Bush Admits Failure of "No Safe Havens" Policy
Three weeks ago, news of an aborted 2005 U.S. raid against Al Qaeda targets in Pakistan confirmed the failure of a key tenet of the Bush Doctrine, "no safe havens for terrorists." Now, it would appear, President Bush himself agrees with that assessment.
In his Saturday radio address, President Bush tried to spin the new National Intelligence Estimate and its warnings regarding a dangerously resurgent Al Qaeda in Pakistan. But buried among cherry-picked quotes about successes against Bin Laden's organization and his comical claim of willingness to work with Congress to "modernize the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act" was a startling admission. President Bush acknowledged that his post 9/11 mantra of "no safe havens for terrorists" was a dismal failure:
"One of the most troubling [points in the NIE] is its assessment that al Qaeda has managed to establish a safe haven in the tribal areas of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan. Last September, President Musharraf of Pakistan reached an agreement that gave tribal leaders more responsibility for policing their own areas. Unfortunately, tribal leaders were unwilling and unable to go after al Qaeda or the Taliban."
What a difference six years makes. In his address to Congress on September 20, 2001, a determined President Bush declared his "no safe havens" principle even as the World Trade Center towers still smoldered in lower Manhattan:
"We will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime."
As it turns out, no so much. Bush's war on the cheap in Afghanistan allowed Osama Bin Laden and much of the Al Qaeda leadership to escape the American pincer around Tora Bora in the winter of 2001-2002. The massive diversion of U.S. resources to the invasion of Iraq and the eventual shuttering of the CIA's Bin Laden unit in 2005 showed that President Bush had taken his eyes off the prize.
And now, the frailty of Pervez Musharraf's government impedes action against Al Qaeda in Pakistan by either Islamabad or Washington. What Bush Saturday falsely portrayed as a truce by Musharraf to enable tribal leaders in lawless Northwest Pakistan to police their own territories was in fact a surrender to reality. His troops stymied, his life at risk and his regime under fire, Musharraf called off his campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. With that truce now in tatters in the wake of the Red Mosque uprising, Musharraf faces renewed violence.
And the United States faces a fateful choice. The Bush administration can leave Al Qaeda and the Taliban to Musharraf and face the prospect of an entrenched and growing international terrorist presence in Pakistan. Or, the U.S. can violate Pakistani sovereignty and strike Al Qaeda along the Afghan frontier, risking the destabilization of the Musharraf regime in Islamabad.
On Sunday, Bush homeland security adviser Frances Townsend illustrated the American dilemma while claiming U.S. military action within Pakistan remains a possibility:
"Just because we don't speak about things publicly doesn't mean we're not doing things you talk about. Job No. 1 is to protect the American people. There are no options off the table.
We should also be clear that we believe Pakistan has been a very good ally in the war on terrorism. Musharraf has been the subject of numerous assassination attempts. Al-Qaida's trying to kill him. They get what the problem is. And we're working with them to deny al-Qaida and the Taliban the safe haven."
For now, though, Al Qaeda's safe haven seems very safe indeed. That, combined with the fiasco of his preventive war in Iraq and his dismal record of democracy promotion in the Middle East, means the President's Bush Doctrine is dead and buried.
Just don't expect George W. Bush to admit that anytime soon.