Opinion

Are we safer now?

The recent summary of a joint National Intelligence Estimate analysis of the threat posed by terrorists should lay to rest once and for all the myth that invading Iraq has made us safer.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration remains intent on perpetrating that myth. The White House, which declassified a small part of the intelligence report Tuesday, said the conclusions bolstered the need for a sustained military campaign in Iraq.

One might expect the administration to be chagrined by a report from the nation's 16 intelligence agencies asserting that al-Qaida essentially is as strong or stronger than it was on Sept. 11, 2001, that it has re-established a haven in Pakistan and is "showing greater and greater ability to plan attacks in Europe and the U.S." In short, according to the report, despite the deaths of many of its leaders and efforts to disrupt its ability to communicate and plan attacks, al-Qaida remains a resilient and determined organization.

But al-Qaida did not exist in Iraq before the U.S. invasion. Since the invasion, however, Iraq has been a magnet for terrorists and a recruiting tool for al-Qaida worldwide.

The good news in Iraq is that native Iraqis, repulsed by al-Qaida's wanton bombings of fellow Muslims, including women and children, have begun to turn against the foreign terrorists. Banding with U.S. forces, they have succeeded to a large degree in driving the al-Qaida contingent in Iraq underground.

But the empty rhetoric from President Bush about the need to fight al-Qaida in Iraq so "we won't have to fight them here" in no way matches reality. Nothing prevents al-Qaida from attacking us there and here. In fact, the intelligence report concludes that the war in Iraq has given al-Qaida agents invaluable battlefield experience and has helped it attract support from across the Muslim world.

The notion that Iraq now is the front line in the war on terror is Bush's third rationale for invading that country. First, the war was supposed to have been a response to the threat of weapons of mass destruction, which proved illusory. Then it was a war to bring democracy to Iraq and the region. Now, confronted with reports that al-Qaida has reconstituted itself in the lawless frontiers of Pakistan, the president is stressing the need to confront Islamic radicals on the ground in Iraq.

What now is clear is that if the United States had focused its resources on tracking down Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida operatives in Afghanistan and the border regions of Pakistan, the terrorists might not have regrouped and posed the threat they do today. The nation can't undo the past four years, but it can reject Bush's latest attempt to justify the disaster in Iraq as central to the war against terrorists.

We must take a more realistic approach to reducing the threat of terrorism. First, there can be no clear-cut military victory in the war on terror. The United States can't eradicate every terrorist in the world or expect that, one day, bin Laden will wave the flag of surrender. And, as this intelligence report makes clear, when al-Qaida leaders are killed, countless others are ready to rise up to replace them.

A comprehensive effort to reduce the terrorist threat must include cooperation with intelligence and law enforcement agencies of other nations, continued efforts to dismantle sources of funding for terrorists, and a broader attempt to understand the underlying factors that help sustain the jihadist movement. And that effort is likely to take years, if not decades.

While we can't undo the past four years, this report clearly indicates the need to re-evaluate our tactics and determine what has worked and what hasn't. Then, perhaps, we can undertake a plan to confront the threat of terrorism that won't put thousands of American troops at risk, that won't cost hundreds of billions of dollars, that won't break the back of the U.S. military, but will actually make us safer.

IN SUMMARY

Despite -- or perhaps because of -- Iraq war, al-Qaida is as strong as it ever was.

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