Democratic Underground

The One That Got Away
December 20, 2001
by Michael Shannon

Although there are a thousand and one reasons to question the competency of George W Bush in his role as the chief executive of the United States even his most vocal critics have tended to give him a pass on how he has conducted/headed the prosecution of the war on terrorism. With the events of the past several days it is highly doubtful if his aura of infallibility will last much longer. And if it does erode, as it is very likely to, he has no one to blame but himself.

For whether Mr Bush wants to admit it or not the perception that we have failed to this point is going to be very difficult to counter. With the near cessation of combat that has now taken hold in Afghanistan there is the growing realization that the target of the administration's effort has escaped our grasp. The question will soon shift from, "Where is bin Laden" to the much more politically damaging one of "How did he manage to slip through our fingers"?

That this human cockroach has vanished does not come as that much of a surprise. This is a man who has had months if not years to prepare routes of departure in the event they became necessary. What is going to be troubling is the allegations that the tactics of our combat operations were flawed in their design. The most questionable aspect of our strategic decision making was our near total reliance on high tech weaponry and non-American ground forces. Particularly when we appeared to have "tightened the noose" around bin Laden and had him "cornered." Nancy Gibbs, in this week's Time magazine, writes that "Navy Seals and Green Berets were massed on the ground" in the mountains of the Torra Bora region ready to spring the trap. Unfortunately, the rat was nowhere to be found.

While the bravery or the skill of these men - as with all the other members of the American armed forces that have put themselves in harms way - is beyond reproach, less than one hundred of them does not a mass make. Why would we use such a small number of troops to tackle a job of such staggering complexity and importance? Who decided that such a force was sufficient to the mission?

While the answer to that question might get kicked down the ladder to the field commander level, there is no ducking the fact that the commander in chief has the final say in overall strategy. Nor is there any denying that the man at the top was the one who is the most responsible for establishing the public's perception of who and what our quarry was in the first place.

As to be expected, the backpedaling and spinning is already beginning in earnest. And not just from the White House. Brian Williams - a man whose stature amongst the talking heads has grown exponentially over the past several months - was heard to say on the top of his broadcast of December 17th that the media is to blame for personalizing the struggle by making Bin Laden the focal point. While this may be true to a point - the media has made his the face of the evil we now combat - it is undeniable that the man at the root of it all was none other than President Bush himself. No spinning, no matter how ferocious, can change the fact that it was the President who looked directly into the camera - while sitting at the conference table with his entire cabinet present - and announced that he wanted this man "Dead or Alive". A declaration that may have been a godsend to headline writers worldwide but one in which the President not only put his rhetorical foot in his mouth - word has it that both his father and wife told him exactly that - but one that personalized the conflict to a dangerous degree. Albeit with some rationale.

If Usama bin Laden is who we have been led to believe he is - the mastermind and financier of a vast criminal conspiracy whose direct aim is the lessening of American influence in the Mideast by inflicting such a level of death and destruction upon its people and property as to force our government to rethink the wisdom of its involvement in that region - than it is imperative that we neutralize his ability to inflict such damage. Or to put it less delicately; if we wish to kill the snake that has bitten us so viciously once and promises to do so again and again we must remove its head. Not that this removal will cause the idealogy which motivates its actions - Islamic fundamentalism does not reside in any one man or even any one group of men - to dissolve, it will not, what it will do however is remove the clear and present danger posed by this specific group.

And while it is true that the efforts of the United States military have done great harm to the existing infrastructure of the Al Qaida network it would be folly to believe that it no longer is able to function. By our own admission/description this is an organization that works with a minimal amount of formal structure and visible support. Through a highly decentralized and widely diffused network of operatives it retains much of its lethal reach regardless of the loss of its home base.

Using the analogy of another bane of humanity: the death of Adolf Hitler did not mark the demise of totalitarianism or fascism but it did drive a stake into the heart of Nazism. Having bin Laden on the loose means the threat he poses is still very much alive and well. It is a reality that not only gives you and I pause but one which should give Mr Bush a sleepless night or two in the days ahead.

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