- The Washington Times - Monday, December 23, 2002

It was the year of the lull before the storm. The year when the world appeared to settle back to normal after the horrors of the September 11 terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center, damaged the Pentagon and killed more than 3,000 people.
But it was also the year when the plates of global civilizations and popular movements groaned and creaked, building up tensions rather than releasing them. And as the year draws to a close, the likelihood of a full-scale U.S. military assault on Iraq appears imminent.
There were plenty of developments during the year that appeared positive, if only because of the absence of worse ones.
First, the United States succeeded with its allies in setting up an interim government in Afghanistan after toppling the fundamentalist Taliban and driving out the al Qaeda terrorists based there at the end of 2001. In a highly positive example of trans-Atlantic cooperation, 10,000 German soldiers were serving in Afghanistan by the end of this year.
Second, tensions between India and Pakistan decreased. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage succeeded through little-heralded and widely unappreciated shuttle diplomacy in helping avert a full-scale war between the two nations, which could have all too easily escalated to the level of nuclear exchanges. In the last few months of the year, Pakistan at last seemed to be making a serious effort to rein in Islamic guerrilla groups operating out of territory it controls from making major terrorist strikes across the contested Line of Control against Indian targets.
Third, at the Prague Summit in November, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization carried out the largest expansion in its history, adding all three Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), Slovenia and other nations to its number. The move was widely acclaimed as continuing the stabilization of Central Europe since the collapse of communism in 1989-91.
Fourth, al Qaeda did not follow up its September 11 attacks with any more major ones against the U.S. mainland. And it did not pull off anything comparable in scale or intensity anywhere. This gave Americans time to psychologically recover and prepare against assaults.
However, in many areas, the tale of the year was one of drift toward distrust and disorganization between the major industrial democracies while rogue states and terrorist groups were left to regroup and plot new devilry.
The prime U.S. emphasis was put on toppling Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and stripping Iraq of its quarter-century drive to acquire its own weapons of mass destruction. But this distracted the U.S. armed forces and intelligence community from hunting down al Qaeda, the group that carried out the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Instead, at least 10,000 al Qaeda cadres escaped U.S. attempts to trap them at Tora Bora and then in Operation Anaconda in eastern Afghanistan. Nearly all succeeded in fleeing to Pakistan, across a thousand-mile border.
There, UPI Editor at Large Arnaud de Borchgrave reported, al Qaeda was able to reorganize at leisure. Its leader, Osama bin Laden, nursed his ailing kidneys with dialysis treatment in Peshawar before heading south to Karachi, Pakistan's teeming megalopolis.
There, the kidnapping and decapitation recorded on video of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl showed that ferociously anti-American Islamic groups could operate freely in Pakistan, the sixth-most-populous nation in the world and the sole Islamic nuclear power.
Toward the end of the year, communications said to be from bin Laden warned of attacks against U.S. targets that would be even more devastating and widespread than those of September 11. U.S. government leaders made clear the warnings were being taken seriously.
In October, nearly 200 people, including more than 130 Australian vacationers, were killed when al Qaeda destroyed discotheques filled with Saturday night clientele on the island of Bali.
The attacks confirmed warnings that U.S. intelligence agencies had given to both Indonesia and Australia that al Qaeda was organizing new attacks in Indonesia, the 17,000-island archipelago of 210 million people that is the world's most-populous Muslim nation.
It was a year of grim developments and gloomy deterioration in other world crisis zones as well. North Korea startled the world in October by admitting that it had broken a 1994 agreement and resumed programs capable of making nuclear weapons. The virtually certain conclusion was that it already has some in its arsenal.
Relations between the United States and its major allies deteriorated precipitously through 2002. Only Britain, under Prime Minister Tony Blair, remained a committed supporter of a military strike against Iraq. And he faced growing opposition from within his own ruling Labor Party for his stand.
In Germany, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was triumphantly re-elected to a second four-year term, despite a miserable record on unemployment and the economy. His winning card was the most anti-American victorious campaign any major party candidate has run in the 53-year history of the Federal Republic.
Mr. Schroeder's victory reflected a widespread and steadily growing alarm and distrust of what was widely seen as U.S. unilateralism throughout the 15-nation European Union.
In Northeast Asia, U.S. relations with China at least appeared to get no worse in the course of the year. But relations with South Korea and Japan were deteriorating even before the North Korean nuclear announcement. Both Tokyo and Seoul feared that the United States was driving North Korea into a dangerous corner and threatening the policy of engagement.
Weakening ties with key U.S. allies was also feared in the Middle East. After reports that the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, an unofficial advisory body, had been briefed by an obscure academic advocating the partition of Saudi Arabia, U.S.-Saudi relations plunged to new depths of distrust.
The Saudis said they would not permit the United States to use military and air bases in their country for any new war against Iraq, a strategic concession that had proved important to the easy U.S. victory in the 1991 Gulf war. The Saudis have since been noncommittal on the issue. And there were reports that during the summer, the Saudis had quietly pulled back investments of as much as $600 billion from the United States.
There was little to cheer elsewhere in the Middle East. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict continued at spasmodically intense levels of violence, with Palestinian suicide bombings being followed by heavy Israeli military moves deep into the West Bank and Gaza, and no signs the conflict would abate.
Meanwhile, in the United States, President Bush rode high throughout the year for his forceful and apparently decisive response to the September 11 attacks, despite the failure so far to capture the bulk of al Qaeda forces.
And before November was out, the president used his increased clout to push through the lame-duck Congress approval of his Homeland Security Department.
Stepped-up measures on airline security proceeded at a snail's pace. By the end of November, it appeared that commercial airline pilots would be allowed to carry guns, but the issue looked months away from being resolved.
The FBI had made almost no move to recruit Arabic linguists. Its lack of such expertise had been a key factor in the bureau's failure over the previous decade to grasp the significance of evidence already in its hands about terrorist-cell penetration within the United States.

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