The chaos spreading across nuclear-armed Pakistan after the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto is part of the price for the Bush administration’s duplicity about al-Qaeda’s priorities, including the old canard that the terrorist group regards Iraq as the “central front” in its global war against the West.

Through repetition of this claim – often accompanied by George W. Bush’s home-spun advice about the need to listen to what the enemy says – millions of Americans believe that Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders consider Iraq the key battlefield.

However, intelligence evidence, gathered from intercepted al-Qaeda communications, indicate that bin Laden’s high command views Iraq as a valuable diversion for U.S. military strength, not the “central front.”

For instance, as the Iraq War was heating up in 2005, a letter attributed to al-Qaeda’s second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri asked if the embattled al-Qaeda operatives in Iraq might be able to spare $100,000 to relieve a cash squeeze facing the group’s top leaders in hiding, presumably inside Pakistan near the Afghan border.

Instead of money going from Pakistan to Iraq, the cash was flowing the opposite way. U.S. intelligence analysts recognized that this was not the way one would normally treat a “central front.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Al-Qaeda’s Fragile Foothold.”]

In another captured letter sent to Jordanian terrorist Musab al-Zarqawi before his death in June 2006, a top aide to bin Laden known as “Atiyah” upbraided Zarqawi for his reckless, hasty actions inside Iraq.

The message from Atiyah, who is believed to be a Libyan named Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, emphasized the need for Zarqawi to operate more deliberately in order to build political strength and drag out the U.S. occupation. “Prolonging the war is in our interest,” Atiyah told Zarqawi.

[To view this excerpt in a translation published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, click here. To read the entire letter, click here. ]

So, instead of seeking a quick ouster of U.S. forces from Iraq and using it as a base for launching a global jihad – as Bush and his supporters claim – al-Qaeda actually saw its strategic goals advanced by keeping the United States bogged down in Iraq.

To some U.S. analysts, the logic was obvious: “prolonging” the Iraq War bought al-Qaeda time to rebuild its infrastructure in Pakistan, where the Islamic fundamentalist extremists have long had sympathizers inside the Pakistani intelligence services dating back to the CIA’s war in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Charlie Wilson’s Blowback

That CIA war, lionized in the new movie “Charlie Wilson’s War,” funneled billions of dollars in U.S. covert money and weapons through Pakistani intelligence to Afghan warlords and to Arab jihadists who had flocked to Afghanistan to drive out the Russian infidels. One of those young jihadists was a wealthy Saudi named Osama bin Laden.

While relying on Pakistani intelligence to assist the Afghan rebels, the Reagan administration also averted its eyes from Pakistan’s clandestine development of nuclear weapons, an apparent trade-off for Pakistan’s help in giving the Soviet bear a bloody nose in Afghanistan. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]

After the Soviets withdrew in 1989, the war dragged on, with a triumphant United States unwilling to broker a deal with the secular Afghan government that the Soviets left behind. George H.W. Bush’s administration wanted these “Soviet puppets” dragged from their offices and killed (as some eventually were), replaced by the CIA-backed Islamic fundamentalists.

Then, in 1990, the alliances began to shift. U.S. military bases inside Saudi Arabia, which were established for driving Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, offended bin Laden and alienated him from his patrons in the Saudi royal family.

When the U.S. bases remained after the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, bin Laden began to view his old American allies as another band of infidels encroaching on Muslim lands. So, bin Laden’s fellow jihadists in Afghanistan shifted their sights onto a new enemy and developed a new organization known as “the base,” or al-Qaeda.

For obvious reasons, the Bush administration has sought to blur this complicated history for the American people. It takes some of the shine off the glorious Cold War victories of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Dark Backdrop

But this shadow struggle at the end of the Cold War was the backdrop for the 9/11 attacks, which in turn led to Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan, ousting bin Laden and his fundamentalist Taliban allies, but failing to catch bin Laden, Zawahiri and other key leaders.

Then, rather than finishing the job in Afghanistan, Bush made an abrupt detour into Iraq, a decision rife with settling old scores and other unspoken justifications, but which Bush sold to the American public as necessary because Iraq’s secular dictator Saddam Hussein was in league with the fundamentalist bin Laden and might give him WMDs.

When that justification proved false and a stubborn Iraqi insurgency emerged to challenge the U.S. occupation, Bush initially presented the resistance as an al-Qaeda offshoot operating under bin Laden’s control.

Again, U.S. intelligence saw a different problem: Sunni and Shiite Iraqis contesting the American presence and competing for dominance with each other, while a violent smattering of foreign jihadists like Zarqawi tried to insinuate themselves into the Sunni faction and spread havoc.

Though Bush eventually acknowledged that most of Iraqi resistance was homegrown, he still asserted that al-Qaeda planned to use Iraq as the launching pad for a global “caliphate” from Spain to Indonesia, another alarmist claim that scared some Americans into backing Bush’s war policies.

“This caliphate would be a totalitarian Islamic empire encompassing all current and former Muslim lands, stretching from Europe to North Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia,” Bush said in a typical reference to this claim in a Sept. 5, 2006, speech. “We know this because al-Qaeda has told us.”

But many analysts saw Bush’s nightmarish scenario as preposterous, given the deep divisions within the Islamic world and the hostility that many Muslims feel toward al-Qaeda, including its recent much-heralded rejection by more moderate Iraqi Sunnis in Anbar province.

Also, according to a National Intelligence Estimate representing the consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community in April 2006, “the global jihadist movement is decentralized, lacks a coherent global strategy, and is becoming more diffuse.” [Emphasis added.]

The NIE also concluded that the Iraq War – rather than weakening the cause of Islamic terrorism – had become a “cause celebre” that was “cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement.”

The grinding Iraq War – now nearing its fifth year – also prevented the United States from arraying sufficient military and intelligence resources against the reorganized al-Qaeda infrastructure in Pakistan and the rebuilt Taliban army reasserting itself in Afghanistan.

Hopes Dashed

So, when the Bush administration supported former Prime Minister Bhutto’s return to Pakistan in October 2007, the wishful thinking was that she could somehow energize the more moderate elements of Pakistani politics and marginalize the Islamic extremists.

But the overstretched U.S. military and intelligence services could do little in helping to protect Bhutto beyond hectoring Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf to give his political rival more security. Musharraf, who himself has dodged multiple assassination attempts, either couldn’t or wouldn’t ensure Bhutto’s safety.

Now, with Bhutto’s death and with unrest sweeping Pakistan, Bush’s Iraq War backers are sure to argue that these developments again prove the president right, that an even firmer hand is needed to combat terrorism and that the next president must be someone ready to press ahead with Bush’s concept of a “long war” against Islamic extremism.

But the reality again appears different. Though rarely mentioned in the American press, the evidence is that bin Laden and other extremists have cleverly played off Bush’s arrogance and belligerence to strengthen their strategic hand within the Muslim world.

By keeping Bush focused on Iraq, al-Qaeda and its allies also bought time to transform themselves into a more lethal threat in Pakistan, with the danger that the new turmoil could win al-Qaeda its ultimate prize, control of a nuclear bomb. [For more on this history, see our new book Neck Deep.]

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.

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