June 30, 2008

In late 2007, Bush administration officials drafted a secret plan, giving the Defense Department's Special Operations forces greater ease to go into the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan, with the goal of targeting al-Qaida's top leaders.

The plan sounded very encouraging on paper -- it would sidestep turf wars between Washington and Islamabad, and target high-value targets where we know they are. So what happened? More than six months later, the plan has not yet been executed, and the Special Operations forces are still standing by, waiting for orders. Bureaucratic disputes within the administration have slowed the whole initiative down to a stop.

The New York Times reports that it's all part of a broader problem with Bush's counterterrorism strategy.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush committed the nation to a "war on terrorism" and made the destruction of Mr. bin Laden's network the top priority of his presidency. But it is increasingly clear that the Bush administration will leave office with Al Qaeda having successfully relocated its base from Afghanistan to Pakistan's tribal areas, where it has rebuilt much of its ability to attack from the region and broadcast its messages to militants across the world ...
Just as it had on the day before 9/11, Al Qaeda now has a band of terrorist camps from which to plan and train for attacks against Western targets, including the United States. Officials say the new camps are smaller than the ones the group used prior to 2001. However, despite dozens of American missile strikes in Pakistan since 2002, one retired C.I.A. officer estimated that the makeshift training compounds now have as many as 2,000 local and foreign militants, up from several hundred three years ago.

Publicly, senior American and Pakistani officials have said that the creation of a Qaeda haven in the tribal areas was in many ways inevitable -- that the lawless badlands where ethnic Pashtun tribes have resisted government control for centuries were a natural place for a dispirited terrorism network to find refuge. The American and Pakistani officials also blame a disastrous cease-fire brokered between the Pakistani government and militants in 2006.

But more than four dozen interviews in Washington and Pakistan tell another story. American intelligence officials say that the Qaeda hunt in Pakistan, code-named Operation Cannonball by the C.I.A. in 2006, was often undermined by bitter disagreements within the Bush administration and within the C.I.A., including about whether American commandos should launch ground raids inside the tribal areas.

Inside the C.I.A., the fights included clashes between the agency's outposts in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Islamabad. There were also battles between field officers and the Counterterrorist Center at C.I.A. headquarters, whose preference for carrying out raids remotely, via Predator missile strikes, was derided by officers in the Islamabad station as the work of "boys with toys."

The article went on to explain that many of the top, experienced intelligence officers who would have been assigned to the al Qaeda hunt weren't available. As one official put it, "Those people all went to Iraq. We were all hurting because of Iraq."

So the war in Iraq created an opportunity for al Qaeda to recruit more terrorists and, at the same time, made it harder to go after al Qaeda terrorists.

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