Six years have passed since 9/11, and, of course, the images of that September day have gradually faded. As have the emotions &

the disbelief, the anger, the wrenching sorrow at the loss. Yet, still, who can ever forget seeing the towers burn, first responders rushing to the scene, prepared to run into the buildings as hundreds ran out, the sounds of sirens and panic. And then watching the buildings fall, first one then the other, all intercut with pictures of the Pentagon and later a stark field in Pennsylvania. The days that followed were draped in funereal black crepe, the walls of buildings near the towers covered with photographs and written laments, pleading for information about missing loved ones. Dark wreathes adorned firehouses throughout the city. Flags hung limply at half-staff. In the words of the mayor, it was more than we could bear.




Who could have committed such a heinous act? Who? And grimly we promised ourselves and the world that we would find those responsible and woe betide anyone involved.




But looking back now, through a prism no longer distorted by outrage, it is clear that a puzzling thing happened in the months after 9/1l: a decision was made that still seems inexplicable.




Initially, and rightly, the linkage to Afghanistan and the Taliban was made. Our intelligence placed the ultimate perpetrators of 9/11 in the northern mountains, terrain peppered with their training camps. We had only to find them.




It was at this moment that the White House abruptly shifted its attention and military resources from Afghanistan and the capture of al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, who we knew was responsible for 9/11, to Iraq and the regime of Saddam Hussein. We were told that this dictator was linked to 9/11. He had ordered "yellow cake" from Nigeria; aluminum tubes, used for nuclear centrifuges and headed for Iraq, were intercepted in Jordan; a pre-9/11 meeting took place in Europe between Iraqi agents and one or more of the hijackers.




Beyond question, Saddam was a brutal and barbaric dictator, one that had killed hundreds of thousands of his own people, gassed the northern Kurds, started two wars which killed millions of people, and rewarded the families of suicide bombers while praising their martyrdom. He was also, we were told, unequivocally, in possession of weapons of mass destruction. Colin Powell went before the U.N. and said so.




We know now that this foremost member of the "axis of evil" was a paper tiger, hamstrung by long years of sanctions while inflating his weapons capability in the hope of staving off any threat to his rule. It was dissembling on an international scale.




The question that still haunts is why the Bush administration retreated from Afghanistan, where the "evil doers" were within his grasp, and focused on Iraq.




We had two seminal missions at that point, and Iraq was not one of them. Yet we rushed to war on what was paper thin if not manipulated intelligence.




The first mission was self-evident: find Osama bin Laden in the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan and bring him and his ilk to justice. The second was to evaluate the region coldly. Had we done so &

it's impossible to imagine that such an assessment was not made by our intelligence agencies and State Department &

it would have been self-evident that Pakistan presented a far more lethal threat to the stability of the region than Iraq.




Pakistan can call forth images far more horrifying than any witnessed on 9/11, or graphically described by Rice, Cheney, or Bush when ginning up the invasion of Iraq. For a time it was the single largest purveyor of clandestine nuclear technology, guided by its then chief scientist, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, who was selling or trading blueprints for personal gain to North Korea, Iran and Libya.




Today Pakistan, with an estimated 60 nuclear-tipped missiles on launch pads, is in a high stakes internal struggle for control of the country and control of its nuclear arsenal. The scenario that haunts western diplomats is one in which Islamic fundamentalists seize power resulting in the likes of Osama bin Laden taking charge of the nation's locked and loaded WMD.




Fearing such an outcome, and needing a strategic partner in the regional war on terror, America has funneled $10 billion in aid to Pakistan's dictator, General Pervez Musharraf. Much of it has been directed toward the Pakistani military; in return the U.S. received the promise that the army would be the tip of the spear in the area's war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.




Yet, Newsweek magazine recently reported that a resurgent Taliban operates in Pakistan with near impunity, while funneling guns and fighters across the porous border shared with Afghanistan. Meanwhile the country experiences "political instability, a trusted network of radical Islamists, an abundance of angry young anit-Western recruits, and secluded training areas." And despite Musharraf's commitment to finding al-Qaeda and the Taliban, his military's posture has been one of benign neglect, if not tacit support.




Our relationship with Musharraf &

who last week declared a "state of emergency," suspended Pakistan's Constitution, jailed its judiciary, and placed key opposition leader Benazar Bhutto under house arrest &

has put the lie to our oft stated commitment to democracy and freedom in the region. We have once again engaged in a Faustian bargain with a despotic ruler that will only further damage America's credibility throughout the Middle East. Meanwhile, the White House is focused on Iran and it's d&

233;j&

224; vu all over again.