WASHINGTON -- In 2002, troops from the 5th Special Forces Group who specialize in the Middle East were pulled out of the hunt for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan to prepare for their next assignment: Iraq. Their replacements were troops with expertise in Spanish cultures.
The CIA, meanwhile, was stretched badly in its capacity to collect, translate and analyze information coming from Afghanistan. When the White House raised a new priority, it took specialists away from the Afghanistan effort to ensure Iraq was covered.
Those were just two of the tradeoffs required because of what the Pentagon and CIA acknowledge is a shortage of key personnel to fight the war on terrorism. The question of how much those shifts prevented progress against al-Qaeda and other terrorists is putting the Bush administration on the defensive.
Even before the invasion, the wisdom of shifting resources from the bin Laden hunt to the war in Iraq was raised privately by top military officials and publicly by Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., and others. Now it's being hotly debated again following an election-year critique of the Bush administration by its former counterterrorism adviser, Richard Clarke.
''If we catch him (bin Laden) this summer, which I expect, it's two years too late,'' Clarke said Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press. ''Because during those two years when forces were diverted to Iraq . . . al-Qaeda has metamorphosized into a hydra-headed organization with cells that are operating autonomously, like the cells that operated in Madrid recently.''
The Bush administration says the hunt for bin Laden continued throughout the war in Iraq. Officials say it's wrong to speculate that he would have been captured, or other terrorist attacks prevented, if the Iraq war hadn't happened. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, speaking on ABC's This Week, called the example of the Special Forces switch ''simplistic.''
But the Pentagon tacitly acknowledged a problem last year, after the Iraq invasion. It created a new organization, Task Force 121, to better oversee commando operations in the region and ensure a faster response when terrorists can be struck.
Now gaps in capability are being closed as the administration puts record amounts of money into military and spy agencies. More spy aircraft such as the Predator drone are arriving. More troops are getting Arabic training at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. CIA Director George Tenet said this month that the agency is filling shortfalls, especially among translators.
Still, the question lingers: Did opening a second front hurt the main effort to defeat terrorism?
Bob Andrews, former head of a Pentagon office that oversaw special operations, says that removing Saddam Hussein was a good idea but ''a distraction.'' The war in Iraq, Andrews notes, entailed the largest deployment of special operations forces -- about 10,000 -- since the Vietnam War. That's about 25% of all U.S. commandos.
It also siphoned spy aircraft and light infantry soldiers. Iraq proved such a drain, one former Pentagon official notes, that there were no AWACS radar jets to track drug-trafficking aircraft in South America.
W. Patrick Lang, a former Army intelligence officer and authority on the Middle East, says Saddam was not an immediate threat. ''This has been a real diversion from the longer struggle against jihadists,'' especially in the intelligence field, he says.
Stan Florer, a retired Army colonel and former Green Beret, agrees that Iraq diverted enormous military and intelligence assets. But he argues that long-standing disputes with Saddam needed to be addressed: ''This was tearing at us all the time. It was a bleeding wound with Saddam calling the shots in the Middle East.''
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