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Settling in
Misunderestimating Intelligence
It Is Iraq, Stupid

So. On Sunday, three national newspapers reported that the latest National Intelligence Estimates concludes that the war in Iraq hasn’t diminished terrorism. It has increased it. The estimate combines the findings of 16 intelligence agencies spread through federal agencies and the Pentagon. On Monday, Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, said this: “One thing that the reports do not say is that war in Iraq has made terrorism worse.” He must not have read the reports. On Tuesday, Bush called the newspaper reports “gossip,” said the Iraq war wasn’t making things worse, then said he’d have the original estimate, or “key judgments,” anyway, declassified so we could see how wrong the newspaper “gossip” was: “You ought to take a look at it and then you’ll get to see.”

The report is 30 pages long. Three pages plus two paragraphs were released. An abridgement, one guesses. Or gossips. Either way: Here is what it does say: “… the global jihadist movement… is spreading and adapting to counter terrorism efforts.” “The confluence of shared purpose and dispersed actors will make it harder to find and undermine jihadist groups.” “The Iraqi jihad is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives,” it has become “the ‘cause celebre’ for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters of the global jihadist movement. Should jihadists leaving Iraq perceive themselves, and be perceived, to have failed, we judge fewer fighters will be inspired to carry on the fight.”

A big should, for now, considering two factors: the estimate itself judges the movement to be growing, not slowing. So the shuttle train is bringing jihadists in, not taking them out. And the estimate is disturbingly mum about a central part of the jihadist experience: martyrdom. These guys aren’t looking to get out. They’re obsessed with dying. “When a fighter fell,” Lawrence Wright writes in The Looming Tower of the jihadists’ Afghan years, “his comrades would congratulate him and weep because they were not also slain in battle.” The supposition of jihadists “leaving Iraq” is in itself revealing of the estimates’ shallowness on this count, contradicted (and reinforced) by the estimate’s next point: “the underlying factors fueling the spread of the movement outweigh its vulnerabilities” for now. (The four points it lists as fuel to the jihadists’ cause are candid enough to include the “corruption, injustice, and fear of Western domination, leading to anger, humiliation and a sense of powerlessness”).

I realize that English is my third language. But the estimate is pretty explicit: terrorism is getting worse, and it isn’t because of what the Desperate Housewives are up to. It’s because of Iraq. Look it up. It’s in the estimate. You have to wonder: did Bush read it? His fictional reading binges aside, he notoriously doesn’t read anything longer than one-page memos. Maybe this estimate was summarized for him. By Dick Cheney, who tends to feed his president only spoonfuls of mushed information. Maybe the “leak” to the newspapers was news to Bush, although he claims not to read newspapers, so maybe he misinterpreted what was in the New York Times. More to the point: what the released portions of the estimate do show is a particularly non-original assessment of what we’ve all been witnessing for the last few years. Of course Iraq has mucked up the fight. Of course it’s diverted and diluted resources, allowing the jihadists to pick up steam and challenge. Of course its intensifying resentments. For God’s sake, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is where the jihadist movement started—as a response to a secular superpower invading a Muslim land. How could matters have been any different when the United States chose to invade Iraq? It’s as if the intelligence “community” is catching up to the news. Is this the best it can do, with $40 to $50 billion a year feeding its gray cells?

The day’s supreme irony was Bush’s two-question news conference with Hamid Karzai, where he gave his literary interpretation of the intelligence estimate. Karzai is ostensibly the leader of Afghanistan, a country the size of Texas. Karzai’s government controls an area about the size of the Bush ranch in Crawford. Most of the rest is increasingly Taliban country again. The estimate is silent about Afghanistan. Bush wasn’t so silent about the murder of Safia Amajan, the women’s rights leader, in Afghanistan on Sunday. “She got killed in cold blood,” he said. “She was a leader who wanted to give young girls an education in Afghanistan. She was a person who served her government. She was a person who cared deeply about the future of the country.” But how, five years after the American invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in liberation’s name, almost five years about declaring that chunk of the world another “mission accomplished,” five years after Bush speech after Bush speech sexing up the Afghan campaign, how could Safia Amajan be murdered “in cold blood,” as so many like her are being murdered? On that question, Bush pleads the Fifth. He has a right, after all, not to incriminate himself. That’s why we at least have intelligence estimates.

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