President Barack Obama touched off American celebrations with his Sunday night announcement that U.S. forces finally had killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, but that long frustrating hunt might not have been necessary if George W. Bush had rejected neoconservative advice to pivot prematurely from Afghanistan to Iraq in late 2001.
In his memoir, Decision Points, Bush recalled how he began making that turn shortly after the 9/11 attacks at the advice of arch-neocon Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who "suggested that we consider confronting Iraq as well as the Taliban" in Afghanistan.
Bush wrote that he was initially reluctant to go in that direction:
"Unless I received definitive evidence tying Saddam Hussein to the 9/11 plot, I would work to resolve the Iraq problem diplomatically. I hoped unified pressure by the world might compel Saddam to meet his international obligations. The best way to show him we were serious was to succeed in Afghanistan."
But Bush did not fully succeed in Afghanistan. Though the U.S. invasion quickly toppled bin Laden's Taliban allies, Bush let his ego and impatience get the better of him as he left unfinished the task of getting bin Laden "dead or alive," as he had vowed.
Instead, Bush heeded his neocon advisers who were itching to take out Iraq's dictator Saddam Hussein, a longtime enemy of Israel whose nation was at the strategic center of the Middle East and happened to sit on the world's second-largest petroleum reserves.
In his memoir, Bush noted the crucial moment of his decision-making only in passing -- and without explaining the full significance of the timing.
By November 2001, bin Laden and other al-Qaeda's leaders were holed up at their mountain base in Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan. U.S. Special Forces units, working with Afghan militia, were on the trail but lacked the necessary forces and firepower.
It was at that moment when Bush made his fateful decision to pivot. He wrote:
"Two months after 9/11, I asked Don Rumsfeld to review the existing battle plans for Iraq. We needed to develop the coercive half of coercive diplomacy. Don tasked General Tommy Franks [then in charge of the Central Command covering the Middle East and Central Asia] with updating the plans. Just after Christmas 2001, Tommy came to Crawford to brief me on Iraq."
What Bush left out of that narrative was later revealed by a Senate Foreign Relations Committee investigation -- that Franks was overseeing the military operation aimed at capturing or killing bin Laden when Rumsfeld relayed Bush's order to freshen up the invasion plan for Iraq.
According to the committee's analysis of the Tora Bora battle, the small team of American pursuers believed they had bin Laden trapped at Tora Bora and called for reinforcements to seal off possible escape routes to Pakistan.
But Bush was instead heeding his neocon advisers and turning his attention to Iraq. The Senate report said:
"On November 21, 2001, President Bush put his arm on Defense Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld as they were leaving a National Security Council meeting at the White House. 'I need to see you,' the president said. It was 72 days after the 9/11 attacks and just a week after the fall of Kabul. But Bush already had new plans ... an invasion of Iraq."
Gen. Franks -- in his memoir, American General -- recalled that he got a phone call from Rumsfeld that same day, on Nov. 21. The Defense Secretary had just met with President Bush who was interested in an updated Iraq war plan.