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Editor’s note: This column was first posted Feb. 21, 2002.

WASHINGTON – In case you missed it, President Bush and his national security team took time out from the war to pose for the cover of this month’s Vanity Fair. Celebrity shutterbug Annie Leibovitz snapped the group shot, which looks like a White House version of the Mod Squad.

Normally people mug for the cameras after they’ve accomplished something big. With terrorist leaders Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar still running loose, we’re a long way from victory in the war on terrorism.

But you’d never know it from all the cocky White House imagery and rhetoric.

In his State of the Union speech last month – in which he avoided mentioning bin Laden – Bush gushed: “In four short months, our nation has rallied a great coalition, captured, arrested and rid the world of thousands of terrorists, destroyed Afghanistan’s terrorist training camps, saved a people from starvation and freed a country from brutal oppression.”

That echoed his boast on Jan. 5, during a speech in Oregon: “We led a coalition that liberated women and children.”

“I’m proud of the fact that at the same time we waged a war against al-Qaida and Taliban, we fed the people,” he added. “While we dropped bombs, we also dropped food and medicine and clothing.”

At his Texas ranch on Dec. 28, a gloating Bush thumbed his nose at early naysayers.

“A couple of months ago, a lot of people said that this administration and our military really weren’t sure what we were doing,” he said. “But I had confidence all along in the success of what we set out to do.”

“What about bin Laden?” a reporter dared to ask.

“This is a guy who three months ago was in control of a country,” Bush frostily replied, as if the battle were over geography. “Now he’s maybe in control of a cave.”

More important, he implied, was liberating Afghanistan and installing a new government in Kabul.

“For the first time in decades, more than 26 million people will have an opportunity to have their way represented in that government,” Bush said, forgetting the 285 million people here who remain in bin Laden’s cross hairs, no matter where he is, so long as he’s free.

Asked about bin Laden again last month by NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, Bush snapped, “He’s not it; he’s a part of the big objective.”

“Osama bin Laden is not my focus,” he asserted.

Bush elaborated in a Jan. 15 speech in New Orleans: “The Taliban no longer rules in Afghanistan. We met that objective.”

“And in doing so,” he added, “we liberated a group of people that had been terrorized. We liberated women and children.”

Enough spin. Now for the facts.

The objective, as originally stated by Bush, was never to liberate Afghanistan. Or rebuild Afghanistan. Or feed Afghan children. Or free Afghan women from the oppression of Taliban clerics.

Though Bush expressed sympathy for Afghans, his plan of action was limited to protecting Americans from the al-Qaida global network of terrorism.

Turn to the transcript of the president’s Sept. 20 congressional speech laying out the objectives of the war.

Bush was very specific in demanding the Taliban “deliver to United States authorities all of the leaders of al-Qaida who hide in your land.”

All leaders, of course, includes bin Laden.

“They will hand over the terrorists, or they will share in their fate,” Bush said.

The Taliban – namely, Omar – failed to turn over bin Laden and his top henchmen, most of whom are still free to do harm against America. And the only fate the Taliban leaders shared with al-Qaida leaders was freedom.

Bush dropped 2,000-pound bombs, scattering the enemy, then farmed out the fighting on the ground to local opposition tribesmen. Who were these locals? Fellow Muslims, whose first loyalty was to Allah, not America. No wonder bin Laden and Omar are still on the loose.

Our commander in chief insists it was “a good strategy.”

But the effectiveness of strategies is measured by their results. Here’s a reality check:

  • After five months, only two of al-Qaida’s top 10 leaders have been confirmed dead by U.S. intelligence.

  • Only eight of all the 42 al-Qaida leaders have been killed or detained.

  • Only one terrorist on the FBI’s most wanted list, Mohammed Atef, has been taken out.

  • Of the tens of thousands of al-Qaida and Taliban forces in Afghanistan, only 482 are in custody.

  • As a result, the FBI says al-Qaida’s capacity to attack the U.S. again has been reduced by only 30 percent, leaving it a potent force.

No matter what Bush says, relying on proxy forces in Afghanistan to hunt down bin Laden and Omar was not only not a “good strategy,” it was a particularly bad one. And it’s not unpatriotic for American civilians to say so, when their very lives may depend on that strategy.

We have no idea where bin Laden is now.

But we knew where he was when we started the war. He was in southern Afghanistan. We should have invaded on the ground, sealing off the border with Pakistan, then closed in on him. Instead, we just stirred up an anthill from the air and counted on local Muslims on the ground to capture or kill a fleeing fellow Muslim.

While this may sound like Monday-morning quarterbacking, I was one of the earliest and most consistent critics of the administration’s strategy.

On Sept. 17, I warned Bush not to declare victory with the job half finished like his father did in the Gulf war. I also questioned the wisdom of him forging an alliance with pro-Taliban Pakistan, and pleaded that he allow us to fight this battle ourselves and not subcontract it out to others who weren’t attacked and might not have our best interests at heart. And I raised similar concerns on other days (see links to related columns below).

Bush is trying to beard the failed strategy by pretending this “dangerous phase” of hunting down Omar and bin Laden was planned all along.

But don’t kid yourself. There never was a Phase 2 on the drawing boards. We’re in Phase 2 only because Phase 1 didn’t work.

By crowing about false objectives met, such as liberating Afghanistan, Bush may be lulling Americans into a false sense of security. The CIA says al-Qaida forces are regrouping and preparing to launch additional attacks on America.

“My biggest job as your president is to make sure no one harms the American people,” Bush said early last month in Oregon.

Well, you haven’t done your job, sir, so please spare us the magazine cover spreads until you do.

After five months of brokering out our power to local Muslims who ultimately betrayed us by ensuring the safe passage of our enemy, the brains of the terrorist operation are still at large. And as evidenced by the continued threat alerts issued by the Bush administration, we are still highly vulnerable to attacks ordered by these same ruthlessly smart, ambitious and charismatic Islamic militants who ordered the Sept. 11 massacre.

The goal of this war, despite the spin, was always – starting even on Sept. 11, as my Pentagon sources conveyed that horrific day – simply to get bin Laden and protect Americans from his evil mind. Until the head of the al-Qaida global network is severed, Americans will not be safe.

And until that happens, Bush cannot claim success and can only rationalize failure.


Related columns:

No Basra this time

Bush’s mixed messages

Charity begins at home

The compassionate war flops

Is Bush a sentimental fool?

Victory? What victory?

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