WASHINGTON -- Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said in an internal memo last week that more than two years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks it remains unclear if the United States is winning the war on terrorism or whether the ranks of Islamic militants are growing faster than the US government can stop them.
For Rumsfeld, who has been one of the Bush administration's leading public voices in its worldwide campaign to root out terrorists, it was a rare expression of doubt.
"Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror," he told his top lieutenants. "Is our current situation such that the harder we work, the behinder we get?"
The memo, first reported yesterday by USA Today, outlined "mixed results" in the battle against the Al Qaeda network, the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks, and offered a stark outlook for military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, saying both endeavors will be a "long, hard slog" even if it is "pretty clear" that the US-led coalition can ultimately win.
To some foreign policy and terrorism specialists, the missive was interpreted as a realization among senior administration officials that its offensives against terrorists are not enough to ensure long-term security. The aggressive tactics used in the war on terrorism -- by the military, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies -- must be matched with public campaigns to win the "hearts and minds" of Muslims who could become anti-American radicals, the specialists said. "The US is putting relatively little effort into a long-range plan," Rumsfeld wrote, "but we are putting a great deal of effort into trying to stop terrorists. The cost-benefit ratio is against us. Our cost is billions against the terrorists' costs of millions."
President Bush, traveling in Australia, supported Rumsfeld, saying he agreed that the "war is going to be tough work, and it's going to take a while."
Bush said he had not seen the secretary's memo but said that as for the idea of doing more to prepare, "I cannot agree more," the Associated Press reported.
Daniel Benjamin, a terrorism official on the National Security Council in the Clinton administration and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the memo is a positive sign.
"I am delighted that Rumsfeld is asking these questions," Benjamin said. "You would never get the sense from the public presentation that there was that much self-criticism going on."
The memo was sent on Oct. 16 to Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Richard B. Myers, Joint Chiefs vice chairman General Peter Pace, and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith. Pentagon aides downplayed the note's significance yesterday by describing it as a typical letter from Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld is known for blanketing aides with memos he calls "snowflakes" that are intended -- as he told reporters yesterday -- to raise questions "in the broadest possible context."
Larry Di Rita, his spokesman, said: "He injects urgency. He asks questions, and he gets people thinking about things."
The memo provided insight into the defense secretary's thinking about what it will take to win the war on terrorism and build stable societies in Iraq and Afghanistan that no longer threaten American interests.
"We are having mixed results with Al Qaeda, although we have put considerable pressure on them," he wrote. "Nonetheless, a great many [of its members] remain at large."
Rumsfeld said "reasonable progress" has been made in tracking down the top 55 leaders of the former Iraqi regime, but "somewhat slower" strides have been made in tracking down leaders of the former Taliban regime that ruled Afghanistan and provided safe harbor to Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his terrorist camps that trained tens of thousands of recruits. The hunt for members of the Al Qaeda-linked group Ansar Al Islam in Iraq, he added, is "just getting started."
As for the long-term goal of rolling back Islamic militancy, Rumsfeld asked several more pointed questions.
"Have we fashioned the right mix of rewards, amnesty, protection, and confidence in the US? Does the US need to fashion a broad, integrated plan to stop the next generation of terrorists? Do we need a new organization? How do we stop those who are financing the radical . . . schools? Are we capturing, killing, or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the [religious schools] and the radical clerics are recruiting, training, and deploying against us?" he added.
Specialists expressed hope that the memo would prompt some hard thinking about what more the United States should be doing to counterbalance its heavy emphasis on military force with other nonviolent strategies to limit the radicalization of Muslim populations.
"What has been lost in the war on terrorism, above all, is a realistic sense of Al Qaeda's relationship to the larger environment of the Muslim world and the long-term threat from radical Islam," Benjamin said.
"I do think [Rumsfeld] recognizes there are problems out there, and he is asking the questions," said Vincent Cannistraro, former counterterrorism chief at the CIA.
Benjamin said that constructing a long-term policy to reduce the ranks of terrorist recruits, however, is not the job of the Pentagon. "We have an Iraq policy, but not a radical Islam policy. Iraq was not a terrorism problem before we invaded." In his memo, Rumsfeld noted that "it is not possible to change [the Defense Department] fast enough to successfully fight the war on terror; an alternative might be to try to fashion a new institution, either within [the Pentagon] or elsewhere -- one that seamlessly focuses the capabilities of several departments and agencies on this key problem."