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Iraq War Diverting Resources from War on Terror, Experts Say
Published on Wednesday, November 26, 2003 by Knight-Ridder
Iraq War Diverting Resources from War on Terror, Experts Say
by Warren P. Strobel
 

WASHINGTON - A growing number of counter-terrorism experts are challenging President Bush's assertion that Iraq is a major battle in the war against terrorism and are questioning whether the U.S. invasion of Iraq has hurt rather than helped the global battle against al-Qaida and its affiliates.

Experts who have served in top positions in both Republican and Democratic administrations are increasingly suggesting that the Iraq war has diverted momentum, troops and intelligence resources from the worldwide campaign to destroy the remnants of al-Qaida.


According to current and former officials, the Bush administration diverted precious assets, including U.S. military special operations forces, intelligence operatives and spy satellites from tracking al-Qaida to the war in Iraq.

They note that the presence of U.S. troops in an Arab homeland is serving as a major recruiting tool for signing up and motivating new jihadis, or Islamic holy warriors.

"Fighting Iraq had little to do with fighting the war on terrorism, until we made it (so)," said Richard Clarke, who was a senior White House counter-terrorism official under Bush and President Bill Clinton.

There are few objective measures by which to judge the progress of the war on terror, something that makes it difficult to gauge whether the United States is winning or losing the battle.

Bush administration officials note that much of al-Qaida's known top leadership has been caught or killed, but even Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in a much-publicized memo that was leaked last month, said ways of measuring progress are almost nonexistent.

"Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror," Rumsfeld wrote.

Yet gauging the status of the war against al-Qaida has taken on fresh urgency with a series of deadly car bombings this month in Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and new threat warnings at home.

The war on terror also appears destined to play a major role in next year's presidential campaign, with Bush and his Democratic opponents running dueling television ads on national security issues.

Some possible indicators of success or failure are murky, analysts say.

Islamic terrorist groups, perhaps with inspiration but not direction from al-Qaida, are striking out at civilian targets in the Muslim world. Their operations, while deadly, appear to some experts to be hurried and without central control, a sign that the war is taking a toll on al-Qaida.

It remains unknown, however, whether Osama bin Laden's group can mount another 9-11-style "terrorist spectacular" in the United States. Nor is it known whether bin Laden, his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri and other al-Qaida leaders still exercise direct control over the network, or how close they are to being captured.

There are worrisome signs that the terrorist threat is regenerating.

A United Nations report due out in early December is expected to say that al-Qaida, while probably weakened by U.S.-led assaults, possesses surface-to-air missiles for use against aircraft and is working toward a biological or chemical weapons attack.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban militia ousted in late 2001 is resurgent, fueled by an upsurge in opium production.

And while terror training camps have been eliminated in Afghanistan, new ones are being established in the Caucasus and the Philippines, former White House officials Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon write in a new afterword to their book, "The Age of Sacred Terror."

"From the perspective of counterterrorism professionals, the war in Iraq was not a continuation, but a diversion," they write.

No evidence of links between deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida has been made public since the U.S. invasion, despite pre-war claims by top Bush aides that such ties posed a growing threat to the United States.

According to current and former officials, the Bush administration diverted precious assets, including U.S. military special operations forces, intelligence operatives and spy satellites from tracking al-Qaida to the war in Iraq.

By one official's estimate, half of the special operations and intelligence resources focused on al-Qaida were redirected to support the March 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq. That figure could not be confirmed.

Former White House counter-terrorism coordinator Rand Beers, who resigned in March just before the Iraq war began, said that U.S. troops, CIA paramilitary officers and intelligence collection devices were withdrawn from Afghanistan and refurbished for use in the war against Iraq.

Beers - who now works for the presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. - added that war with Iraq added to U.S. difficulties in committing the security force or aid needed to stabilize Afghanistan.

"We missed some opportunities," Beers said.

Others note that the number of U.S. spy satellites and electronic listening posts is limited as is the number of analysts trained to decipher and translate intercepted messages. While they have no specific information to corroborate their statements, they believe U.S. intelligence is almost certainly listening in on fewer suspected terrorists outside of Iraq as they assign much of their intelligence capabilities to detecting and pre-empting attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq.

Steve Cambone, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, insisted that the global war on terrorism has not been hurt by a diversion of resources to Iraq.

"The intelligence community writ larger, and the (Pentagon) specifically, continue to do the monitoring, the assessment and are taking the appropriate actions ... in the world writ large," said Cambone, a close associate of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

"At the level of the global war on terrorism, there isn't a lack of focus," he said.

Cambone acknowledged that there is a shortage of experts in collecting and analyzing human intelligence within the military services. But he said the Pentagon has instructed each service to institute a crash training program to boost so-called HUMINT teams working in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Another top intelligence official said the CIA, with a finite number of Arabic speakers, paramilitary operators and other assets, has inevitably had to divert resources to the Iraq effort.

But "we've struggled mightily not to diminish our counter-terrorism efforts" through reorganization and longer work hours, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The CIA and other intelligence agencies have been flooded with new funds since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Kenneth Katzman, a terrorism specialist at the Congressional Research Service, questioned whether the diversion of U.S. troops from Afghanistan makes a difference in the hunt for bin Laden, who is thought to be along the Afghan-Pakistani border.

"Ultimately, if bin Laden and Zawahiri are going to be tracked down, probably Pakistani forces are going to have the best chance at that," he said.

Bush administration officials point out that there have been major successes against al-Qaida since September 2001.

The network's operational leadership is dead, captured or on the run, they say. More than 3,400 terrorist suspects have been detained by over 100 countries, and more than $200 million in terrorist-related finances have been seized. Saudi Arabia has begun a major crackdown on the group and its affiliates.

In response, Katzman said, the terrorist network has fragmented into "local al-Qaidas or pro-al-Qaida centers" whose focus appears to be attacks in the Middle East.

Terrorists are seeking out new pastures, too.

Counter-terrorism expert Magnus Ranstorp of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland recently visited the Tri-Border Area, a lawless region where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet that has been used by Islamic terrorist groups to hide and raise funds. Fifteen minutes after arriving in Paraguay, he said, he was offered explosives and arms - for cash.

Knight Ridder Washington correspondent Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report.

© Knight-Ridder 2003

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