Clinton and al-Qaeda, Once More

The New York Times reports on newly declassified documents noting that, back in 1996, the State Department’s intelligence shop warned the Clinton administration about Osama bin Laden’s move from the Sudan to Afghanistan:

In what would prove a prescient warning, the State Department intelligence analysts said in a top-secret assessment on Mr. bin Laden that summer that “his prolonged stay in Afghanistan – where hundreds of ‘Arab mujahedeen’ receive terrorist training and key extremist leaders often congregate – could prove more dangerous to U.S. interests in the long run than his three-year liaison with Khartoum,” in Sudan.

Doesn’t look good, does it. On the other hand, whether or not the Clinton administration took this warning seriously, it’s impossible to imagine that the U.S. could’ve gone to war against Afghanistan prior to 9/11. Clinton’s suggestion in New York magazine this week, that he would have “launched an attack on Afghanistan early” if only he had known that al-Qaeda was responsible for the attack on the U.S.S Cole, is pretty laughable. Clinton’s trying to make himself look good—please, pray tell, why would that particular attack be a cause for war, but not the 1998 embassy bombings?—but even if he was serious, a war against Afghanistan in 2000 would’ve been opposed by the Republican Congress, which was then against any adventures abroad, as well as the media, which would’ve had a field day calling any such attack a “wag the dog” maneuver. Sad but true.

More to the point, Clinton’s reluctance to attack wasn’t his biggest mistake. If we really want to criticize with hindsight, then in fact, Clinton’s failed missile attacks on Afghanistan in August 1998 probably did more to help al-Qaeda than anything else. Not because they “emboldened” the enemy, as many conservatives have suggested. Rather, as Jason Burke reports in his book, Al-Qaeda, up until that point Mullah Omar and the Taliban were getting sick of their Arab “allies” running rampant around the country, and were ready to extradite bin Laden. But after the attack, the Taliban felt that they couldn’t look weak and give up bin Laden in response to Western aggression, and at that point, the ties between Mullah Omar and bin Laden firmed up considerably. Meanwhile, bin Laden’s cachet increased immeasurably around the Arab world—up until that point he had just been seen as a two-bit financier; now, he was an international mastermind, and an inspiration to other young jihadists. The rest of the story is pretty well known, but the missile attacks were an oft-overlooked turning point.

At any rate, it’s pretty obvious that Clinton dropped the ball on al-Qaeda in many respects (as did George W. Bush, as did countless others). Hindsight is brutal, and always unforgiving. A bitch, one might say. Moving forward, however, Kevin Drum asks the right question: why is the State Department’s intelligence unit, INR, so much better than all the others? And, by the way, where is Osama bin Laden these days?