Image: Yearend Pictures 2002
A U.S. soldier in Kabul, Afghanistan, watches as a Pakistani soldier, left, escorts a Pakistani Taliban prisoner to a flight bound for Pakistan in September.
By Senior correspondent
msnbc.com

With an intensity unprecedented in its recent history, America tracked and drove events beyond its borders in 2002, flexing its military and diplomatic muscles on a scale not seen since World War II. Unlike that last global conflict, however, this time the United States finds enormous resistance to its effort to fight “a war like none other our nation has faced,” as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld calls it. Thus, even as its armed might drove the Taliban from Afghanistan, the tougher job of rallying the world against those who wish America ill is proving a much greater challenge.

How far off it all seems now - the “Afghan campaign,” with American military power and political rhetoric now bearing down on Iraq. As 2001 gave way to 2002, the prognosis in Central Asia appeared optimistic, if not a foregone conclusion. Afghanistan would not prove the tar pit for American troops that it had for would-be British and Soviet conquerors of an earlier era, and post-war efforts to create a national unity government that might improve things in that sad land, while fragile, also have born some fruit.

Yet even at that early juncture — New Year’s 2002 — U.S. forces had missed their chance to cut off and capture the most senior al-Qaida commanders, including Osama bin Ladin himself. This fact will always mean that, however sound the beating meted out to the religious zealots of the Taliban, the larger strategic goal of the Afghan war has yet to be realized.

Thanks and praise
Success in this “war,” as Rumsfeld noted, will not be measured by conventional means. And in that largest sense, the fact that al-Qaida has failed to date to strike a new, even greater blow to the American homeland should not be underestimated. Several of its top leaders were either killed or captured.

The front lines were fluid, varied and not at all confined to “foreign” datelines. The Justice Department arrested dozens described as al-Qaida adherents or cell members. Alert passengers foiled an attempt to destroy an American airliner in mid-air with explosive shoes. Tips from ordinary Americans, some of them of Arab descent, led federal agents to an alleged al-Qaida cell outside Buffalo, N.Y., and an allegedly compromised software firm outside Boston. Yemeni authorities helped target an al-Qaida chieftain quickly killed by a Predator drone’s Hellfire missile.

Police agencies from Antwerp, Belgium, to Zamboanga in the Philippines made significant arrests. Pakistani authorities notched perhaps the most significant success yet: the capture of Abu Zubaida, the highest ranking al-Qaida operative now in American hands.

Hardly defeated
For every success, though, a tragic counter-punch. In February, al-Qaida-linked militants in Pakistan killed and beheaded Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl. In April, a truck bomb killed 15 Western tourists — 10 of them German — at a synagogue on the Tunisian tourist island of Jerba. In May, a bomb killed nine French Navy specialists in their hotel in Pakistan. A week later, U.S. authorities claim to have foiled an attempt to explode a radiological “dirty bomb,” arresting an American, Abdullah al-Muhajir, born Jose Padilla. In September, Afghan President Hamid Karzai escaped an assassination attempt. Several top-ranking aides were not so lucky.

Al-Qaida activity, and the activities of its sympathizers around the world, picked up in October with a bomb attack on a French oil tanker in the Persian Gulf, a spate of bombings that killed a dozen civilians and an American soldier in the Philippines, the killings of two U.S. Marines by Kuwaiti radicals, the assassination of an American diplomat in Jordan and a huge blast that killed 200 people, most of them young Australian tourists, on the island of Bali. In November, al-Qaida tried to down an Israeli airliner with a missile in Kenya. Most disturbing of all, November brougt confirmation that bin Laden was alive and continuing to plot: an audio tape delivered to the Arab network al-Jazeera in which the al-Qaida leader praises recent strikes against America and its allies. With such actions and statements, bin Laden has greatly aided Washington’s effort to legitimize this “new kind of war.” Few outside the Middle East these days offer much resistance to the war on al-Qaida.

The new axis
Al-Qaida, however, did not dominate the American consciousness as most had thought it would at this time last year. Instead, America’s sights swung to a more conventional foe: Iraq, along with two other states - North Korea and Iran - dubbed an “axis of evil” by President George W. Bush in his January, State of the Union address.

This declaration stunned America’s allies, particularly early on, when the administration all but bragged of its intention to ignore international law or the opinions of its closest partners. Iran seized upon the speech as an excuse to clamp down on a stubborn democratic reform movement inside the country. North Korea reacted even more radically: abrogating the “Agreed Framework,” which committed it to refrain from creating a nuclear weapon, and openly admitting to U.S. diplomats that it already had one and might well create several more.

But the real focus of America’s energy in 2002 was Iraq. Though unable to show convincing evidence that links Iraq and al-Qaida, Bush began speaking of “regime change” in Baghdad — home of his father’s arch-enemy, Saddam Hussein. Not so subtle talk of “post-war occupation” and thinly veiled meetings with prominent Iraqi exiles who oppose Saddam gave the impression that America would act for its own reasons — and would feel little need to explain them.

Giving him rope
The tone changed in September, after warnings from Secretary of State Colin Powell and others that a unilateral war against Iraq would be a devastating blow to cooperation needed to prevail in the larger war on terrorism. Bush instead demanded in a speech at the United Nations that the world body “live up” to its own resolutions, which call unequivocally for Iraq’s strategic disarmament.

The policy shift tested the administration’s patience, but ultimately Washington won a resounding victory in the Security Council on Nov. 8 when all 15 members approved a new resolution warning, in effect, that war would be the inevitable result of further Iraqi backsliding on disarmament. United Nations inspections team deployed quickly thereafter, despite grumbling from within the administration about the futility of its efforts.

An Iraqi arms declaration required by the U.N. action was roundly criticized as inadequate, and as the year drew to a close, a mobilization of Iraqi and American forces toward a full-scale war in the Gulf had begun.

The absence of another massive terrorist strike in America, the routing of the Taliban and the very real diplomatic victory the United States won in the United Nations should gave Bush some positives to reflect upon over the holidays. Yet all, he must know, could be ephemeral. Almost weekly, some organ of the American government warns that the next massive strike is not a matter of “if” but “when.” The Taliban are gone, but the sentiment that fueled their rise — and their most notorious “guest” remain at large. And even a quick war with Iraq that leaves a friendly government in Baghdad by June may not do much to help America’s long-term interests — oil supplies notwithstanding. Such a war could go awry, drawing in Israel, for instance, or pushing yet another Muslim autocracy — Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia or nuclear-armed Pakistan” — into the “axis” column. If so, the conquest of Iraq could be but a battle won in a war that could still be lost.

As 2001 closed, I argued in this space: “So far, in Afghanistan, the United States has been operating with the sympathy of much of the world. A nation attacked has the right to strike back. American foreign policy before Sept. 11 had enormous flaws, but none of them justified the murders of that day. But striking back at the perceived perpetrators is the easy part. If we look at this properly, then it is clear the United States has to devise a doctrine with international support that would have allowed American armed forces to attack Afghanistan in 1999, not in 2001.”

As we move into 2003, that kind of understanding of America’s predicament seems as far off as ever.

Copyright MSNBC 2002

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