The mistake we made before 9/11 - and after

CHICAGO — CHICAGO - In its final report, the 9/11 commission reached an obvious conclusion that explains how terrorists were able to kill nearly 3,000 Americans: "Terrorism was not the overriding national security concern for the U.S. government under either the Clinton or the pre-9/11 Bush administration."

And guess what: It still isn't.


In the aftermath of the worst terrorist attacks in our history, the president did the right thing - going after al-Qaida operatives in Afghanistan, who helped plan and finance the hijackings, and the Taliban government, which furnished them a haven.

But even though that effort fell short in many ways, such as failing to eliminate Osama bin Laden, the administration soon lost interest in Afghanistan.


Instead of keeping its focus on al-Qaida, which had come after Americans on U.S. soil, the administration allowed itself to be distracted by Iraq, which had not.

Terrorism has not been at the center of our foreign and military policy for the last two years: Iraq has. Everything else has been subordinated to this unexpectedly demanding mission.

Though President Bush portrays the toppling of Saddam Hussein as a crucial part of the global war on terrorism, it wasn't. That's easy to forget, since we're now fighting a war in Iraq against enemies who use terrorist methods. But the terrorists we're fighting in Iraq are almost all people who were not terrorists before we invaded. They're the offspring of our invasion.

Mr. Hussein, by contrast, wasn't working with bin Laden or anyone else who posed a genuine threat to Americans. Iraq was not in any meaningful sense a refuge for al-Qaida, a supporter of al-Qaida or a partner with al-Qaida. Mr. Hussein may have posed a long-term danger to U.S. interests, but he was not a terrorist threat to us, and toppling him did nothing to defeat the people behind Sept. 11, 2001.

It did, however, divert us from doing what we need to do to defeat them.

To invade Iraq, the Pentagon had to shift forces and equipment from Afghanistan to Iraq, which has soaked up more of our resources than the administration ever imagined.

Seth Jones, a senior researcher at the Rand Corp., a California-based think tank, notes that the American military commitment in Afghanistan has been smaller, on a per capita basis, than for any other nation-building effort we've undertaken since World War II. We have only 18,000 troops there - compared with some 140,000 in Iraq. Our economic assistance amounts to $57 a year for every person in Afghanistan, which is only 4 percent of what we spent to rebuild Bosnia and 13 percent of what we're providing for Iraq.

What's the result?


"If you take the number of terrorist and insurgent attacks and the number of people that have been killed, they've increased almost every quarter since the fall of the Taliban," says Mr. Jones, who recently returned from Afghanistan. It's an open question whether Hamid Karzai's government will be able to hold the presidential election scheduled for October.

The 9/11 commission fears that Afghanistan may plunge back into chaos. If so, the United States may have to redo the job it couldn't be bothered to get right the first time.

Other needs have also been ignored. Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, who were senior counterterrorism officials in the Clinton White House, warn that too little has been done on the home front. In the new paperback edition of their book The Age of Sacred Terror, they note, "Roughly $160 billion in new funds has been poured into national security since the fall of 2001, yet only a small fraction has been used to make Americans safer at home."

They lament that the administration pours billions into ballistic missile defense while failing to protect airliners against shoulder-fired missiles - which are easily available to terrorist groups and which "have been used dozens of times against commercial aircraft, mostly in African war zones."

We may not awaken to the mistake we made by detouring through Iraq until we get the kind of reminder we got on Sept. 11, 2001.

On Friday, The New York Times quoted senior intelligence officials who say they have information of a possible impending attack in this country on the same scale - reportedly being planned with the help of bin Laden.


Many of the same people who brought about the 9/11 attacks are still at large and hoping to strike again.

If they succeed, it will be at least partly because they didn't get our full attention.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.