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On the Trail of Al Qaeda

T.C. grad Philip Smucker home from the front, has new book published.

From Quaker Lane to the caves of Tora Bora, Philip Smucker has traveled the globe covering wars for various media outlets. Now, he has written a book about his experiences in Afghanistan after 9-11.

The book is called "Al Qaeda's Great Escape: The Military and the Media on Terror's Trail." Publishers Weekly reviewed the book, noting, "Smucker offers an excellent, compact study of the campaign in Afghanistan. By the end, the wealth of operational detail will leave readers with a palpable sense of missed opportunity."

Why, after 18 years of covering wars, did Smucker write this particular book?

"My motivation for writing the book was driven by having been a spectator," Smucker said. He is home in Alexandria promoting the book, which appeared in stores on April 21.

"We all gathered around this very famous mountain redoubt in Afghanistan and we had a pretty good idea that Bin Laden had gone in there and then the military said that they knew he had gone into this redoubt. Then we were all on the edge of our seats waiting for the U.S. military to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and that did not happen, much to our chagrin. Then we saw something of a fiasco as it unfolded before us.

"The strategy," according to Smucker, "had been thought up years earlier under the Clinton administration and the military was lacking a real invasion plan on 9-11 when the twin towers came down. I think they took George Tenet's plan of using the Afghans to capture or kill bin Laden and that really backfired," Smucker said.

The media knew, if the military did not, that bin Laden had already spent large sums of money to ensure the loyalty of the war lords that the U. S. military was courting.

"The common theme then and even one that you hear now in the Middle East is "bin Laden is your enemy, not ours." Smucker's book details events from October of 2001 through January and February of 2002, when the U. S. military was pursuing bin Laden and al Qaeda through the caves of Tora Bora to Operation Anaconda.

"By not capturing or killing bin Laden as we said we would, we have made him into a larger-than-life hero," Smucker said. "He is now perceived as a great escape artist because he managed to get away from the most powerful military in the world."

SMUCKER DOES NOT believe that the U. S. will ever catch bin Laden. "If we had captured or killed him at Tora Bora, perhaps things would have been very different and President Bush would not have felt that he needed to invade Iraq," he said.

Another of Smucker's reasons for writing the book is that he watched journalists become part of the problem in Afghanistan. "In the early stages of the war on terror, and you can call it wishful thinking or patriotism or jingoism, it was like we had the Archie Bunker war all over again. It was a no-brainer. It was good vs. evil. I think the Fourth Estate temporarily got caught up in the idea that they were there to report on this battle of good vs. evil and always take the good guys at their word.

"In a way, that was falling off our traditional role to be a watchdog of authority, whether those authorities be in our own country or anywhere else. I felt that the role of the journalists was to critique the actions of those in power and help the public understand them. If they make errors, then the public can vote them out of office or help them correct those errors," he said.

There was certainly some of that in the Balkans but Smucker believes that the press did a better job in bringing to light atrocities that were being ignored by those in power.

"For a long time, the politicians ignored the crimes that were being committed against the Muslims in the Balkans," he said. "There were certainly a greater number of crimes being committed against the Muslims than the Muslims were committing in the Balkan context and I believe that the press got those stories home to the public. That helped turn a corner, to a degree."

Smucker is not suggesting that journalists should always call things right down the middle. "There is a amoralism, here. Between the people who took down the World Trade Center and the U. S. military, there is no moral equivalent," he said. "The U. S. military made some mistakes in Afghanistan that I critique in my book like the accidental killing of civilians, which was very unfortunate, but nowhere on the scale of what the al Qaeda organization had done to us, but nevertheless, cannot be overlooked. So there is a fine balance here."

SMUCKER DESCRIBED "one of the most unfortunate friendly fire incidents of the war" in his book. "The Fifth Special Forces Group with 380 of Zia Lodin's Afghan fighters began it's approach to the Shah-I-Kot intending to push the enemy into the waiting arms of the U.S. conventional forces. As the convoy struggled though mud and sporadic al Qaeda fire, a Spectre gunship dropped out of the sky and opened up with cannons and heavy-machine fire. The Spectre wracked the convoy in repeated runs, having mistaken the U.S. troops and their Afghan proteges for al Qaeda...

"...Zia Lodin's men left their guns and vehicles strung out on the approach to the Shah-I-Kot Valley. They had failed to make it into the heart of the battle — and would not return to the fight for nearly a week. Zia's day in the sun and his big U.S. dollar bonus has to be put on hold. Back in Gardez, his men complained bitterly about the American cock-up."

Incidents such as this and the subsequent invasion of Iraq, Smucker said, has increased the hatred of the U. S. in the Middle East. "I spoke to a bin Laden supporter who wanted the publicity, so was willing to talk to me as a journalist but who told me that all Americans or anyone who was sympathetic to the U. S. was a target," Smucker said. "I asked him if he would blow up my hotel, and he said 'yes'."

After Afghanistan, Smucker spent time in Iraq. He also spent time being escorted out of Iraq by the U. S. military who objected to articles he was writing for the Christian Science Monitor. "I was only out of Iraq for a few days, actually," he said. "Then I went back and was there when Baghdad fell."

HE PLANS TO return to Iraq, possibly, although he admits that covering wars is much more dangerous than it used to be. "I became a war correspondent because I wanted to see the world and this was a way to do that and get paid for it," he said. "Being a target? Well, there are some down sides to everything."

For his next book, Smucker said that he would like to return to Southeast Asia. "Because of the war on terrorism, the other fascinating parts of the world have taken a back seat," he said. "I loved my time in Southeast Asia and really enjoyed the many different cultures there. I would like to go back and retrace my steps as an adult and write memoirs from both points of view."

He has also written a book about his time in the Balkans.

"It's really a love story," he said. "My wife is from Kosovo. We lived there and ran a bar called Tricky Dick's at a time when Americans were really not welcome. I would like to get back to that book as well," he said.

Smucker will remain in the U. S. through June and will talk to his editors about his next assignment. While here, his base will be his parents' home in Alexandria, where he grew up and graduated from T. C. Williams HIgh School.

His book is available at Border's and other bookstores throughout the metropolitan area. It is also available on the web at amazon.com.