Salena Zito

The “Overseas Contingency Program” – more commonly known as the “war on terror” – is back at the center of the political world, thanks to the uncertain prosecution of the war in Afghanistan.

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As President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Congress and the generals in the field contemplate the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t consequences of Afghanistan, terror has reappeared in the American vernacular.

“America is still a salient target and attractive target for terrorists,” said Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA counter-terrorism official.

And while words like “Islamic terrorist,” “jihad” and “Muslim extremist” have been scrubbed from administration chatter, we remain at risk from the same people.

Pillar, who heads security studies at Georgetown University, points out that this administration still executes the commitments and policies of the Bush years.

Those security and intelligence programs are irritating to radicalized Muslims who want to do Americans harm – and chilling to left-leaning Democrats at home who fervently opposed Bush.

Pillar dismisses the notion that Americans’ memories of the 9/11 attacks have faded. “If you look at the current debate about Afghanistan, it illustrates that we still equate Afghanistan with terrorism,” he says.

You cannot argue about one without talking about the other.

Why the public has turned away from the topic of terror is understandable: In light of the economic crisis, health-care controversy and unprecedented government spending, people are focused on swift-changing pocketbook issues.

Last month’s arrest of Afghan-born alleged terror-plotter Najibullah Zazi ran like B-roll on the news networks and below the fold on most newspapers, even though his plot was said by authorities to be one of the most significant terror threats to the U.S. since 9/11.

All the bad guys need to do is to unleash one or two suicide bombings in the heartland, and our country, economically and mentally, would become paralyzed.

“The various agencies of government, like the Defense Department, Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, remain fully engaged, as well as state and local law enforcement,” said Mark Davidson, a former member of the Clinton administration and a Navy Reserve captain. “The general public, the press and many politicians, on the other hand, apparently are not.”

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.