by Allen Wilcox
Peter L. Bergen
The Longest War:
The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al Qaeda
(Free Press 2011)
Let us not mince words: if there is one element of Republican governance that truly does trickle down, it is its pernicious incompetence. Although the Grand Old Party’s wrongheaded judgment, intellectual myopia, and garbled leadership are abundantly evident in (to choose the nearest subject at hand) the causes and effects of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, nowhere is this pervasive incompetence more apparent than in the Bush administration’s medium- and long-term responses to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. By the winter of 2001, the United States had routed the Taliban and had injured Osama bin Laden in the saturation bombing campaign at Tora Bora (later video and intelligence suggest he sustained a serious injury to his left shoulder and side). But like many strong beginnings, Western forces did not take their achievement to the crucial, required outcome. Instead, they unwittingly capitulated to bin Laden when General Tommy Franks refused to send the several hundred requested Army Rangers needed to secure the Pakistani border and prevent Al Qaeda’s escape. Bin Laden’s organization was able to recover in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, and it is in those regions, most likely, but not assuredly, where bin Laden is still at large.
This is all to say that, despite the U.S.’s frequent tactical military successes, we have largely suffered from our strategic response to the 9/11 attacks. Part of what Peter L. Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst, argues in his terrific new book, The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al Qaeda, is that the erroneously-named Global War on Terror, in both its inception and its execution, represented a gross strategic mismanagement for the U.S., especially in two specific regards: first, the Bush administration’s ideological aversion to “nation-building,” which helped create a security vacuum in Afghanistan; and second, from its decision to pursue regime change in Iraq, which distracted our mission to dismantle Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other extremist groups. The Iraq War also rapidly dissipated the moral suasion the United States had commanded after the attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. One short, but telling, example cited by Bergen paints a picture of the Bush administration’s strategic mismanagement of the war:
[U.S.] Aid per capita to Bosnians following the end of the Balkan civil war in the mid-1990s was around 30 times that given to Afghans in the first two years after the fall of the Taliban.
Indeed, the United States has an uncomfortable history of leaving security vacuums in the wake of its military and intelligence operations. In 1989, following successful C.I.A. covert action against the Soviets in Afghanistan, President G. H. W. Bush closed the United States embassy, simultaneously blindfolding and handcuffing U.S. intelligence and influence in Afghanistan. In the Clinton administration, funding to that country was effectively decimated; and when the moment arrived to confront bin Laden, we again came up short. Failure of the Clinton and Bush administrations to respond to Al Qaeda’s attack on the U.S.S. Cole in late 2000 presaged greater trouble on the horizon.
There may also have been reluctance at the Pentagon to send soldiers into harm’s way. The Pentagon’s risk aversion is now hard to recall, following the years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq and the thousands of American soldiers who have since died—but it was quite real at the time. Recall that in the most recent U.S. war—the 1999 conflict in Kosovo—not a single American had died in combat.
Bergen goes on to argue that while Al Qaeda itself enjoyed unprecedented tactical success with the 9/11 attacks, it also suffered its greatest strategic mishap on that day. Bin Laden’s long term stated goal is to install Taliban-style theocracies from Indonesia to Morocco. For years his strategic motivation has been to overthrow American-backed dictators in the Arab world and replace them with an immense, 7th century style caliphate under Shari’a law. He believed attacking the U.S. mainland would force us to withdraw from the Islamic world, when in fact we only became more deeply embroiled. Bin Laden believed—contrary to the prevailing prevarication by the Bush administration that there were strong links between Al Qaeda and Iraq—that Saddam Hussein was not “Islamic enough” and bin Laden despised his secular, socialist Baathism. In this light, with The Longest War, Bergen portrays two archenemies, the U.S. and Al Qaeda, both enjoying tactical successes while suffering deeply from misguided overarching strategies.
What all great histories must endeavor to do—collating exhaustive research, corroborating primary and secondary sources, harmonizing diverse stories into a cohesive narrative—Bergen’s book does exceptionally well, with piquancy, incision, and sweep. The author narrates bin Laden’s early years on the Arabian coast, depicting a tall, extremely wealthy, extremely devout youth, desirous of his father’s attention. Bin Laden was one of 54 children, sired from a bevy of 20-odd wives. 1979 would be a hinge year for the future Al Qaeda leader, who was then 23 years old: he was galvanized by the Ayatollah’s overthrow of the Shah in Iran, and radicalized by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Both events decisively shaped the Arab world’s rejection of the imperialism of the Cold War superpowers, and as Bergen argues, had a crucial impact on bin Laden.
While summarizing the difficult lessons of the counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq, Bergen also fits the Iraq War into the greater context of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the attempts to dismantle Al Qaeda, the routing of the Taliban’s shadow government in Afghanistan, and the Bush administration’s larger self-proclaimed, seemingly eternal, war on terror. He writes:
It bears recalling that almost none of the goals of the war as described by proponents of overthrowing Saddam were achieved. An alliance between Saddam and Al Qaeda wasn’t interrupted because there wasn’t one [to begin with]…There was no democratic domino effect around the Middle East; quite the opposite: the authoritarian regimes became more firmly entrenched.
Bergen’s book was published in January 2011, two weeks after Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit seller, set himself aflame, inciting a series of social upheavals in the Muslim world, beginning what is largely known in the West as the “Jasmine Revolution.” Since that time the revolts have spread across the Maghreb, through the heart of Arabia and the Gulf States, and into Iran. Though Bergen’s book did not predict the series of revolutions in the Arab world, it would be unfair and untrue to say that these protests and revolts are a consequence of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq or the collapse of Baathism as led by Saddam Hussein. In tracking the events from Tunisia and Egypt to Bahrain, Libya, and beyond, we discover an altogether new paradigm unfolding: taken together, Bouazizi’s stirring, martyrdom-evoking self-immolation, combined with vast Arabic youth populations facing pervasive unemployment, and our new technological paradigm, including Twitter, Facebook, and WikiLeaks, along with a long history of colonization and oppression, contributed to a momentousness and urgency in the Arab world that brought revolution.
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