Afghan election count nears end as suicide bomb reminds of dangers
Sunday October 24, 9:46 AM AFP
Afghanistan's presidential vote count neared its end with Hamid Karzai edging closer to victory, but a weekend suicide blast in Kabul offered a deadly reminder of the dangers facing the war-weary nation.
An Afghan girl died and nine people, including three Icelandic peacekeepers from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), were injured in Saturday afternoon's strike on the famous "Chicken Street" shopping strip.
The hardline Taliban militia, which US forces had written off as a demoralised outfit after they failed to carry out promised attacks in the lead-up to the historic October 9 presidential polls, claimed responsibility.
The Taliban also said it was behind a roadside bombing hours earlier in the east of the country that injured a US soldier.
The Kabul suicide bombing brought to 20 the number of people who have been killed in militant-related violence since the election, which US-backed interim leader Karzai looked certain to win with 81.1 percent of the votes tallied.
The latest figures, released on the official electoral website on Saturday afternoon, showed Karzai had won 3,574,203 votes, or 54.6 percent, of the 6,628,072 ballots counted.
His nearest rival, former education minister and ethnic Tajik Yunus Qanooni, had 17.0 percent of the vote.
Hazara warlord Mohammad Mohaqiq was in third place with 11.1 percent of the vote after his vote climbed 0.7 percentage points throughout Saturday's counting.
Mohaqiq overtook Uzbek military strongman Abdul Rashid Dostam, whose vote fell 0.2 percentage points throughout the day to 10.7 percent.
Karzai needs about 500,000 more votes to attain the simple majority of 50 percent-plus-one votes to avoid a second-round run-off and his aides said they were confident this would be achieved.
"I wouldn't say that we are concerned," a presidential palace source said Saturday when asked about the possibility of Karzai's vote dipping below the key 50 percent figure.
Karzai's tally is likely to surpass the simple majority within days but the official declaration of the winner will be delayed until all votes are counted and an investigation of complaints about the poll is completed.
The UN-Afghan electoral commission known as the Joint Electoral Management Body will be the final arbiter of the poll, and a UN spokesman has indicated an official declaration may not come until as late as next month.
Saturday's suicide bombing in Kabul was the most brazen attack following several other outbreaks of violence around Afghanistan since the peaceful polling day.
Kabul police chief general Baba Jan said the suicide bomber walked into crowded Chicken Street, an area popular with foreigners, and blew up grenades that were strapped to his body at 3:30 pm (1100 GMT).
"We claim responsibility for all attacks against foreign troops in Afghanistan, as well as today's attack in Kabul," Taliban spokesman Abdul Latif Hakimi told AFP by satellite phone from an undisclosed location.
"We didn't attack the elections because we did not want to harm and kill innocent people, but the Americans and foreign troops are our enemies.
"There will be more attacks around the country such as today's attacks. We will remain an enemy of this government, we don't care if it is elected."
The Taliban ruled Afghanistan for five years until US-led forces ousted them in 2001 for harbouring Osama bin Laden, who orchestrated the September 11 attacks on the United States, and his Al-Qaeda network.
The presidential elections are being seen inside and outside of Afghanistan as a crucial step in the nation establishing democracy and ending decades of violent rule.
Man Kills Self in Afghan Grenade Attack
Sat Oct 23, 3:39 PM ET By STEPHEN GRAHAM, Associated Press Writer
KABUL, Afghanistan - A purported Taliban militant with grenades strapped to his body detonated them on a bustling Kabul shopping street popular with foreigners Saturday, killing himself and wounding seven others, including three NATO soldiers, Afghan and U.S. officials said.
The bombing broke a lull in violence in Kabul following a security clampdown for landmark presidential elections that U.S.-backed interim leader Hamid Karzai appeared set to win.
A Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for the assault, which left the bomber's mutilated body slumped between the soldiers' car and the front of a carpet store.
Also, a bomb exploded near a U.S. military truck in eastern Nangahar province, damaging its windshield and injuring the hand of a Marine, American military spokesman Maj. Mark McCann said.
Lt. Col. Patrick Poulain, a spokesman for the NATO-led force that has provided security in Kabul since the Taliban fell in 2001 after a U.S. invasion, said the attacker was on downtown Chicken Street when he threw at least three hand grenades, one of which failed to explode.
The city's police chief, Gen. Baba Jan, said the man then detonated about more six grenades, apparently strapped to his body.
Two soldiers were slightly wounded but the third was hurt "more seriously," Poulain said. He declined to give the nationalities of the soldiers, who were admitted to a German-run field hospital, but NATO troops at the scene said they included Norwegians.
Poulain said three Afghan civilians and an unidentified foreign woman also were injured. Police had no word on any foreign woman being among the injured.
Abdul Wahid, who runs a shop next door to where the attack happened, said he heard three explosions, rushed outside and saw five injured people: an injured Western woman, two foreign soldiers and two Afghan children — a young girl who often begged there, and the 13-year-old son of a shopkeeper.
"I saw the beggar girl running down the street, her hands covered in blood," he told The Associated Press.
Police sealed off the street as Afghan investigators examined the attacker's remains, which lay twisted on the sidewalk amid discarded shoes and broken glass.
One officer retrieved a tattered sleeve containing the man's blackened arm from the other side of the road.
A sport utility vehicle bearing the green insignia of the NATO force sat in front of the store, its engine still running, but with one rear window blown out and its front tires punctured by the explosion.
Chicken Street, the heart of Kabul's rejuvenated commercial district, is crammed with convenience stores and souvenir shops popular with foreign aid workers and soldiers.
Security officials and embassies warned that the area could present an ideal target for extremists.
The U.S. Embassy has urged caution during the election period, especially since a car bomb at the office of an U.S. security contractor killed about 10 people, including three Americans, on Aug. 29.
Mullah Abdul Hakim Latifi, a Taliban spokesman, said one of its fighters carried out the latest attack.
"This man was an Afghan, and he had a bomb strapped to his body," Latifi told AP by satellite telephone from an undisclosed location. "The elections cannot stop our holy war."
The claim's authenticity could not be verified. Some previous assertions of responsibility for attacks from Latifi have turned out to be false.
In January, the Taliban claimed back-to-back suicide bombings in Kabul. They killed two NATO soldiers — one Canadian, one British. Investigators looking into the case have disclosed no findings.
About 1,000 people have died in political violence across Afghanistan this year, but Oct. 9 elections passed without major violence. Officials asserted that the Taliban are a fading force and that the country is on course for stability after a quarter-century of strife.
Preliminary results suggest that Karzai, who enjoys strong American backing, is heading for victory, probably with the simple majority needed to avoid a run-off.
With 6.6 million votes, or four-fifths of the total, counted as of Saturday evening, the interim leader had more than 3.57 million votes, or 54.6 percent. Former Education Minister Yunus Qanooni trailed with 17 percent.
Taliban claim suicide bomb attack on Kabul shopping street
Sunday October 24, 1:51 AM AFP
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the suicide bomb attack in Kabul and promised more to come under Afghanistan's first elected president, who is just days away from being announced.
"We claim responsibility for all attacks against foreign troops in Afghanistan, as well as today's attack in Kabul," Taliban spokesman Abdul Latif Hakimi told AFP by satellite phone from an undisclosed location.
"There will be more attacks around the country such as (Saturday's) attacks."
Three Icelandic peacekeepers, an unidentified foreign woman and three Afghans were wounded when a bearded man with grenades strapped under his traditional long smock blew himself up in the city's bustling "Chicken Street" at 3.30pm (1100 GMT).
Dozens of people were browsing through its bulging antique and carpet shops in autumn afternoon sunshine when the bomber struck. His ruptured body ended up on the sidewalk beneath two woven red carpets hung on display.
The attack in downtown Kabul was the boldest of several attacks by the Taliban since the October 9 presidential elections, which they failed to disrupt through violence despite pledging to do so.
It also came as the vote count neared to a close, surpassing 81 percent.
Incumbent leader Hamid Karzai, who has offered to bring moderate Taliban into a future administration, is on course for outright victory with 54.6 percent of votes.
Hakimi also claimed the Taliban were behind a small roadside bombing of a United States troop convoy in eastern Nangarhar province near the Pakistani frontier on Saturday.
One soldier was slightly injured when his vehicle hit a home-made bomb planted by suspected militants, US military spokesman Master Sergeant Wendy Frable told AFP.
Hakimi claimed "some American soldiers" were killed in the attack, but Frable said only one suffered "very minor injuries".
US military officials had been writing off the Taliban as a demoralized, divided force after they failed to disrupt this month's election.
But several attacks around Afghanistan since the surprisingly peaceful polling day have claimed at least 20 lives, including two US soldiers and three children.
"We didn't attack the elections because we did not want to harm and kill innocent people, but the Americans and foreign troops are our enemies," Hakimi said.
"We will remain an enemy of this government, we don't care if it is elected or selected."
In the past fortnight two Afghans have been killed in separate night-time rocket attacks on Kabul, and a remote-controlled bomb killed three children and an adult in eastern Kunar province.
Five Afghans were also killed in a roadside bomb attack in Paktika province, and two US troops were killed in similar circumstances in central Uruzgan province.
The Taliban were ousted from power by a US-led invasion at the end of 2001 for sheltering Al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden, who organized the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
U.S. troops feared dead, injured in Afghan mine blast
Saturday October 23, 9:18 PM Kyodo via Yahoo! Asia News
Several U.S. troops were feared dead and injured Saturday after their vehicle ran over a land mine in eastern Afghanistan, Afghan Islamic Press reported.
The Pakistan-based news agency quoted local sources as saying the blast occurred in the Khogiani district of Ningarhar Province. The vehicle was part of a U.S. military convoy heading toward Jalalabad.
AIP quoted local residents as saying 10 U.S. troops were believed to have been killed or injured in the explosion but no officials were available to verify the report.
A resident of the district told AIP by telephone that two helicopters arrived at the site immediately after the blast and collected materials from the damaged vehicle while U.S. troops cordoned off the area.
US soldier dies in Afghan traffic accident: military spokesman
KABUL, Oct 23 (AFP) - A US soldier died in south-eastern Afghanistan when his vehicle overturned in a road accident five days ago, a US military spokesman said Saturday. A US soldier was killed on Tuesday when the vehicle he was riding in overturned,' Major Scott Nelson told a press conference in Kabul, without giving details of how the accident happened.
The US-led coalition's public affairs office later said the accident occurred in the southeastern province of Paktika. the accident occurred one day before a US military helicopter crashed in western Herat province, killing the pilot and injuring two other servicemen.
Nelson said the injured had been evacuated to Landstuhl Regional Medical center in Germany, with one still in a critical condition and the other listed as stable. Spokespeople for the United Nations and the US military said late last week the helicopter came down near the city of Herat as it flew to rescue an electoral educator who had been accidentally shot by his armed escort.
The US-led coalition of 18,000 troops has been in Afghanistan hunting Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters since US forces helped topple the Taliban regime three years ago. Some 16,000 of the troops are American. More than 140 coalition soldiers have died in Afghanistan since the start of US-led military operations.
Russia Withdraws From Afghan Border
MOSCOW: Russia is beginning a large-scale handover of the Tajik-Afghan border under the protection of Tajikistan's national border troops.
In 2004, the Tajik side will be given the Pamir section of the border (the zone of responsibility of the Ishkashim, Khorog and Kalai-Khumb border detachments), while in 2005, it is planned to hand over the sections of the Moscow and Pyandzh border detachments. Deputy Russian FSB border service head Alexander Manilov said this to journalists in Moscow.
He recalled that such an agreement was envisaged by the agreement on border protection handover to the Tajik state border protection committee signed between Russia and Tajikistan in October this year.
"Throughout 2005, the issue of a stage-by-stage handover of the sections of the Moscow and Pyandzh border detachments will be considered so that we could complete this work in 2006," said Mr. Manilov.
He noted that the completion of the activity of the Russian border department in Tajikistan was planned for the first half of 2006. After this, within the framework of the reached bilateral agreements, an operative border group will start operating, which will fulfill consultative functions and render Tajik border guards practical assistance in the protection of the state border.
Mr. Manilov specified that in line with the envisaged agreements, the operative border group would not comprise the army component.
Mr. Manilov added that Russia would not remain unprotected from the increasing smuggling of drugs from the Asian region after Russian border guards withdrew from Tajikistan. "One should not think that after the border is handed over to Tajikistan, everything will be opened and exposed," said Mr. Manilov.
In this connection, he recalled that the strengthening of the Russian-Kazakh border has been underway for over 10 years. "Today on the basis of the regional border department which existed earlier three such departments have been established, which are situated in Nizhny Novgorod, Yekaterinburg and Novosibirsk," said Mr. Manilov.
In his words, these departments as part of federal districts will ensure the protection and security of the state border with Kazakhstan and organize interaction with Kazakh colleagues.
The future withdrawal of Russian military from the Afghan border arouses concerns of the world community. The UN is much concerned over this fact, said Antonio Maria Costa, the Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drug and Crimes. UN experts say up to 5,000 tons of drugs in the heroin equivalent may be produced in Afghanistan. "Up to 80% will be transited to Europe and the U.S. via Tajikistan and other Central Asian states, first of all Kazakhstan," said the Federal Service on Drug Control (Rosknarkokontrol).
The situation made the Russian drug enforcement agency seek ways to minimize the damage from the future withdrawal of Russian border guards from the Afghan border. One of them will be the opening of a Rosnarkokontrol office in Kabul in the months to come. Anyway, an agreement about this has been reached with the Afghan side.
Afghan villagers mourn dead brothers after U.S. raid Sayed Salahuddin and Kamal Sadaat
LAKAN, Afghanistan, Oct 22 (Reuters) - One brother was shot dead by U.S. troops, another died in U.S. custody the next day. It happened about a month ago, and villagers of Lakan, in the Pashtun tribal belt on Afghanistan's southern border with Pakistan, are still looking for an explanation.
The U.S. military says Mohammad Rais Khan, 32, was shot in self-defence after he charged at troops brandishing an AK-47 rifle during a U.S. raid on his home in the southeast province of Khost on Sept. 24, aimed at catching Taliban and al Qaeda supporters.
His 51-year-old brother Sher Mohammad, according to the military, died the next day of a heart attack at Salerno Fire Base, where he had been taken with six other men detained during a raid on Lakan.
The villagers don't believe a word of it. They are also want the other six men to be released. "Such acts will only gain the Americans hatred and will be the main cause of their failure in Afghanistan," says Mirza Ali, a 62-year old tribal chief in Lakan. "They cannot win the consent of people by force and money the way they think."
With some 18,000 U.S.-led troops hunting down the remnants of al Qaeda and the Taliban, scores of villages along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, like Lakan, have been raided.
Telling a militant from a ordinary villager is tricky, as owning a gun is part of the culture in this part of the world and any household hereabouts could have Kalashnikovs hidden.
Relying on tip-offs is dangerous in a region where personal vendettas and family feuds are the norm. There is always a risk that the security forces could be duped into settling some old score.
Add to that tribal inborn resentment of intruders, their fervent Islamic beliefs, and an ultra-conservative society that forbids any contact between their womenfolk and strangers, and there is a ready recipe for violent confrontation.
"Breaking down doors, searching womens' quarters, these step on very sensitive cultural issues," Ahmad Nader Nadery, head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, told Reuters.
Searching somebody in front of others, tying their hands, or beating them, dishonours that person in the eyes of their community, Nadery added.
The exact circumstances of Rais Khan's death are disputed, but it is easy to discern how a pre-dawn raid by U.S. troops trampled roughshod over Pahstun taboos. Rais Khan's widow recalled those last few minutes, relaying her story through a brother-in-law.
A Reuters reporter was barred from entering the women's quarters in this conservative Muslim community, but he could plainly hear the anguish of this 25-year-old mother of three.
"My husband was shouting: "What are you doing this late at night in our house? Who gave you permission to enter our house? Get out," Janzaiba sobbed from beneath a traditional blue burqa that covered her from head to foot.
"Then my husband shouted to me to get out of the room because Americans were entering. The Kalashnikov was still hanging on the wall. I didn't see him pick up the gun, and he certainly didn't fire it."
Several weeks before the incident in Lakan, Brigadier General Charles Jacoby completed a report on alleged prisoner abuse at U.S. Department of Defense detainee facilities in Afghanistan.
The Jacoby report has not been released. Its contents are being reviewed by the Pentagon, and although it has been ready for some time, the delay has fuelled speculation that it will only be released after the U.S. election on Nov. 2.
But bad news keeps on surfacing. Just last week, the U.S. Army said its investigators had recommended prosecuting 28 soldiers on charges ranging from manslaughter to conspiracy related to the December 2002 deaths of two Afghans in custody at Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul.
They died of blunt force injuries, and military medical examiners classified their deaths as homicides. According to villagers, U.S. Army investigators could have plenty more work to do in the Lakan incident.
"We want an answer for what the Americans have done to my brothers. If the Americans can prove that we are al Qaeda, then they can kill all my family, but if they cannot, they have to try the culprits," said Haji Sher Zali Khan, a brother of the two dead men. "We do not know who is our friend and enemy; the Americans or al Qaeda."
Tribesmen help troops to capture militant leader whose men kidnapped Chinese near Afghan border
PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) Dozens of tribesmen joined Pakistani troops near the Afghan border Saturday to hunt for the militant leader whose men this month kidnapped two Chinese engineers, a senior security official said.
Abdullah Mehsud a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner is also accused of targeting Pakistani security forces, who are operating in the South Waziristan tribal region to track down and arrest remnants of al-Qaida and their local supporters.
Government troops have been hunting for Mehsud since Oct. 14 when special forces stormed a house in a remote village in South Waziristan, where two Chinese engineers were being held hostage, rescuing one and killing all five kidnappers.
The other hostage died of gunshot wounds. The Chinese were kidnapped Oct. 9 when they were going to the town of Tank, where they were building a dam.
At the time of the raid, Mehsud was hiding in mountains near Spinkai Raghzai, about 300 kilometers (180 miles) southwest of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province.
Since then, he has been on the run and the Pakistan army, backed by helicopter gunships, has been targeting his possible hide-outs with artillery. On Saturday, Brig. Mahmood Shah, head of the security for tribal regions, said soldiers have surrounded all areas where Mehsud was believed to be hiding.
`Yes, I confirm that dozens of tribal elders are helping our forces to ensure the arrest of Abdullah Mehsud,'' he told The Associated Press. ``Our forces are searching homes with the help of tribesmen,'' he said, adding: ``This operation will continue until Abdullah Mehsud is captured or killed.''
Mehsud, 28, returned to Pakistan in March after about two years' detention at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It was unclear why U.S. authorities released Mehsud, who has used an artificial leg since a land explosion while fighting for Afghanistan's ousted Taliban regime.
Pakistan, a key ally of the United States in its war on terror, has arrested more than 600 al-Qaida suspects, but no senior figures have been caught in the tribal regions.
Myers Denies Doubts on War Plans for Afghanistan
General: Talks Not 'Second Guessing'
Saturday, October 23, 2004; Page A02 The Washington Post
Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers objected yesterday to a characterization that he second-guessed or doubted war plans drawn up by Gen. Tommy R. Franks, then chief of the U.S. Central Command, six days before the United States launched the war in Afghanistan against al Qaeda and the Taliban.
The Washington Post reported yesterday that Myers, in his first days as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, urged Franks to open a southern front in Afghanistan to block al Qaeda and Taliban fighters as they fled Kabul. The article said that Franks did not do so and that many of the enemy fighters escaped unscathed in November 2001.
"Numerous military leaders came together immediately following the events of September 11th and formulated plans we began executing a month later," Myers said in a statement.
"We discussed every available course of action, which we take very seriously, and do every time we engage our military men and women in armed conflict. It is wrong to characterize these discussions and planning sessions as 'second guessing' or 'doubting' anyone."
-- Barton Gellman
Arab TVs drop Afghan drama after threats-sources
Saturday October 23, 9:45 PM
DOHA (Reuters) - Arab televisions have dropped a controversial drama on Afghanistan after Islamic militants threatened attacks over the programme they deemed insulting to the ousted Taliban, Gulf media sources say.
They said on Saturday Qatar state television, the main financier of "The Road to Kabul", halted its distribution following the threat from an unknown militant group to attack stations that air it.
Qatar television said it dropped the Jordanian-produced show, timed to the peak viewing season during the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, because it was "not technically complete" and the content had to be reviewed.
But one media source told Reuters: "This move is due to the militant threat on the Internet."
The Mujahideen Brigades in Iraq and Syria blasted the drama which it said was misleading and insulted the Islamist hardline Taliban which had harboured al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
The drama depicts the love between an Afghan girl and an Arab man against the backdrop of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the rise of the Taliban and the 2001 U.S. invasion.
It was not possible to authenticate the militant statement which was posted on the Internet.
Saudi-owned Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC), which had started airing the show since the start last week of Ramadan said on Saturday it would stop airing the drama after Qatar television refused to supply the rest of series' episodes.
"MBC is forced to stop airing 'The Road to Kabul' because the distributors have refused to continue supplying the episodes," a statement said.
"MBC was surprised by a strange request from Qatar television asking us to stop airing the show without giving us any justification. Their answer was that work in the rest of the episodes had stopped due to technical reasons," it said.
Jordanian television said it had not halted the show due to the threats but on a request from Qatar television, local newspapers reported.
Afghanistan, Iraq: Two Wars Collide
Washington Post 10/22/2004 By Barton Gellman and Dafna Linzer
In the second half of March 2002, as the Bush administration mapped its next steps against al Qaeda, Deputy CIA Director John E. McLaughlin brought an unexpected message to the White House Situation Room. According to two people with firsthand knowledge, he told senior members of the president's national security team that the CIA was scaling back operations in Afghanistan.
That announcement marked a year-long drawdown of specialized military and intelligence resources from the geographic center of combat with Osama bin Laden. As jihadist enemies reorganized, slipping back and forth from Pakistan and Iran, the CIA closed forward bases in the cities of Herat, Mazar-e Sharif and Kandahar. The agency put off an $80 million plan to train and equip a friendly intelligence service for the new U.S.-installed Afghan government. Replacements did not keep pace with departures as case officers finished six-week tours. And Task Force 5 -- a covert commando team that led the hunt for bin Laden and his lieutenants in the border region -- lost more than two-thirds of its fighting strength.
The commandos, their high-tech surveillance equipment and other assets would instead surge toward Iraq through 2002 and early 2003, as President Bush prepared for the March invasion that would extend the field of battle in the nation's response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Bush has shaped his presidency, and his reelection campaign, around the threat that announced itself in the wreckage of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Five days after the attacks, he made it clear that he conceived a broader war. Impromptu remarks on the White House South Lawn were the first in which he named "this war on terrorism," and he cast it as a struggle with "a new kind of evil." Under that banner he toppled two governments, eased traditional restraints on intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and reshaped the landscape of the federal government.
As the war on terrorism enters its fourth year, its results are sufficiently diffuse -- and obscured in secrecy -- to resist easy measure. Interpretations of the public record are also polarized by the claims and counterclaims of the presidential campaign. Bush has staked his reelection on an argument that defense of the U.S. homeland requires unyielding resolve to take the fight to the terrorists. His opponent, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), portrays the Bush strategy as based on false assumptions and poor choices, particularly when it came to Iraq.
The contention that the Iraq invasion was an unwise diversion in confronting terrorism has been central to Kerry's critique of Bush's performance. But this account -- drawn largely from interviews with those who have helped manage Bush's offensive -- shows how the debate over that question has echoed within the ranks of the administration as well, even among those who support much of the president's agenda.
Interviews with those advisers also highlight an internal debate over Bush's strategy against al Qaeda and allied jihadists, which has stressed the "decapitation" of the network by capturing or killing leaders, but which has had less success in thwarting recruitment of new militants.
At the core of Bush's approach is an offensive strategy abroad that Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said complements the defensive efforts he oversees at home. In an interview, Ridge said Bush's priority is to "play as hard and strong an offense as possible," most of it "offshore, overseas."
Published and classified documents and interviews with officials at many levels portray a war plan that scored major victories in its first months. Notable among them were the destruction of al Qaeda's Afghan sanctuary, the death or capture of leading jihadists, and effective U.S. demands for action by reluctant foreign governments.
But at least a dozen current and former officials who have held key positions in conducting the war now say they see diminishing returns in Bush's decapitation strategy. Current and former leaders of that effort, three of whom departed in frustration from the top White House terrorism post, said the manhunt is important but cannot defeat the threat of jihadist terrorism. Classified government tallies, moreover, suggest that Bush and Vice President Cheney have inflated the manhunt's success in their reelection bid.
Bush's focus on the instruments of force, the officials said, has been slow to adapt to a swiftly changing enemy. Al Qaeda, they said, no longer exerts centralized control over a network of operational cells. It has rather become the inspirational hub of a global movement, fomenting terrorism that it neither funds nor directs. Internal government assessments describe this change with a disquieting metaphor: They say jihadist terrorism is "metastasizing."
The war has sometimes taken unexpected turns, one of which brought the Bush administration into hesitant contact with Iran. For a time the two governments made tentative common cause, and Iran delivered hundreds of low-level al Qaeda figures to U.S. allies. Participants in Washington and overseas said Bush's deadlocked advisers -- unable to transmit instructions -- closed that channel before testing Iran's willingness to take more substantial steps. Some of al Qaeda's most wanted leaders now live in Iran under ambiguous conditions of house arrest.
Twenty months after the invasion of Iraq, the question of whether Americans are safer from terrorism because Saddam Hussein is no longer in power hinges on subjective judgment about might-have-beens. What is not in dispute, among scores of career national security officials and political appointees interviewed periodically since 2002, is that Bush's choice had opportunity costs -- first in postwar Afghanistan, then elsewhere. Iraq, they said, became a voracious consumer of time, money, personnel and diplomatic capital -- as well as the scarce tools of covert force on which Bush prefers to rely -- that until then were engaged against al Qaeda and its sources of direct support.
'What Does It Mean to Be Safer?'
Bush conducts the war on terrorism above all as a global hunt for a cast of evil men he knows by name and photograph. He tracks progress in daily half-hour meetings that Richard A. Falkenrath, who sometimes attended them before departing recently as deputy homeland security adviser, described as "extremely granular, about individual guys." Frances Fragos Townsend, who took the post of White House counterterrorism and homeland security adviser in May, said in an interview that Bush's strategy -- now, as in the war's first days -- is to "decapitate the beast."
The president is also focused on states that sponsor terrorism. The danger he sees is a "great nexus," thus far hypothetical, in which an enemy nation might hand terrorists a nuclear, biological or chemical weapon. That danger is what Bush said drove him to war in Iraq.
Bush emphasizes force of will -- determination to prosecute the enemy, and equally to stand up to allies who disapprove. Bush and his aides most often deflect questions about recent global polls that have found sharply rising anti-U.S. sentiment in Arab and Muslim countries and in Europe, but one of them addressed it in a recent interview. Speaking for the president by White House arrangement, but declining to be identified, a high-ranking national security official said of the hostility detected in surveys: "I don't think it matters. It's about keeping the country safe, and I don't think that matters."
That view is at odds with the view of many career military and intelligence officials, who spoke with increasing alarm about al Qaeda's success in winning recruits to its cause and defining its struggle with the United States.
Retired Army Gen. Wayne A. Downing, who was summoned to lead the White House Office for Combating Terrorism a few weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, said the war has been least successful where it has the highest stakes: slowing the growth of jihadist sympathies in populations that can provide the terrorists with money, concealment and recruits. Bin Laden has worked effectively to "convince the Islamic world the U.S. is the common enemy," Downing said. He added, "We have done little or nothing. That is the big failure."
Townsend, who inherited Downing's duties this spring, said the best evidence of Bush's success "is every day that goes by that America doesn't suffer another attack."
"By any measure, to me, we're winning, they're losing," she said. "We know for a fact that it's very difficult for them to raise money and move money around. We've made it increasingly difficult to communicate. It is harder for them to travel without risk. . . . Is there something that they absolutely, 100 percent guaranteed, can't do? I'm not going to say that. The point is we have degraded their capability to act across the board."
John A. Gordon, Townsend's immediate predecessor, said in his first interview since leaving government in June that those measures of tactical success are no longer enough.
"People in the business would say, 'We've done all this stuff, we know we've pushed back some attacks,' but what does it mean to be safer?" he asked. "You decrease the probability of a major attack, but you haven't pushed it to anywhere near zero. If it happens, nobody's going to care whether we 'significantly affected' [the threat] or not."
Two years ago, Gordon thought better of the strategy. He helped direct it.
Born in Jefferson City, Mo., Gordon spent a career in the Cold War Air Force, rising to four-star general in the missile and bomber force. Bush tapped him in June 2002 as chief of the Office for Combating Terrorism, with a rank just below that of national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
From his vantage in Room 313 of the Old Executive Office Building, Gordon saw a colossal mismatch of strength between the global superpower and its stateless enemy. He sat down for an interview, after six months on the job, in a cautiously optimistic frame of mind.
With al Qaeda's Afghan training camps demolished and its troops dispersed, he said in 2002, the network's deadliest capabilities relied on "fewer than three dozen" uniquely dangerous men. "Where we're focusing is on the manhunt," he said. "That's still job number one, to break down and capture and kill . . . the inner core of Osama and his very, very closest advisers."
At the CIA's Counterterrorist Center in Langley, which then as now maintained wall-size charts of al Qaeda's global network, the approximately 30 names at the top were known as "high-value targets." At the time, a year into the manhunt, many of Gordon's peers agreed that "leadership targets," in the argot of U.S. military and intelligence agencies, were a "center of gravity" for al Qaeda -- a singular source of strength without which the enemy could be brought to collapse.
Hunting al Qaeda's leaders cut them off from their followers, Gordon said then, and "layers of interdiction" stood between would-be attackers and their targets. Some could be stopped in their country of origin, others as they crossed the U.S. border, and still others as they neared the point of attack. Each defensive measure, in theory, created U.S. opportunities to strike.
"If I can cut him in half every time he comes through," he said, "now I can give the FBI and local law enforcement a manageable problem." 'The Same People, Over and Over'
That did not happen. On its own terms -- as a manhunt, measured in "high-value" captures and kills -- the president's strategy produced its peak results the first year.
Classified tallies made available to The Washington Post have identified 28 of the approximately 30 names on the unpublished HVT List. Half -- 14 -- are known to be dead or in custody. Those at large include three of the five men on the highest echelon: bin Laden, his deputy Ayman Zawahiri and operational planner Saif al-Adel.
More significant than the bottom line, government analysts said, is the trend. Of the al Qaeda leaders accounted for, eight were killed or captured by the end of 2002. Five followed in 2003 -- notably Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the principal planner of the Sept. 11 attack. This year only one more name -- Hassan Ghul, a senior courier captured infiltrating Iraq -- could be crossed off.
"I'll be pretty frank," Gordon said this fall after leaving the administration. "Obviously we would have liked to pick up more of the high-value targets than have been done. There have been strong initiatives. They just haven't all panned out."
As the manhunt results declined, the Bush administration has portrayed growing success. Early last year, the president's top advisers generally said in public that more than one-third of those most wanted had been found. Late this year it became a staple of presidential campaign rhetoric that, as Bush put it in the Sept. 30 debate with Kerry, "75 percent of known al Qaeda leaders have been brought to justice."
Although some of the administration's assertions are too broadly stated to measure, some are not. Townsend, Bush's homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, said "three-quarters" of "the known al Qaeda leaders on 9/11" were dead or in custody. Asked to elaborate, she said she would have to consult a list. White House spokeswoman Erin Healy referred follow-up questions to the FBI. Spokesmen for the FBI, the National Security Council and the CIA did not respond to multiple telephone calls and e-mails.
Whatever its results, the manhunt remains at the center of Bush's war. He mentions little else, save the Taliban's expulsion from power, when describing progress against al Qaeda. According to people who have briefed him, Bush still marks changes by hand on a copy of the HVT list.
"This is a conversation he's been having every day, more or less, with his senior advisers since September 11th," Falkenrath said. It covers "the same people, over and over again."
When Townsend was asked to describe the most important milestones of the war, she cited individual captures and kills. She named Khalid Sheik Mohammed; Abu Issa al Hindi, accused of surveying U.S. financial targets for al Qaeda in 2000 and 2001; Riduan Isamuddin, the alleged Southeast Asia coordinator; Abu Bakar Bashir, the spiritual leader of an al Qaeda affiliate in Indonesia; and Yazid Sufaat of Malaysia, who led efforts to develop a biological weapon.
Each of those men had significance "in a greater sense than just the individual," Townsend said, because they had "unique expertise, experience or access." Al Qaeda may replace them, "but does that person have the same strength and leadership and capability? The answer is no. Maybe he acquires it on the job, but maybe not."
Days after Bush declared an "axis of evil," one of its members dispatched an envoy to New York. Javad Zarif, Iran's deputy foreign minister, arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport in the first week of February 2002 with a thick sheaf of papers. According to sources involved in the transaction, Zarif passed the papers to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who passed them in turn to Washington.
Neatly arranged inside were photos of 290 men and copies of their travel documents. Iran said they were al Qaeda members, arrested as they tried to cross the rugged border from Afghanistan. Most were Saudi, a fact that two officials said Saudi Arabia's government asked Iran to conceal. All had been expelled to their home countries. "They did not coordinate with us, but as long as the bad guys were going -- fine," a senior U.S. national security official said.
Diplomats from Tehran and Washington had been meeting quietly all winter in New York and Bonn. They found common interests against the Taliban, Iran's bitter enemy. Iranian envoys notified their U.S. counterparts about the 290 arrests and proposed to cooperate against al Qaeda as well. The U.S. delegation sought instructions from Washington. The delegation's room to maneuver, however, was limited by a policy guideline set shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.
In late November 2001, the State Department's policy planning staff wrote a paper arguing that "we have a real opportunity here" to work more closely with Iran in fighting al Qaeda, according to Flynt Leverett, a career CIA analyst then assigned to State, who is now at the Brookings Institution and has provided advice to Kerry's campaign. Participants in the ensuing interagency debate said the CIA joined the proposal to exchange information and coordinate border sweeps against al Qaeda. Some of the most elusive high-value targets were living in or transiting Iran, including bin Laden's son Saad, al-Adel and Abu Hafs the Mauritanian.
Representatives of Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld fought back. Any engagement, they argued, would legitimate Iran and other historic state sponsors of terrorism such as Syria. In the last weeks of 2001, the Deputies Committee adopted what came to be called "Hadley Rules," after deputy national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, who chaired the meeting. The document said the United States would accept tactical information about terrorists from countries on the "state sponsors" list but offer nothing in return. Bush's State of the Union speech the next month linked Iran to Iraq and North Korea as "terrorist allies."
Twice in the coming year, Washington passed requests for Tehran to deliver al Qaeda suspects to the Afghan government. Iran transferred two of the suspects and sought more information about others.
Iran, in turn, asked the United States, among other things, to question four Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. They were suspects in the 1998 slayings of nine Iranian diplomats in Kabul.
Participants said Bush's divided national security team was unable to agree on an answer. Some believe important opportunities were lost.
"I sided with the Langley guys on that," Downing said. "I was willing to make a deal with the devil if we could clip somebody important off or stop an attack."
Back to Afghanistan
Two months ago, a team of soldiers from a highly classified special operations squadron arrived in the southeastern mountains of Afghanistan, along the Pakistani border. They were back to hunt bin Laden, many of them after a two-year gap.
"We finally settled in at our 'permanent' location 8 days ago after moving twice in three weeks," one team member wrote to a friend. "New territory, right at the border, up in the mountains. Interesting place. We need to start from scratch, nothing operational in place. Guess we'll spend our whole time developing a basic structure for our ops."
At the peak of the hunt for bin Laden and his lieutenants, in early 2002, about 150 commandos operated along Afghanistan's borders with Pakistan and Iran in a top-secret team known as Task Force 5. The task force included a few CIA paramilitaries, but most of its personnel came from military "special mission units," or SMUs, whose existence is not officially acknowledged. One is the Army squadron once known as Delta Force. The other -- specializing in human and technical intelligence operations -- has not been described before in public. Its capabilities include close-in electronic surveillance and, uniquely in the U.S. military, the conduct of "low-level source operations" -- recruiting and managing spies.
These elite forces, along with the battlefield intelligence technology of Predator and Global Hawk drone aircraft, were the scarcest tools of the hunt for jihadists along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. With Bush's shift of focus to Iraq, the special mission units called most of their troops home to prepare for a new set of high-value targets in Baghdad.
"There is a direct consequence for us having taken these guys out prematurely," said Leverett, who then worked as senior director for Middle Eastern affairs on Bush's NSC staff. "There were people on the staff level raising questions about what that meant for getting al Qaeda, for creating an Afghan security and intelligence service [to help combat jihadists]. Those questions didn't get above staff level, because clearly there had been a strategic decision taken."
Task Force 5 dropped in strength at times to as few as 30 men. Its counterpart in Iraq, by early 2003, burgeoned to more than 200 as an insurgency grew and Hussein proved difficult to find. Late last year, the Defense Department merged the two commando teams and headquartered the reflagged Task Force 121 under Rear Adm. William H. McRaven in Baghdad.
"I support the decision to go into Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein's regime," said Downing, a former U.S. Special Operations Command chief. "But in fact it was a gamble of sorts because Iraq did take focus and energy away from the Afghanistan campaign."
"It's been extraordinarily painful, very frustrating," said a member of one elite military unit who watched what he considered the main enemy slip away. Even now, with a modest resurgence in U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, the task force "is not getting as much attention from the home office as Iraq."
Much the same drawdown took place in the CIA.
With the closing of forward bases, the remaining case officers formed mobile teams of four or five, traveling in SUVs with translators, a medic and tribal allies they recruited. In some posts with former full-time presence, according to an operations officer who served there, they left empty safe houses for "almost a circuit riding thing -- just bring your communications equipment in" for each visit. Others shut down altogether.
In 2002, the CIA transferred its station chief in Islamabad, Pakistan, to lead the new Iraq Issue Group. At least 30 case officers, a knowledgeable official said, joined the parallel Iraq Operations Task Force by mid-2002. By the time war came in Iraq nearly 150 case officers filled the task force and issue group on the "A Corridor" of Langley's top management. The Baghdad station became the largest since the Vietnam War, with more than 300.
Early this year, the CIA's then-station chief in Kabul reported a resurgence of Taliban and al Qaeda forces in three border provinces. He proposed a spring intelligence offensive in South Waziristan and in and around Kunar province farther north. The chief, whose first name is Peter, estimated he would need 25 case officers in the field and an additional five for the station. A national security official who tracked the proposal said CIA headquarters replied that it did not have the resources to make the surge. Peter finished his year as station chief in June.
'A Lot of Little Cancers'
Townsend, the White House terrorism and homeland security adviser, gives two framed courtroom sketches from a former life a place of honor on her West Wing wall. The color portraits, from 1990, depict her as lead prosecutor in a case against New York's Gambino crime family. When she took her White House job in May, she told the Associated Press that the transition from organized crime to terrorism "actually turns out not to be that big a leap." She added, "Really in many ways you're talking about a group with a command-and-control structure."
Jihadist terrorism has always posed what strategists call an "asymmetric threat," capable of inflicting catastrophic harm against a much stronger foe. But the way it operates, they said, is changing. Students of al Qaeda used to speak of it as a network with "key nodes" that could be attacked. More recently they have described the growth of "franchises." Gordon and Falkenrath pioneered an analogy, before leaving government, with an even less encouraging prognosis.
Jihadists "metastasized into a lot of little cancers in a lot of different countries," Gordon said recently. They formed "groups, operating under the terms of a movement, who don't have to rely on al Qaeda itself for funding, for training or for authority. [They operate] at a level that doesn't require as many people, doesn't require them to be as well-trained, and it's going to be damned hard to get in front of that."
Bruce Hoffman of the government-funded Rand Corp., who consults with participants in the war in classified forums, said U.S. analysts see clearly that "you can only have an effective top-down strategy if you're also drying up recruitment and sources of support."
Marc Sageman, a psychologist and former CIA case officer who studies the formation of jihadist cells, said the inspirational power of the Sept. 11 attacks -- and rage in the Islamic world against U.S. steps taken since -- has created a new phenomenon. Groups of young men gather in common outrage, he said, and a violent plan takes form without the need for an outside leader to identify, persuade or train those who carry it out.
The brutal challenge for U.S. intelligence, Sageman said, is that "you don't know who's going to be a terrorist" anymore. Citing the 15 men who killed 190 passengers on March 11 in synchronized bombings of the Spanish rail system, he said "if you had gone to those guys in Madrid six months prior, they'd say 'We're not terrorists,' and they weren't. Madrid took like five weeks from inception."
Much the same pattern, officials said, preceded deadly attacks in Indonesia, Turkey, Kenya, Morocco and elsewhere. There is no reason to believe, they said, that the phenomenon will remain overseas.
Such attacks do not rely on leaders as the Bush administration strategy has conceived them. New jihadists can acquire much of the know-how they need, Sageman and his counterparts still in government said, in al Qaeda's Saudi-published magazines, Al Baatar and the Voice of Jihad, available online.
Townsend acknowledged in an interview this month that "as you put more pressure on the center" of al Qaeda, "it pushes power out." That does not change the strategy, she said: "While you want to decapitate the beast, you also want to be able to cut the tentacles off. . . . Do we find there are others who emerge on the screen as leaders of their operational cadre? Of course. We capture and kill them, too."
'Test of Wills'
Downing, Bush's first counterterrorism adviser after Sept. 11, said in a 2002 interview that hunting down al Qaeda leaders could do no more than "buy time" for longer-term efforts to stem the jihadist tide. This month he said, "Time is not on our side."
"This is not a war," he said. "What we're faced with is an Islamic insurgency that is spreading throughout the world, not just the Islamic world." Because it is "a political struggle," he said, "the military is not the key factor. The military has to be coordinated with the other elements of national power."
Many of Downing's peers -- and strong majorities of several dozen officers and officials who were interviewed -- agree. They cite a long list of proposals to address terrorism at its roots that have not been carried out. Among them was a plan by Wendy Chamberlin, then ambassador to Pakistan, to offer President Pervez Musharraf a substitute for Saudi funding of a radical network of Islamist schools known as madrasas. Downing backed Chamberlin in the interagency debate, describing education as "the root of many of the recruits for the Islamist movement." Bush promised such support to Musharraf in a meeting soon after Sept. 11, said an official who accompanied him, but the $300 million plan did not survive the White House budget request.
The formal White House strategy for combating terrorism says that the United States will "use every instrument of national power -- diplomatic, economic, law enforcement, financial, information, intelligence, and military" to triumph. A central criticism in the Sept. 11 commission's report is that the efforts at nonmilitary suasion overseas lack funding, energy from top leaders and what the commission's executive director, Philip D. Zelikow, called "gravitas."
Most officials interviewed said Bush has not devised an answer to a problem then-CIA Director George J. Tenet identified publicly on Feb. 11, 2003 -- "the numbers of societies and peoples excluded from the benefits of an expanding global economy, where the daily lot is hunger, disease, and displacement -- and that produce large populations of disaffected youth who are prime recruits for our extremist foes."
The president and his most influential advisers, many officials said, do not see those factors -- or U.S. policy overseas -- as primary contributors to the terrorism threat. Bush's explanation, in private and public, is that terrorists hate America for its freedom.
Sageman, who supports some of Bush's approach, said that analysis is "nonsense, complete nonsense. They obviously haven't looked at any surveys." The central findings of polling by the Pew Charitable Trust and others, he said, is that large majorities in much of the world "view us as a hypocritical huge beast throwing our weight around in the Middle East."
When Bush speaks of al Qaeda's supporters, he refers to the leaders, not the citizens, of foreign nations. In a May 2003 speech about the Middle East, he said the "hateful ideology of terrorism is shaped and nurtured and protected by oppressive regimes." His approach centers not on winning support for U.S. values and policy, but on confronting evil without flinching.
Citing two governments he toppled by force and promising to "confront governments that support terrorists," Bush said in a speech on Oct. 6: "America is always more secure when freedom is on the march, and freedom is on the march in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere."
Thomas W. O'Connell, who is assistant defense secretary in charge of special operations and low-intensity conflict, said Rumsfeld sometimes gathers Pentagon leaders to discuss the nature of the threat. After one such discussion recently, O'Connell concluded that "battle of ideas" is a poor term for the conflict underway.
"Perhaps the term 'test of wills,' " he said, "is more like what we're up against." Battles, he said, are "short, sharp events" against an external enemy. A test is "something that's internal" and "more reflective of a long, drawn-out ordeal."
Staff writer Craig Whitlock and researchers Robert Thomason and Julie Tate contributed to this report.
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