We have met the enemy, and he is us

A CIA agent claims that the US war on terror is only strengthening bin Laden

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The title of this book, "Imperial Hubris," leaves no doubt about what the author thinks of the American war on terror.

The lack of an immediate response to the 9/11 attacks was inexcusable, he says. The three weeks that the US took to come up with a bombing campaign against Afghanistan allowed Osama bin Laden time to plan his own departure, along with that of most of his fighters.

And the war in Iraq, he writes, is "an avaricious, premeditated, unprovoked war against a foe who posed no immediate threat but whose defeat did offer economic advantages."

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The author, a senior intelligence official at the CIA - which insists on keeping him anonymous - criticizes just about everybody, including those in his own agency (perhaps with the exception of his colleagues in the trenches). He censures US action and inaction, as well as both Democratic and Republican administrations.

His purpose, he explains, is to open Americans' eyes about this war on terror - really a global Islamic insurgency, he argues - and to promote a public dialogue about why the US response is failing.

"We face a precise, thoughtful, and hatred-fueled threat meant to win a decisive victory for Allah in a war being waged because of the fighters' love for Him. Bin Laden et. al are and will continue fighting and killing Americans," he writes, "because of what we have done and are doing in the Islamic world and not because of who we are and how we run our political, economic, and social systems."

This book is a follow-up to "Through Our Enemies' Eyes" (reviewed May 29, 2003). That was an exhaustive analysis of bin Laden's written and spoken words over a decade or so leading up to 9/11. This time, the author includes additional rhetoric from bin Laden and his followers, and he presents a balance sheet of bin Laden's and America's successes.

There's no outright winner. The Bush administration claims that two-thirds of the Al Qaeda leadership has been taken out and several attacks have been thwarted.

At the same time, bin Laden and his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are alive and regularly issuing audiotapes. Moreover, officials say Al Qaeda is at least as dangerous - or more so - today, and that another, perhaps more catastrophic, attack on the US is highly probable.

The author, whom I have interviewed, claims that America's war on terror strengthens rather than weakens bin Laden. "The US invasion of Iraq is Osama bin Laden's gift from America," he writes, "one he has long and ardently desired, but never realistically expected."

Rather than "on the run," as US officials portray him, bin Laden is comfortably and appreciatively watching US actions and growing his organization - particularly with younger, savvier, computer-literate recruits.

The author devotes one chapter to Afghanistan and what the US should have prepared for leading up to the invasion. He follows with a stinging critique of that effort, claiming that the way the war was fought - with most members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban regime fading into the countryside - will not lead to a long-term victory.

Citing the current resurgence of fighting there and on the Afghan-Pakistani border, he predicts that the country is perilously close to a return of Taliban-style rule.

He is equally pessimistic about Iraq, the second holiest Islamic land, claiming the situation there is now even more exploitable than Afghanistan for terrorists. Moreover, America's support of Israel continues to confirm bin Laden's claim that the US is interested only in occupying and exploiting Muslim lands.

There is a small window of hope amid the pessimism at the end of the book. He offers up several guidelines for policymakers to debate and consider:

• Think less about frenetic activity, and more about measurable progress in the battle against terrorist organizations.

• Move away from the nonstop memorializing of the 9/11 defeat and start confirming our resolve to destroy the killers.

• Accept that the US is hated, not merely misunderstood, by radical Muslims because of America's policies and actions.

• Realize that others will not do our dirty work abroad.

• Do not treat Al Qaeda attacks as a job for the intelligence services, but as acts of war that require a melding of all US fighting capabilities - military, intelligence, political, diplomatic, and economic.

• Pursue energy self-sufficiency.

He calls this time a "golden opportunity": "For the first time since the cold war's end - perhaps since 1945 - Americans must make a definitive choice about US relations with the Muslim world. We can either reaffirm current policies, thereby denying their role in creating the hatred bin Laden personifies, or we can examine and debate the reality we face, the threat we must defeat, and then - if deemed necessary - devise policies that better serve US interests."

Because of the author's role in the intelligence community and the politicized atmosphere in which this book is released, his views will get close attention. As they should. He is, after all, the former head of the bin Laden unit in the CIA.

Although the information in this book is from unclassified sources - the CIA vetted the book to make sure of that - he has had access over the years to most, if not all, of the classified information on bin Laden and Al Qaeda. And the fact that the CIA allowed it to be published at all is extremely controversial. (According to officials there, the agency can't prevent an employee from exercising his First Amendment rights, only from releasing its classified material and "sources and methods.")

One can only hope that someday "Anonymous" will be able to tell all the stories that led to his anger and frustration. He provides hints at what lies beneath the surface, such as in the dedication: "For Charlie, Harry, Dave, and Joe, and the unrivaled examples they set of professionalism, integrity, and decency. And for Jack, Jim, John, and the ambassador, who most certainly do not."

Faye Bowers is a Monitor reporter in Washington, D.C.

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