The High Cost of Bush's Iraq Gambit
Most Americans who have followed the twists and turns of the Iraq War would agree that George W. Bush misled the nation into the conflict with false claims about WMD and Saddam Hussein's links to al-Qaeda. But it's less understood that Bush never stopped deceiving the public.
Indeed, one of President Bush's favorite lines -- telling the American people to listen to what the enemy says and thus to know that al-Qaeda considers Iraq the "central front" in the "war on terror" -- has been every bit as misleading as his earlier false assertions about WMD.
As we have written before at Consortiumnews.com, the real "central front" was always the rugged area along the Pakistani-Afghan border where al-Qaeda has reorganized and where its allies in the Taliban now threaten U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan.
Nine U.S. soldiers were killed in a battle inside Afghanistan on July 13, and U.S. commanders have warned of deteriorating security. Also, a politically fragile Pakistan, with its nuclear arsenal, remains one of the most tempting targets for Islamic extremists.
Yet, even as this threat has worsened, Bush and his team have continued to lavish troops, equipment and other resources on the Iraq War -- based on Bush's repeated assertion that al-Qaeda saw Iraq as the "central front."
Bush also offered the scary vision that Iraq was the linchpin for al-Qaeda's plan to create a global caliphate that would stretch from Spain to Indonesia.
To make this case sound more plausible -- given that al-Qaeda leaders were holed up in the mountains along the Afghan-Pakistani border and had no plausible strategy for global conquest -- Bush offered his home-spun advice about needing to listen to what the enemy says and claiming that al-Qaeda considered Iraq the "central front."
Sen. Barack Obama has now joined this argument, calling for reinforcing U.S. troops in Afghanistan by dispatching two more combat brigades (roughly 10,000 soldiers) while drawing down U.S. forces in Iraq as part of a phased withdrawal over 16 months.
"Ending the war [in Iraq] is essential to meeting our broader strategic goals, starting in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Taliban is resurgent and al-Qaeda has a safe haven," wrote the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee in a New York Times op-ed.
"Iraq is not the central front in the war on terrorism, and it never has been," Obama wrote. [NYT, July 14, 2008]
Not Making Sense
But Bush's argument that Iraq was the "central front" never made much sense.
First, contrary to Bush's folksy advice, it often isn't a good idea to heed the public utterances of a clever enemy, because the enemy might be playing the old Brer Rabbit trick of urging you to do the opposite of what he actually wants done, in effect, baiting you into a trap.
So, assuming al-Qaeda did call Iraq the "central front" (though Bush never cites a specific quote to that effect), bin Laden might have put that idea out as a ploy to get the United States to misdirect its resources.
Second, the evidence from al-Qaeda's private communications always was that it considered its Pakistan base the key strategic necessity, not Iraq.
For instance, as the Iraq War was heating up in 2005, a letter attributed to al-Qaeda's second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri asked if the embattled al-Qaeda operatives in Iraq might be able to spare $100,000 to relieve a cash squeeze facing the group's top leaders in hiding, presumably back in Pakistan.
Instead of money going from Pakistan to Iraq, the cash was flowing the opposite way. U.S. intelligence analysts recognized that this was not the way one would normally treat a "central front." [See Consortiumnews.com's "Al-Qaeda's Fragile Foothold."]
Indeed, many analysts now believe the Iraq War was a huge gift from the Bush administration to al-Qaeda. Not only did it take the pressure off bin Laden and other leaders when they were reeling in 2002, but it helped the terrorist organization portray itself as the defender of Muslim lands, instead of mass murderers of the innocent.
On the military side, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq shifted crucial U.S. resources -- such as Predator drones and Arabic-speaking intelligence operatives -- away from the hunt for bin Laden and other leaders while simultaneously attracting thousands of young Muslims to the cause of violent jihad.
In other words, Iraq became al-Qaeda's "grand diversion," not a "central front."
The group's real goal in Iraq appears to have been keeping U.S. forces bogged down in Iraq while the organization rebuilt its strength inside Pakistan.
In another captured letter, sent to Jordanian terrorist Musab al-Zarqawi before his death in June 2006, a top aide to bin Laden known as "Atiyah" upbraided Zarqawi for his reckless, hasty actions inside Iraq.
The message from Atiyah, who is believed to be a Libyan named Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, emphasized the need for Zarqawi to operate more deliberately in order to build political strength and drag out the U.S. occupation.
"Prolonging the war is in our interest," Atiyah told Zarqawi. [To view this excerpt in a translation published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, click here. To read the entire letter, click here. ]
So, instead of seeking a quick ouster of U.S. forces from Iraq and using it as a base for launching a global jihad -- as Bush and his supporters claimed -- al-Qaeda actually saw its strategic goals advanced by keeping the United States tied down in Iraq.
To some U.S. analysts, al-Qaeda's logic was obvious: "prolonging" the Iraq War bought the group time to rebuild its infrastructure in Pakistan, where the Islamic fundamentalist extremists have long had sympathizers inside the Pakistani intelligence services dating back to the CIA's war in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Charlie Wilson's Blowback
That CIA war, lionized in the movie "Charlie Wilson's War," funneled billions of dollars in U.S. covert money and weapons through Pakistani intelligence to Afghan warlords and to Arab jihadists who had flocked to Afghanistan to drive out the Soviet infidels.
One of those young jihadists was a wealthy Saudi named Osama bin Laden.
While relying on Pakistani intelligence to assist the Afghan rebels, the Reagan administration averted its eyes from Pakistan's clandestine development of nuclear weapons, an apparent trade-off for Pakistan's help in giving the Soviets a bloody nose in Afghanistan.
After the Soviets withdrew in 1989, the Afghan war dragged on. A triumphant United States was unwilling to broker a deal with the secular Afghan government that the Soviets had left behind.
Some hardliners in George H.W. Bush's administration wanted these "Soviet puppets" dragged from their offices and killed (which eventually did happen, setting the stage for the emergence of the Taliban in the mid-1990s).
However, in 1990, the alliance between the Islamists and the Americans began to unravel. U.S. military bases inside Saudi Arabia, which were established to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, offended bin Laden and alienated him from his Saudi royal family patrons.
When the U.S. bases remained after the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, bin Laden began to view his old American allies as another band of infidels encroaching on Muslim lands. So, bin Laden's fellow jihadists in Afghanistan shifted their sights onto a new enemy and developed a new organization known as "the base," or al-Qaeda.
For obvious reasons, the Bush administration has sought to blur this complicated history for the American public. The reality takes some shine off the glorious Cold War victories of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Backdrop of 9/11
But this shadow struggle at the end of the Cold War was the backdrop for the 9/11 attacks, which in turn led to George W. Bush's invasion of Afghanistan.
That assault drove bin Laden and his fundamentalist Taliban allies from Afghanistan, but failed to deliver a death blow. Then, rather than finishing the job, Bush -- urged on by Sen. John McCain and other neocons -- made an abrupt detour toward Iraq. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Make No Mistake: McCain's a Neocon."]
For Bush, that decision was rife with settling old family scores and other unspoken justifications, like Iraq's oil fields. But Bush sold the war to the American public as necessary because Iraq's secular dictator Saddam Hussein was supposedly in league with the fundamentalist bin Laden and might give him WMDs.
When that justification proved false and a post-invasion insurgency emerged in 2003-04 to challenge the U.S. occupation of Iraq, Bush initially presented the resistance as an al-Qaeda offshoot operating under bin Laden's control.
Again, U.S. intelligence saw a different problem: Sunni and Shiite Iraqis contesting the American presence and competing for dominance with each other, while a violent smattering of foreign jihadists like Zarqawi tried to insinuate themselves into the Sunni faction and spread havoc.
Though Bush eventually acknowledged that most of Iraqi resistance was homegrown, he still asserted that al-Qaeda planned to use Iraq as the launching pad for its global "caliphate" from Spain to Indonesia and thus deal a strategic defeat to the United States.
"This caliphate would be a totalitarian Islamic empire encompassing all current and former Muslim lands, stretching from Europe to North Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia," Bush said in a typical reference to this claim in a Sept. 5, 2006, speech. "We know this because al-Qaeda has told us."
But many analysts saw Bush's nightmarish scenario as preposterous, given the deep divisions within the Islamic world and the hostility that many Muslims feel toward al-Qaeda, including the rejection of its hyper-violence and religious fundamentalism by more moderate Sunnis in Iraq's Anbar province.
Also, a National Intelligence Estimate representing the consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community stated in April 2006 that "the global jihadist movement is decentralized, lacks a coherent global strategy, and is becoming more diffuse." [Emphasis added.]
The NIE also concluded that the Iraq War -- rather than weakening the cause of Islamic terrorism -- had become a "cause celebre" that was "cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement."
Today, even as the Bush administration touts security gains in Iraq, a reorganized al-Qaeda and the Taliban have gone on the offensive in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where extremists were blamed for assassinating the U.S.-backed political leader Benazir Bhutto on Dec. 27, 2007.
Some counter-terrorism experts also warn that a rebuilt al-Qaeda -- operating from secure bases in Pakistan and training a new generation of extremists -- may be poised for another spectacular strike inside the United States.
By keeping the United States focused on Iraq, al-Qaeda and its allies may have bought themselves time to become a more lethal threat to both U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and to the American homeland.
Just as the Bush administration miscalculated the dangers in its first months in office, it may be making a similar mistake in its final months. [For more on this history, see our book Neck Deep.]