“The modest national effort exerted to contain Serbia and its depredations in the Balkans between 1995 and 1999, for example, was orders of magnitude larger than that devoted to al Qaeda.” (p. 487.) Neither the American public nor American leaders seemed to even notice terrorism as a problem in the post-Cold War environment.
Crisis: August 1998.
Immediately after the embassy bombings CIA Director George Tenet knew that there would be a big gathering of terrorist leaders at Khowst in Afghanistan on 20 August 1998, and CentCOM commander Tony Zinni had his cruise missile plan already to go. The responsible decision-makers talked over the issues until 20 May and sent the Vice-Chairman of the JCS to warn the Pakistanis that the cruise missiles flying through their air space were not an Indian attack. Nobody wanted a nuclear war on the sub-continent as an unintended by-product of the strike at Bin Laden, but this probably constituted a serious breach of security. The missiles missed Bin Laden by a few hours and some people think that he was warned off by Pakistan’s intelligence service. (pp. 169-171.)
Clarke wanted the cruise missiles strikes of 20 August 1998 to be the opening act for continuous efforts to kill Bin Laden. It was not to be. (pp. 175-176.)
Although JCS Chairman Hugh Shelton ordered CENTCOM to plan for additional measures, he “did not recommend any of them.” “Shelton felt that the August 1998 attacks had been a waste of good ordnance and thereafter consistently opposed firing expensive Tomahawk missiles merely at ‘jungle gym’ terrorist training infrastructure. In this view, he had complete support from Defense Secretary William Cohen. Shelton was prepared to plan other options, but he was also prepared to make perfectly clear his own strong doubts about the wisdom of any military action that risked U.S. lives unless the intelligence was ‘actionable.’”(pp. 502, 503.)
CENTCOM commander Tony Zinni, who actually had to come up with a possible scheme, believed that a long-term development of relationships with neighboring countries made the most sense. Covert action of any kind would require some kind of local base. Zinni got the feeling that Washington was picky about doing business with dictators merely because they could help out the United States. (p. 197.)
Already haunted by memories of “Desert One” and “Black Hawk Down,” decision-makers probably became even more cautious about using force to solve the Bin Laden problem in the wake of the failed cruise missile strikes of 20 August 1998. (pp. 172-173.)
In addition to missing Bin Laden, there were serious downsides to this attack: international opinion heaped abuse on the US for being “bomb-happy”; the Republicans ridiculed Clinton for “pinpricks.” (pp. 172-173.)
Soon afterward, American diplomatic and military power was being applied in the Balkans against Serbia (October 1998-March 1999) and in the Middle East against Iraq (December 1998). This distracted most of the key people from problem of terrorism.
At the same time it is important to note that people working for Allen Holmes, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, produced a paper calling on the Defense Department to assume the lead in the global fight against terrorism. (pp. 176-177.) This paper did not get very far up the chain of approval during the Clinton Administration, but it may have lain dormant until Rumsfeld came to the Pentagon.