A history of the Afghan war, 10 minutes later

The ultimate insider reporter describes the Bush war room during the battle in Afghanistan

Bob Woodward has not succumbed to the ever-present danger for journalists in Washington: sacrificing objectivity for access. He is both objective and plugged into high places. On the other hand, don't buy his new book, "Bush at War," expecting to get Woodward's astute analysis of just how Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants escaped the US military in Afghanistan.

Instead, read Woodward's latest tome if you want to play arm-chair general inside the White House "war room." For those of us who were out of the loop, "Bush at War" describes much of what went on in this secret room as the war in Afghanistan was being planned and conducted through November of 2001.

Some of the war room's most inscrutable characters, however, remain just that. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, or "Rummy" as his admirers and detractors refer to him, had ruffled a few feathers even before he arrived for a second time in his powerful post.

It was a surprise to many in Washington that he had landed such a high position in the Bush administration, given that he had once referred to Bush's father as an intellectual lightweight more interested in opinion polls than policy. Rumsfeld can be both irascible and endearing. He became a pop hero during the war, but unfortunately Woodward does not examine his character in any depth. Throughout this book, he remains a crucial, but frustratingly opaque figure.

In the early stages of the war and during the crucial National Security Council meetings that set the tone of the conflict in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld's influence on President Bush appears minimal. His role, due both to military basing difficulties in Asia and an early presidential decision not to commit large numbers of soldiers to the fight, was mainly that of a very important policy adviser - sometimes even a kind of cheerleader in chief.

The advice that Rumsfeld did give was not always listened to. In NSC meetings, often chaired by President Bush, Rumsfeld warned repeatedly that too much of a focus on capturing Osama bin Laden could backfire. On Sept. 25, he told the cabinet that the war on terror "ought to focus on Al Qaeda, it shouldn't focus on UBL [bin Laden]."

Rumsfeld appears, in a political sense, keen to cover bases, both his own and those of others. This doesn't mean that Rumsfeld's efforts were not devoted to bringing the world's most wanted man to justice. On Oct 10, as bin Laden and his cohorts were still considering their own prospects of fighting or escaping, he told the cabinet, "We need to lock things down, so that Omar [the Taliban leader] and UBL [bin Laden] do not leave. We want to keep them bottled up."

Enter George Tenet, the high-strung intelligence whiz who had also served in the last administration as America's spy chief. Oddly enough, his appointment by Clinton hadn't tarnished his reputation with the Bush family. But in the wake of 9/11 Tenet was sought out by detractors as a possible scapegoat, a man without a plan for far too long.

He wasn't going to let that talk continue, as witnessed by his new war strategy for Afghanistan - produced almost at the speed of light. On Sept. 15, Tenet showed up at the war cabinet with firm recommendations. The No. 1 goal was, of course, to destroy Al Qaeda. This could be done, he argued, through the auspices of the CIA working with the northern Afghan rebels who would sweep across the country under the wings of US bombers. The means were indirect, but Tenet argued that they would be devastating for bin Laden and his ilk. Just what would make this plan work? Money - money that would move mountains inside one of the world's most impoverished nations.

Bush was convinced. In late September, he was prepared to move ahead with Tenet's plan, which did not yet exclude US soldiers rushing into the fray, but also worked, in theory, with only dozens of Green Berets in the war theater. Bush told his generals that he was no longer sure "boots on the ground" would be necessary.

It was a risky move for the president, both strategically in the global arena and politically within his own closed security circle. He had stressed continually, as had Rumsfeld, that it was the Clinton administration's preference for high-tech aerial assaults without a commensurate commitment of US forces that had left the world with a weakened opinion of US strength.

Bush said so - months later - in an interview at his Texas ranch with Woodward. "I mean, people viewed that [Clinton's vision] as the impotent America," said Bush, "a flaccid, you know, kind of tech competent, but not very tough country that was willing to launch cruise missiles out of a submarine and that'd be it."

It would be hard not to conclude from the evidence presented in "Bush at War" that dubious planning and a failure to put US "boots on the ground" allowed bin Laden to slip away to fight another day.

Woodward, the quintessential "objective reporter," however, stubbornly refuses to draw any conclusions from the story he describes. Instead, he lets the armchair generals of this world decide. No doubt, the author is hedging his bets for his next book. He understands that in Washington, access is still more important than analysis.

Philip Smucker is currently working on a book for Brassey's Inc. about the war in Afghanistan, which he covered for the Monitor.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.