of planning for postwar Iraq, however, Bush officials apparently refused even to consider the possibility that things wouldn’t go exactly the way they hoped.
These days most agonizing about the state of America’s foreign policy is focused, understandably, on the new enemies we’ve made in Iraq. But let’s not forget that the perpetrators of 9/11 are still at large, five years later, and that they have re-established a large safe haven.
Bob Herbert is on vacation.