Fighting war on terror in wrong places

The Baltimore Sun

ATLANTA -- What about Afghanistan? What about Pakistan? Add this to the sins of the Bush White House: Its foolish misadventure in Iraq has diverted our politics and our military away from those places that gave aid and comfort to the jihadists who staged the Sept. 11 attacks.

While Congress digests and debates conflicting reports over progress in Iraq - and while President Bush soft-pedals his own benchmarks to cover the failures of the Iraqi government - jihadists in Pakistan and its next-door neighbor, Afghanistan, plot and bomb and kidnap and maim, striking at local populations as well as U.S. and NATO forces.

Afghanistan was ground zero in the war on terror, the staging area for the terrorist atrocities that killed nearly 3,000 Americans six years ago. That's where Osama bin Laden set up his training camps, plotted his attack and picked the hijackers to send to U.S. flight schools. And when the United States invaded Afghanistan, he fled to the remote mountains of Pakistan, where he is probably still hiding.

Last week, German authorities arrested Islamist militants whom they contend were planning a major attack, perhaps an assault on Ramstein, the largest U.S. Air Force base outside North America. The jihadists had trained in a terrorist camp in Pakistan, authorities say. Islamists responsible for the London subway attacks, as well as those blamed in a disrupted plot to blow up U.S. airliners, also trained in Pakistan, intelligence officials say.

In July, a National Intelligence Estimate declared that al-Qaida had re-created safe havens in the remote mountains of Pakistan and "has protected or regenerated key elements of its homeland attack capability."

Yet Pakistan continues to be treated as if it's our oldest and dearest friend. You'd think its president, Pervez Musharraf, was Tony Blair. When Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, a Democratic presidential candidate, declared recently that he'd send U.S. Special Forces into Pakistan to ferret out jihadists if Mr. Musharraf refused to do so, his remarks were greeted as an outrage by his rivals, Democrats and Republicans.

Pakistan, it turns out, was the place where many of the evil deeds Mr. Bush blamed on Iraq were actually being carried out. Its intelligence service has had close ties to Islamic jihadists, including al-Qaida, since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. (Saddam Hussein, by contrast, was too suspicious of al-Qaida to form close ties.) And while one of Pakistan's highest-ranking government scientists, Abdul Qadeer Khan, shared technology for nuclear weapons - the most lethal kind of WMD - with North Korea, Libya and Iran, Mr. Hussein had no WMD to share.

Mr. Musharraf does occasionally aid U.S. forces in hunting down Islamists. For those desultory efforts, the United States gives his military $1 billion a year.

Neighboring Afghanistan, meanwhile, has become the world's largest producer of opium, accounting for more than 90 percent of the global supply, with proceeds from the cash crop supporting insurgents as well as assorted warlords. Even with NATO backing, the beleaguered government of President Hamid Karzai has never had the military power to take control of the entire country. Visiting the White House last month, Mr. Karzai said that security in his country has "definitely deteriorated."

Because American forces are stretched thin in Afghanistan, they frequently resort to air strikes when they're under attack. Those "surgical" strikes often end up killing civilians, including women and children - "collateral damage" that drives the locals into the arms of insurgents. Even Mr. Karzai has complained about the high rate of civilian casualties from U.S. assaults.

But with the so-called surge in Iraq straining the capacity of the all-volunteer military to the breaking point, we have no more troops to send to stave off a Taliban resurgence.

Most troubling of all, of course, is that six years after the attacks of Sept. 11, bin Laden is still out there, recruiting more "martyrs" to his insane crusade, with consequences we can only imagine.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is

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