- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 25, 2003

By any thinking assessment, the news from inside Afghanistan and along the unprotected border with Pakistan should be shocking, frightening and galvanizing to Americans. It should be read as a warning call for urgent military action.

But in the U.S. news media, it is being reported a matter of secondary concern. Perhaps because the decisionmakers of the electronic and print news business tend to judge the importance of their news in terms that are often defined for them by their government. Like the government’s choices of just where it will be deploying troops and how many will be deployed.

Since the United States today has some 160,000 troops deployed in Iraq and Kuwait — and just 9,000 in Afghanistan — they figure what is going on in Afghanistan must be same-old, same-old. And what is going on in Iraq is vital to America’s homeland security. But judge for yourself the importance of the news coming out of Afghanistan and along the Pakistan border.

Dateline, Afghanistan: America’s one certifiably proven terrorist enemy, al Qaeda, is reported to be regrouping and planning other acts of terror against the United States and its people. Their terrorist leader, Osama bin Laden — who has vowed to attack America again — is reportedly also alive and in control of his band of evildoers somewhere in the mountains of Afghanistan or perhaps just across the border in northern Pakistan.

This just in: New al Qaeda tapes make harsh threats of new terror attacks that will target the United States. And the Taliban who were al Qaeda’s onetime protectors, are gaining strength again after having been driven from power by a once-sizable U.S. military effort.

Dateline, Pakistan: On Monday, The Washington Post ran an extraordinary Page One article. The editors shoved it down below the fold — but should have stripped across the top of the page. For it reported just how easy it has been for Pakistani sympathizers to cross into Afghanistan, join up with Taliban forces, ambush the U.S.-installed Afghan forces, and then return home — via taxicab. They traveled to war and back unchallenged by border guards from America’s ally, the Pakistanis, or the new, American-installed government of Afghanistan.

To grasp the significance of all of this, think back to the days after September 11, 2001, when President Bush was vowing to vanquish the terrorists who attacked New York City and Washington, killing thousands — and all of us were with him in that cause.

What happened after the president’s original declaration was that, for months, America struck hard and deep into Afghanistan — pounding the al Qaeda strongholds and driving the Taliban regime that harbored them out of power.

But then came the siege of Tora Bora, where the U.S. seemed to have Osama bin Laden pinned down. But he gave his satellite phone to an aide who went off in the opposite direction — and the U.S., which was monitoring the phone, followed the aide. That was how Osama gave America the slip.

After, bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorists laid low. And President Bush began to shift U.S. attention from this never-completed mission. He did it by shifting deployment of U.S. troops — which inevitably shifted the Big Eye if the electronic and print journalists that cover them.

This brings us to some basic unasked questions — which are being printed here as a service to the journalists who cover the president, and the public they are in business to serve.

QUESTION: Mr. President, if you had deployed 160,000 troops in Afghanistan, searching and fighting for the past year (instead of just 9,000 troops) do you believe they would have been incapable of causing further significant damage to al Qaeda?

QUESTION: Mr. President, is America safer today with 160,000 troops in Iraq and just 9,000 troops in Afghanistan — while al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden are regrouping and threatening new attacks on the United States?

Back on Sept. 20, 2001, just nine days after al Qaeda’s attacks, President Bush addressed Congress in words that still ring eloquent two years later: “Great harm has been done to us. We have suffered great loss. And in our grief and anger we have found our mission and our moment. … We will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage. We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail.”

Two years later, America is left to wonder why its leaders seemed to “tire” and apparently “falter” — riveting upon Iraq before they had vanquished the attackers of September 11. The prospect of a regenerated Osama bin Laden succeeding — while America and its War on Terror “fail” — is too painful to contemplate.

Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.

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