The 75,000 classified Afghan War reports, which were just published by Wikileaks, provide a troubling narrative of that conflict's downward spiral as President George W. Bush concentrated the American military on the neoconservative target of choice, Iraq.
Though the reports don't directly address Bush's strategic blunder, they tell the story of badly stretched U.S. forces trying to manage a complex task in Afghanistan while the Taliban, al-Qaeda and their allies in Pakistan regrouped along the border and became a dangerous adversary.
Also indirectly, the reports underscore the successful counter-strategy pursued by al-Qaeda leaders, to keep the United States bogged down in Iraq while they rebuilt their capabilities in their safe havens within the tribal territories of northwest Pakistan.
Some of that strategy was already known. For instance, one of Osama bin Laden's top lieutenants, called "Atiyah," wrote in a letter dated Dec. 11, 2005, that "prolonging the war [in Iraq] is in our interest." The letter was sent to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the hyper-violent leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq who was killed by a U.S. bombing raid in June 2006.
Atiyah's advice to Zarqawi had been to tone down his violence against Iraqis and to proceed more patiently in developing alliances. Al-Qaeda's leadership in Pakistan was clearly worried that Zarqawi was alienating too many Iraqis by trying to rush the war against the Americans.
It was in that context that Atiyah informed Zarqawi that the broader strategy was to keep U.S. attention on Iraq by "prolonging the war." Back in Washington, President Bush continued to play into al-Qaeda's hands by insisting that Iraq was "the central front in the war on terror."
Other intelligence information also revealed that in 2004, al-Qaeda understood that its situation along the Pakistani-Afghan border remained precarious and would improve only if Bush continued his blunderbuss approach that was alienating people across the Muslim world.
Al-Qaeda leaders even feared that a rapid U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would cause many of its young recruits to put down their guns and go home. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com's "Al-Qaeda's Fragile Foothold."]
Bin Laden Boosts Bush
In late October 2004, U.S. intelligence analysts concluded that bin Laden released a pre-election video with the intent of helping Bush gain a second term so his war policies would continue.
Bin Laden devoted most of his harangue to denouncing Bush in what looked like a Brer Rabbit ploy of "Don't throw me in the briar patch" suggesting to American voters that whatever they do, don't give Bush a second term when that was exactly what al-Qaeda wanted.
After bin Laden's video dominated the news on the Friday before Election 2004, a meeting of senior CIA analysts began with deputy CIA director John McLaughlin observing that "bin Laden certainly did a nice favor today for the President," according to Ron Suskind's book The One Percent Doctrine, which relies heavily on CIA insiders.
"Certainly," CIA deputy associate director for intelligence Jami Miscik said, "he [bin Laden] would want Bush to keep doing what he's doing for a few more years," according to Suskind's account of the meeting.
As their internal assessment sank in, the CIA analysts drifted into silence, troubled by the implications of their own conclusions. "An ocean of hard truths before them such as what did it say about U.S. policies that bin Laden would want Bush reelected remained untouched," Suskind wrote.
If helping Bush was bin Laden's intent, the strategy appeared to work. Two last-minute polls showed Bush moving from a virtual dead heat with Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, to about a five percentage point lead. Bush then hung on to win by an official margin of less than three points.