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Understanding the real costs of Iraq war


FOR MORE THAN a year, the people who follow international terrorism professionally have cautioned those of us who write about it occasionally not to misuse the term Al Qaeda the way we used to misuse the term Mafia.


Just as the fabled "commission" of organized crime family bosses obscured a wide variety of independently rapacious and murderous activity, they say, so Al Qaeda's existence obscures a wide variety of murderous activity that indicates substantial decentralization, if not actual independence. The term former counter-terrorism coordinator Richard Clarke has used since his book and critical views of the Bush and Clinton administrations surfaced this month -- "hydra-headed monster" -- is considered to be both accurate and ominous.

Worse, the fact that Al Qaeda has "morphed" -- to use another commonly employed word in the terrorism profession -- lends credence to perhaps Clarke's most telling criticism of all, that President Bush's decision to invade Iraq almost unilaterally last year has "seriously undermined" (Clarke's phrase) the more important struggle against worldwide terrorism by Islamic fanatics. His concern that confronting effectively the change in terrorism's structure and tactics has been undercut by the events in Iraq is but one of three major points he is making on this topic, and others would add a fourth.

Iraq and its impact on the war against terrorism was not the issue at hand when the House and Senate Intelligence Committees did their examination of the events leading up to Al Qaeda's attack on the United States in September 2001. It is also not the issue before the so-called 9/11 Commission, the independent body established for the same purpose that is getting far more access to Clinton and Bush administration records than did the initial inquiry.

However, the issue of Iraq is central to a substantive understanding of Clarke's criticism of Bush's war on terror that followed the 9/11 assaults. I know it is more fun to play the politics of all this, but the fact that the country's security is involved, and this influences the tone of the public discussions.

Clarke assumes that the almost entirely covert efforts to destroy the original Al Qaeda's leadership, to the extent we are fully aware of its membership, are going to keep on succeeding -- most likely with the elimination fairly soon of Osama bin Laden and his top strategist, Ayman Al-Zawahri. This is, however, an essential, minimal requirement whose actual impact on terrorism may not be all that substantial.

According to experts in and out of government, the reason is that Al Qaeda and terrorism have changed, and we have not kept up with the changes. The most dramatic evidence was the hideous attacks on the Madrid commuter train this month -- showing the ability of terrorists with roots outside Spain to plan, finance, and carry out an attack on a vulnerable target that was timed virtually on the eve of national elections for maximum impact.

This ability to adapt and grow should be deeply disturbing. As Clarke put it acerbically last week, it also should be disturbing that international terrorists have carried out more attacks in the 30 months since 9/11 than they did in the 30 months before it.

His second point is that the decision to invade Iraq and the way we did it diverted resources and top-level attention from the struggle with terrorism. The famous example is the elite Special Forces unit, complete with Arabic speakers and other highly specialized people, that was taken out of Afghanistan in 2002 and given new missions in Iraq; it has only just recently been transferred back to Afghanistan. That is the tip of a much larger iceberg.

The third point Clarke makes should be obvious. The invasion of Iraq was not just initially extremely unpopular in the Islamic world, it has been enduringly so. Much worse, the evidence indicates that while what Clarke used to refer to as the "human conveyor belt" of trained fighters and terrorists may have been destroyed in Afghanistan, it has been recreated in covert, more sinister form all over the Islamic world.

As the recent, shocking Pew Center survey of public opinion in Arab countries showed, support for terrorism is overwhelming, even in countries nominally allied with US policies, such as Tunisia and Morocco. The enormous opportunity that existed 30 months ago because of the widespread revulsion at the attacks in New York and here to undermine terrorism's appeal has been largely lost. Instead the appeal has been inflamed.

A final point involves Iraq itself. US officials admit they do not yet fully understand the nature of the continuing insurgency, but there is no doubt that foreign fighters with links across borders have a presence there that they did not have before the war.

The invasion, in other words, had real costs and consequences because of its nature and timing. Instead of assaulting the messenger, the Bush White House would help the stumbling president's political fortunes much more if it faced these consequences squarely and stopped denying the obvious.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is

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