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U.S. still at start of war on terror

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WASHINGTON — Just nine days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, an angry and resolute President Bush vowed to unleash "every necessary weapon of war" against global terrorist organizations, even as he took steps to defend America against further strikes.

Two years later, U.S. troops have invaded and occupied Afghanistan and Iraq, while covert forces have worked inside several other countries, in operations that have ruptured, though not decapitated, Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist group.

The mission has been difficult and costly, taking a heavy toll of American lives, taxpayer dollars and on U.S. relations with a wide array of countries. The results have been decidedly mixed. And it's far from certain whether Americans are safer from terrorist attacks today than they were on that sunny but tragic September morning two years ago.

What is clear, analysts say, is that the nation is closer to the beginning than to the end of a global anti-terror campaign that some now liken to the Cold War, the simmering U.S.-Soviet conflict that divided the world along ideological battle lines in the second half of the 20th Century.

"It is reminiscent, I think, of the late 1940s, early 1950s, when we recognized there was this herculean challenge before us that would not be resolved in a short period of time," said global security analyst Bruce Hoffman, vice president of the RAND Corp., a private research and consulting firm. "It's many battles, in many places."

At home, Bush has led efforts to reduce the country's vulnerability to attack, creating a Homeland Security Department to consolidate domestic safeguards and response operations under a single umbrella, budgeting billions of dollars to counter terrorist threats and backing legislation giving law enforcement agencies broad new powers.

At its heart, though, the anti-terror campaign is an aggressively offensive global play, a recognition by Bush that no open and democratic society can simply close its doors to the rest of the world.

"We've adopted a new strategy for a new kind of war: We will not wait for known enemies to strike us again," Bush said last month in a speech before veterans in St. Louis, laying out the thinking behind his doctrine of preemptive attacks against countries he thinks pose an imminent threat.

"Our military is confronting terrors in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in other places, so our people will not have to confront terrorist violence in New York or St. Louis or Los Angeles," said Bush. "They're taking the fight to the enemy."

The fight has not come cheap. As of mid-week, 286 American soldiers had died in Iraq, and more than 1,100 had been wounded, in an operation costing U.S. taxpayers an estimated $3.9 billion a month. In Afghanistan, two recent deaths brought U.S. fatalities to 29. Nine other Americans have been killed hunting al-Qaida associates in the Philippines, and 14 other U.S. troops have died in other places.

While mourning the lost lives, Bush has cast the mounting difficulties in Iraq as "a point of testing.There will be no retreat."

Even so, Bush is hoping to regroup. He's asked the leaders of Russia, France and Germany — each of an opponent of military action against Iraq —to back a new plan that would transform the American occupation of Iraq into a multinational operation under United Nations auspices.

While the proposal calls for the U.S. to command all military forces there, the arrangement would represent a stark reversal for Bush, who had hoped the United States would be able to assert authority and establish representative government in Iraq largely on its own.

Few analysts have questioned the value of the U.S. attack against Afghanistan's former Taliban regime given its support for al-Qaida.

Some, though, have criticized the war against Iraq as an unessential distraction that has drained Pentagon resources and divided the country at a time when the Taliban is showing signs of rebound in Afghanistan and bin Laden remains at large two years after Bush pledged to take him "dead or alive."

Given escalating attacks against U.S. forces and their partners inside Iraq, moreover, critics claim the war may have spawned a new generation of terrorists and transformed the oil-rich state into a new hub of terror.

"We actually created the terrorist state we went in to interdict," said Benjamin Barber, professor of civil society at the University of Maryland and author of the new book, "Fear's Empire: war, terrorism and democracy."

Attacking Iraq, said Barber, inflamed anti-American sentiment across much of the Islamic world, deepening the reservoir of potential recruits for terrorist organizations and creating within Iraq the sort of anarchy in which such groups can thrive.

"As long as you've got a strategy where your main tactic creates more terrorists than it destroys, you've got a counter-productive strategy," said Barber. "That makes us less safe, not more, with time."

Bush supporters have countered that anti-American attacks were expected in post-war Iraq, all the more so given the extent to which Saddam Hussein's army laid down its arms in last spring's war and receded into the general population, from which many have since plotted to sabotage and attack the U.S. mission.

That doesn't undercut the necessity of the hard-edged military work of fighting terrorists and their accomplices, said Peter Brookes, a security studies fellow with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington policy research outfit.

"Obviously this is a long-term project to change the face and the cause of the terrorism," said Brookes.

In the short-term, at least, the Iraq campaign has unleashed new terror attacks, however, and created a new cause for those willing to attack the United States.

"We've reduced the number of significantly trained leaders, while also increasing the pool of lower-level operators, foot soldiers," said Thomas Sanderson, a terrorism expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, another Washington think tank.

"In Afghanistan and Iraq we've killed terrorists, but we've also made ourselves more of a target at the same time," said Sanderson. "People are out to get us more now than they were two years ago, no doubt about it."

Bush claimed that Baghdad's suspected possession of chemical and biological weapons, and its efforts to acquire nuclear arms, posed a risk that such weapons of mass destruction might fall into the hands of terrorists. Four months after Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq, however, U.S. forces have yet to unveil significant stores of such weapons.

Meanwhile, North Korea has pressed ahead with a program analysts think could produce half a dozen or more nuclear weapons a year, which the cash-starved communist state could offer for sale to the highest bidder. And in Russia, which is fighting its own internal war with Islamic militants, uncertain progress has been made in efforts to safeguard nuclear materials that could be used to make thousands of weapons.

As a result, terrorists stand a better chance of getting their hands on a weapon of mass murder today than they did two years ago, fears nonproliferation expert Michael Krepon.

"On balance, we are not safer," said Krepon, founding president of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington research and advocacy group centered on nonproliferation issues. "We are actually less safe than we were before the war on terror was waged after 9/11."

Others contend, though, that the United States has made substantial strides in combating terrorism. Those gains may have been obscured, however, by the mounting difficulties of a campaign whose end is nowhere in sight.

"We are safer, but we know that our adversaries are constantly attempting to identify new vulnerabilities to attack us," said Hoffman of RAND. "Our responses and our thinking about it have to evolve as well. That, I think, is our biggest challenge."