President George W. Bush was more than a bit of a bonehead in pursuing Osama bin Laden and the last 10 years of U.S. warfare in the Mideast really did not have to happen. Bush made it to happen with his obsessive pursuit of former Iraq tyrant Saddam Hussein.
Those unflattering conclusions emerged from the frank talk of Col. Mike Pheneger, who roundly criticizes U.S. foreign policy decisions made post-9/11. If he had been running the operation, the historic outcome would have been much different, he said.
Here is an excerpt of his Nov. 16 talk at the Boca Grande Community Center as the Lifelong Learning opening speaker this season:
Col. Mike Pheneger
QUESTION: What should the United States have done post-9/11 to catch bin Laden?
ANSWER: The Bush administration decided to use an economy of force. With no U.S. forces, no effective Afghan police force and no effective military in Afghanistan, the Taliban were allowed to get back and resume their operations there. The Bush administration decided it had better things to do than find bin Laden.
Q: Why did the Bush administration lose track of bin Laden, American Enemy No.1?
Col. Mike Pheneger at a glance
Military background: Retired U.S. Army intelligence officer.
Key assignments: Commander U.S. Army Intelligence School in Fort Devens); director of intelligence, U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base; deputy director of intelligence, U.S. Central Command; Commander 470th MI Group in Panama; G2, Second Infantry Division in Korea, and director of operations, 66th MI Brigade in Germany.
Education: MPA from Shippensburg University, bachelor's degree from Bowling Green State University, graduate of the Naval War College's Command & Staff Course and the Army War College. Civic service: President of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and previously served on the ACLU's National Board and Executive Committee. Has spoken widely on the USA Patriot Act, torture, Guantanamo and warrant-less wiretapping and has submitted declarations in federal court proceedings supporting the ACLU's requests for documents under the Freedom of Information Act. Served as an expert witness in a case to enjoin the Tampa Sports Authority from conducting pat-down searches as a condition of attending NFL football games.
Recommended book: "Why Geography Matters: Three Challenges Facing America," by Boca Grande resident Harm de Blij.
A: The Bush administration lost focus on bin Laden because they came into office with a preoccupation with Saddam Hussein. So they decided to attack Hussein in Iraq. It's interesting, President Barack Obama just declared we would all be out of Iraq at the end of this year, leaving no substantial forces behind and putting an end to one of the longest and most politically contentious wars in U.S. history. It's an end to an American attempt to convert the Mideast to democracy using military forces.
Q: Was it worth it?
A: I checked the casualty chart and we had 4,483 people killed, 3,500 in combat, 35,000 wounded and $1 trillion spent. There were 4,344 killed after President Bush came on the aircraft carrier and said: mission accomplished. The original attack on Iraq as very successful and cost very little in terms of human lives. But the war became very costly in terms of human lives and the federal treasury.
Q: What should have been done differently?
A: My bias is if you're going to attack a country do it right. It never occurred to me the U.S. military would mess it up that bad. But the fact is they did screw it up tremendously.
Q: Was Hussein ever an ally of bin Laden?
A: No. There's no evidence to support the charge that Saddam, Iran, North Korea or Iraq every supported Al-Qaeda or were involved in any Al-Qaeda attacks. There was no evidence Saddam had anything to do with 9/11. Our real concern there was gaining control of nuclear materials from the former Soviet Union. And we did a pretty effective job of that.
Q: Where and when was the greatest missed opportunity post-9/11 in pursuit of bin Laden?
A: On Oct. 7, a month after 9/11, the Bush administration launched a very successful attack to disrupt the Taliban and eliminate the sanctuary for Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. About a month after 9/11 they were done. It was a classic military operation of the type you will probably never see again. But we let the advantage slip away.
Q: Why wasn't this classic operation a success?
A: We didn't have any troops on the ground to do anything. We should have been taking care of the remnants of Al-Qaeda before they left the country.
Q: Where did bin Laden get out?
A: Bin Laden retreated to Tora Bora in Afghanistan.
Q: To those fantastic underground caves?
A: Some people described the caves there in terms of multi-layers and multi-stories. And it was a pretty sophisticated cave complex. At that point we were in a dilemma: How to go get him? We ultimately relied on U.S. special operations people and began to use some Afghan tribesmen as we began to close in on the area. But when it came to actually working it, the Afghans proved to be unreliable. There were areas out he was able to go from Tora Bora to Pakistan and remained in Pakistan until he was killed.
Q: What was the Afghan failure?
A: The tribes, in consideration of something, simply allowed him to escape and we did not have enough U.S. forces to block the routes that allowed him to get out of there.
Q: Why did Pakistan allow it?
A: There are two answers to that. Initially, he was in an area the Pakistan government did not control. Subsequently he moved into Pakistan proper and it's my opinion they could not have stayed there without the active cooperation of some elements of the Pakistan government.