- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 1, 2006

In Washington, D.C., you can tell when important elections are just around the corner: Politics suddenly take a turn for the worst, if that’s at all imaginable.

Example: The latest uproar over the National Intelligence Estimate, a comprehensive and detailed report on the current political and security situation dealing with postwar Iraq and terrorism. What gives the NIE greater credibility is that it has the consensus of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies.

Besides shedding light on the state of insecurity in Iraq (which we already knew), the NIE served a different purpose. Even if it was purely unintentional, it revealed the degree to which the country remains divided between the “blue states” and the “red states,” just six weeks before the midterm elections. And as can be expected, both sides are trying to use the findings to their advantage.

It started with the leaking of sections of the report to the New York Times, revealing that the invasion and occupation of Iraq has galvanized terrorists across the globe. Did we really need 16 intelligence agencies to tell us that? Ten minutes of watching the newscast of your choice, from Al-Jazeera to Fox News, would be enough to convince most observers.

The NIE states: “We assess that the Iraq jihad is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives; perceived jihadist success there would inspire more fighters to continue the struggle elsewhere.”

It goes on to say: “The Iraq conflict has become the “cause celebre” for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of U.S. involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement.”

John Negroponte, director of national intelligence, defended the administration’s position by saying that the report — or at least the sections leaked to the press — does not paint the full picture of the intelligence estimate.

President Bush, angered by the leaks, ordered that the NIE be declassified and made public. Mr. Bush asked Mr. Negroponte to release the NIE — minus the parts deemed too sensitive, which will be redacted before release to the public.

Democrats, meanwhile, have accused the president of trying to portray Iraq as the front line of defense in the “war on terror.” They accuse Mr. Bush of having squandered billions of dollars on the war in Iraq.

A new congressional analysis quoted by the Boston Globe shows the conflict in Iraq is costing U.S. taxpayers almost $2 billion a week. To date, close to 2,800 U.S. service personnel have lost their lives in the Iraq war — almost as many lives as lost in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America.

Now contrast what the president said in his speeches during the fifth anniversary of September 11: “We are safer because we are on the offensive against our enemies overseas.” And the NIE report: “The war in Iraq has made the terrorist threat worse by providing a focal point for an entire American message that has contributed to the spread and decentralization of Islamic radicalism around the globe. The Iraq war has diverted untold resources from efforts to protect Americans from terrorism and weakened the nation militarily.”

Army and Marine recruiters warn that present troop levels will be hard to maintain in Iraq without a significant increase in the number of military personnel.

“Virtually every serious expert looking at the ‘war on terrorism’ recognizes that the forces at work in the Islamic world will be intense for at least a decade and probably two,” writes Anthony H. Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a commentary on the declassified key judgments of the National Intelligence Estimate.

“The United States must live with a clash within a civilization that will not go away, which cannot be defeated through military action or counterterrorism, and where the primary theater of conflict is a battle for the future of Islam and reform within the Arab and Muslim worlds,” Mr. Cordesman says. “Iraq is a catalyst, but it is more a symptom than a cause. Islamist extremist terrorist movements would have continued to strengthen with or without it.” Quite possibly so, but nevertheless, the occupation of Iraq and its mismanagement from Day One of the post-combat phase has contributed in bringing about the current mess.

Mr. Cordesman adds: “Success or failure also depends on Iraqi efforts at political conciliation, not the war on terrorism.” If Iraqis resolve their conflict peacefully, it will “seriously weaken or eliminate Iraq as a major cause celebre.” That is a very big “if.”

Iraq is only one of several catalysts in the area, Mr. Cordesman notes. The future of each one is closely tied to the others’ — including Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the Taliban is making a comeback while their presidents throw accusations at one another across American television networks.

The bottom line is that the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan remains precarious, with or without a national intelligence estimate finding.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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