Vice President Dick Cheney says he stands by his accusation that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s plan for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq would “validate the al-Qaeda strategy.” And he apparently thinks he got the better of this latest war of words.
However, if Pelosi ever goes beyond complaining that Cheney is impugning her “patriotism” – while Cheney counters that he is only questioning her “judgment” – she might point out that it is the Bush administration that has “validated” al-Qaeda’s 9/11 strategy over the past five years.
Captured al-Qaeda documents reveal that Osama bin Laden’s principal goal in the 9/11attacks was to lure the United States into a clumsy counterattack in the Middle East that would alienate Muslims, help al-Qaeda recruit more jihadists and bog down the American military in a no-win war.
Though bin Laden was mistaken in believing that Afghanistan would become the central front, he was right in pretty much every other part of his plan. At the time of 9/11, al-Qaeda was a fringe player in the Muslim world, with its leaders driven into exile and holed up in the mountains of Afghanistan.
Bin Laden understood that his movement had little hope if it couldn’t sharpen the animosities between the West and Islam – and force Muslims to pick sides between the U.S. “crusaders” and the “defenders of Islam.” He sought to position his terrorist movement as the chief beneficiary of that dividing line.
But bin Laden’s gamble over 9/11 was that al-Qaeda’s leadership might not survive a precise blow by the Americans.
According to Ron Suskind’s book, The One Percent Doctrine, bin Laden almost miscalculated by underestimating the ferocity and effectiveness of the original U.S. offensive in fall 2001. As he found himself cornered in the mountains of Tora Bora, bin Laden apologized to his followers for bringing them to the edge of destruction.
But then, in what may go down as one of the biggest military blunders in U.S. history, President George W. Bush failed to deploy American troops to block bin Laden’s escape routes, relying instead on Pakistani forces that were slow to move into place. Bin Laden and some of his top lieutenants escaped on horseback.
Bush then compounded his error by redirecting the focus of U.S. Special Forces from Afghanistan to Iraq. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban were badly bloodied but survived – and began to regroup.
By switching the central front from Afghanistan to Iraq in 2003, Bush even may have accelerated al-Qaeda’s progress.
Bush’s invasion of Iraq vitiated the international goodwill that surrounded the United States after the 9/11 attacks. It also eliminated one of bin Laden’s chief Arab rivals, the secular Saddam Hussein, while letting al-Qaeda exploit the chaos by attracting thousands of young jihadists to Iraq.
In spring 2003, however, Bush was basking in his acclaim as the “liberator” of both Afghanistan and Iraq. On May 1, 2003, he flew onto the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln and addressed the nation under the banner, “Mission Accomplished.”
In those heady days, Bush’s neoconservative advisers joked about whether they should attack Syria or Iran next, with the punch line: “Real men go to Tehran.” It was like they were reliving the days of Alexander the Great, conquering one country of the ancient world after another.
A different reality, however, was taking shape across the Middle East. The Arab street was turning decisively against Bush, Cheney and the United States. The Bush-Cheney arrogance and aggressiveness made bin Laden seem, to some, almost a prophet.
Scandals over Guantanamo Bay detentions, Abu Ghraib abuses and secret CIA prisons further fueled Islamic extremism and gave new political life to the 9/11 masterminds. Al-Qaeda’s ranks were swelling, both in Iraq and at new bases set up inside Pakistan.
Meanwhile, Bush, the self-proclaimed “war president,” refused to acknowledge the growing seriousness of an Iraqi insurgency. As the death toll mounted, however, Bush’s popularity within the United States slipped.
In 2004, Bush found himself locked in a close race with Democrat John Kerry, who despite a lackluster campaign was running neck and neck with the incumbent President. The prospect of a Kerry victory – and a possible reversal of Bush’s policies – represented a threat to al-Qaeda’s rebound.
So, on the Friday before the Nov. 2, 2004, election, bin Laden broke nearly a year of silence to release a videotape denouncing Bush. Bush’s supporters quickly spun bin Laden’s tirade as an “endorsement” of Kerry and pollsters recorded a jump of several percentage points for Bush, from nearly a dead heat to a five- or six-point lead.
Four days later, Bush hung on to win a second term by an official margin of less than three percentage points. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Bush-Bin Laden Symbiosis.”]
The intervention by bin Laden – essentially urging Americans to reject Bush – had the predictable effect of driving voters to the President. After the videotape appeared, senior CIA analysts concluded that ensuring a second term for Bush was precisely what bin Laden intended.
“Bin Laden certainly did a nice favor today for the President,” said deputy CIA director John McLaughlin in opening a meeting to review secret “strategic analysis” after the videotape had dominated the day’s news, according to Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine, which draws heavily from CIA insiders.
Suskind wrote that CIA analysts had spent years “parsing each expressed word of the al-Qaeda leader and his deputy, [Ayman al] Zawahiri. What they’d learned over nearly a decade is that bin Laden speaks only for strategic reasons. … Today’s conclusion: bin Laden’s message was clearly designed to assist the President’s reelection.”
Jami Miscik, CIA deputy associate director for intelligence, expressed the consensus view that bin Laden recognized how Bush’s heavy-handed policies were serving al-Qaeda’s strategic goals.
“Certainly,” Miscik said, “he would want Bush to keep doing what he’s doing for a few more years.”
As their internal assessment sank in, the CIA analysts were troubled by the implications of their own conclusions. “An ocean of hard truths before them – such as what did it say about U.S. policies that bin Laden would want Bush reelected – remained untouched,” Suskind wrote.
Even Bush recognized that his struggling campaign had been helped by bin Laden. “I thought it was going to help,” Bush said in a post-election interview about the videotape. “I thought it would help remind people that if bin Laden doesn’t want Bush to be the President, something must be right with Bush.”
Bin Laden, a well-educated Saudi and a keen observer of U.S. politics, appears to have recognized the same point in cleverly tipping the election to Bush.
Prolonging the War
Al-Qaeda’s leaders recognized that their greatest strategic vulnerability would come from the United States withdrawing its forces from Iraq. Not only would that deny al-Qaeda its chief recruitment attraction but it could free up American troops for a renewed offensive against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
It was as if al-Qaeda had its own version of Bush’s line about fighting the terrorists in Iraq so we don’t have to fight them in America, except al-Qaeda’s version was that it was best to keep U.S. troops tied down in Iraq so they couldn’t fight al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
Plus, there was concern about an al-Qaeda collapse inside Iraq if the Americans departed too quickly and the young jihadists gave up the fight and went home.
According to a captured July 9, 2005, letter, attributed to Zawahiri, al-Qaeda leaders fretted that a sudden U.S. withdrawal from Iraq might touch off the disintegration of their operations there.
“The mujahaddin must not have their mission end with the expulsion of the Americans from Iraq, and then lay down their weapons, and silence the fighting zeal,” said the “Zawahiri letter,” according to a text released by the office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence.
In another captured letter, dated Dec. 11, 2005, another senior al-Qaeda operative, known as “Atiyah,” wrote that “prolonging the war [in Iraq] is in our interest.” [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Al-Qaeda’s Fragile Foothold.”]
Al-Qaeda’s “Bush-second-term” strategy now appears to be paying big dividends. Al-Qaeda’s Taliban allies are back on their feet and back on the offensive in Afghanistan. New al-Qaeda units also are undergoing training in Pakistan.
In Iraq, al-Qaeda still makes up only a small percentage of the armed insurgency – probably less than five percent – but it benefits from the arrival of new recruits and the opportunity to test out military tactics against the Americans.
Plus, al-Qaeda has been rebuilding its command-and-control structure.
“American officials said there was mounting evidence that Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had been steadily building an operations hub in the mountainous Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan,” the New York Times reported on Feb. 19.
“As recently as 2005, American intelligence assessments described senior leaders of al-Qaeda as cut off from their foot soldiers and able only to provide inspiration for future attacks. But more recent intelligence describes the organization’s hierarchy as intact and strengthening,” the Times wrote.
The Times quoted one American government official as saying “the chain of command has been reestablished” and that al-Qaeda’s “leadership command and control is robust.” [NYT, Feb. 19, 2007]
This al-Qaeda comeback was the backdrop for Cheney’s recent trip to the Middle East during which he accused Speaker Pelosi of playing into al-Qaeda’s hands by advocating a phased U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
“Al Qaeda functions on the basis that they think they can break our will,” Cheney said. “That’s there fundamental underlying strategy: that if they can kill enough Americans or cause enough havoc, create enough chaos in Iraq, then we’ll go home. …
“If we adopt the Pelosi policy, that then we will validate the strategy of al-Qaeda.”
After Pelosi protested to the White House, Cheney responded, “She accused me of questioning her patriotism. I didn’t question her patriotism. I questioned her judgment.” [Washington Post, Feb. 24, 2007]
Later, in a thinly disguised background briefing attributed only to a “senior administration official,” Cheney told reporters along on his trip, “I was very careful” in choosing the words used to criticize Pelosi. [Washington Post, March 1, 2007]
However, the larger question is whether the U.S. intelligence analysts are right about al-Qaeda’s desire for Bush and Cheney to continue their war policies in Iraq – or whether Bush and Cheney are right that al-Qaeda really wants U.S. forces out of Iraq.
At this point, the evidence – and the results of five years of the Bush-Cheney policies – would seem to support a conclusion that al-Qaeda is just delighted for the U.S. occupation of Iraq to continue indefinitely.
That disastrous war, more than anything, has validated al-Qaeda’s bloodthirsty 9/11 strategy.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'