WASHINGTON – From news events this week, we can reach two startling conclusions about the war on terrorism: 1) Saddam Hussein really didn’t have nuclear weapons or even an active nuke program, and 2) the hunt for Afghanistan escapee Osama bin Laden is only now starting, and U.S. troops aren’t even involved.

And from these two conclusions, we can reach a highly disturbing third: President Bush has spent the past 18 months focusing on the wrong target.

Look at the salient facts in the latest news items, in case you missed them, and what they logically suggest.

For starters, the gas centrifuge parts that an Iraqi nuclear scientist in U.S. custody dug up in his Baghdad backyard were buried 12 years ago, just after the Gulf war. Originally acquired to make weapons-grade uranium, he says they’ve nonetheless never been used and have remained buried since 1991.

Far from being a smoking gun, the news only proves that Hussein didn’t have banned nuclear weapons, as Bush suggested, and he didn’t even have the enriched uranium required to make warheads, as Bush claimed. In fact, he didn’t have so much as a single centrifuge assembled to begin making the radioactive material.

So the Iraqi nuclear program President Bush insisted was active, and an immediate threat to America, was in fact long dormant, and embryonic at that. There was no dirty bomb to slip to al-Qaida, even if it were tied to Iraq, and therefore no valid justification for pulling resources from the original battle against the al-Qaida terrorists who attacked us.

That the CIA would invite CNN over to Langley to videotape the old dug-up parts shows just how little proof the administration has to support its pre-war claims, and how desperate it is to spin the public away from its burgeoning Weaponsgate scandal. The story did nothing to support its case other than to show Hussein’s intent to try to produce nuclear weapons – something the whole world has known he wanted to do since the last Gulf war. The administration’s unprovoked invasion was predicated not on intent, particularly not 12-year-old intent, but on a clear and present danger – one we now know didn’t exist.

Now turn to Bush’s press conference with Pakistani strongman Gen. Pervez Musharraf earlier this week at Camp David.

Asked if bin Laden were “back in business in Pakistan,” Musharraf said that the “possibility of his maybe shifting sides on the [Afghan-Pakistan] border is very much there.” Bush, who has never even publicly acknowledged that bin Laden is alive, let alone in Pakistan, did not dispute him.

Getting more specific, Musharraf said he may be hiding in a remote and “treacherous” area of northeastern Pakistan known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA. He said he’s sent in his own army to find him.

“It is the first time that the Pakistan army and our civil armed forces have entered this region,” he said.

In other words, it’s the first time they’ve searched that area for bin Laden – even though U.S. intelligence knew he’d fled there 19 months ago.

Worse, U.S. forces in Afghanistan have never searched there, and won’t now, because Musharraf still won’t let them cross the border (even after they’ve been attacked by marauding al-Qaida fighters based in those Pakistani badlands) – and Bush has agreed to this ban while pledging another $3 billion in aid to Musharraf for his “cooperation.”

As you can see from this map, the FATA is right across the Afghan border from Tora Bora, where bin Laden was holed up during Operation Enduring Freedom. U.S. intelligence believes he escaped to the FATA, a Pashtun tribal area friendly to bin Laden, in the first week of December 2001.

The administration has known this all this time, yet only now – only now! – is anyone hunting for him there. The lack of urgency is appalling.

How things have changed since Sept. 11, 2001.

In those trying days right after al-Qaida attacked America’s two most important cities, our financial and political centers in New York and Washington, Bush said he wanted its leader bin Laden “dead or alive.”

Yet our retaliation several weeks later focused, oddly enough, on the Taliban and regime change in Kabul, which allowed bin Laden time to slip out the back door of his Tora Bora redoubt and across the border into Pakistan.

At that point, Bush stopped talking about bin Laden altogether and suddenly lit into Hussein. Don’t worry so much about al-Qaida anymore, we were told, there’s more pressing business in Iraq.

Last fall, Bush actually suggested Iraq was behind the Sept. 11 attacks, and he warned that if we didn’t invade Baghdad soon we could wake up to something worse – “a mushroom cloud.” By the eve of the invasion, bin Laden had been morphed into Hussein, and most Americans bought into the hype of a looming Iraqi terrorist threat.

Meanwhile, however, al-Qaida was regaining strength, with bin Laden ordering new terrorists strikes around the world, killing more Americans. The renewed al-Qaida threat was clear in the series of tape-recorded warnings issued by bin Laden and his top aide Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Yet the Bush administration was practically deaf and blind to it.

Now it’s bogged down in Iraq, which is turning into a big shooting gallery for angry Iraqis looking to pick off our sitting-duck soldiers. All in the name of “regime change.”

And over in Kabul, the administration is preoccupied with propping up the regime it installed there, as it comes under attack from regrouping Taliban and al-Qaida.

In Pakistan, it’s letting a Muslim army hunt down America’s archenemy, even though Pakistani officers revere bin Laden for training and bankrolling Kashmiri insurgents. In effect, our commander in chief is letting their general fight our war.

This war grows curiouser and curiouser.

Whatever deals Bush has brokered behind the scenes
with Musharraf, he needs to suspend them now and send
two or three U.S. Army divisions into the FATA tribal
region of Pakistan to ferret out bin Laden, Zawahiri
and other al-Qaida leaders. We cannot afford to wait
for a Muslim army to do it for us. If Musharraf balks,
Bush should threaten to revoke U.S. aid and reimpose
economic sanctions.

We must decapitate the al-Qaida leadership from the body of suicidal nuts it inspires before it’s too late. Major al-Qaida attacks have come in two-year intervals, and al-Qaida sleeper cells here are just waiting for their next order from “the Sheikh.”

Kill the head, kill the body. Do it now.

Previous columns:

The folly of ‘liberating’ Muslims

Saddam bin Laden

The Iraq echo chamber

While Nero fiddled in Baghdad …

The royal families

Yellow is for politics

My picnic with Bill

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