Between America And Al Qaeda by Peter L Bergen
MISTAKE: US troops failed to capture Bin Laden in Afghanistan
Sunday January 30,2011
WE ARE nearing the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and the instigators have still not been captured.
In Iraq alone, 4,435 American troops, 179 British soldiers and more than 100,000 civilians have lost their lives. By any count, these are enormous, tragic losses in a campaign to root out terror. How did it go so wrong?
In this book Peter L. Bergen takes us through the war’s twists and turns, strategic decisions and blunders. Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst, has had the benefit of meeting Bin Laden in 1997. Rather than just telling it from the American perspective, he recognises that the war has been shaped by both sides. To leave out Bin Laden would be like leaving out Adolf Hitler from a history of the Second World War.
This is a tale of stubborn leaders and profound misconceptions. On the American side, there were plenty of warning signs of a terrorist threat before 9/11 but the President and his staff were stuck in a Cold War mind-set. National defence meant missiles not counterterrorism. Bergen puts it bluntly: "They just didn’t get it".
One miscalculation followed another. The moment the Twin Towers collapsed, President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld looked for a connection between Al Qaeda and Iraq. Generals and terrorism experts who cautioned that there was none were brushed aside.
What might have been a single, targeted campaign turned into a diffused, global war on terror.
Bin Laden also got it wrong. He expected America either to retaliate by sending a few more drones or to leave Islamic lands altogether. Al Qaeda was utterly unprepared for the American invasion. A well-oiled terrorist machine was forced into hiding.
The hunt was on. In a gripping chapter, Bergen recounts the battle of Tora Bora in December 2001.
Bin Laden’s great escape from his mountain hide-out reveals the many flaws in American strategy.
The Pentagon was reluctant to endanger US soldiers. There were, Bergen notes, probably more Western journalists than troops in the area. America was thus dependent on Afghan warlords and powerless to stop the ceasefire that allowed Bin Laden to escape.
The invasion of Iraq backfired spectacularly. Authoritarian regimes became stronger. The number of jihadists and bombings shot up. For Al Qaeda it was a godsend. America was behaving like the crusading infidel empire Bin Laden had always denounced.
America’s prestige took a knock in the Muslim world and beyond.
What makes this book so readable is that Bergen makes us see the war from both sides. He has interviewed Pakistani suicide bombers as well as American top brass. "It’s not fair to kill Muslims, " Imdadullah, one failed suicide bomber, told him, "but it is fair to kill the British and the Americans.
Allah has promised us Paradise if we do this." When Bergen asked whether he would try again, he replied "of course", as if he had been asked a stupid question.
For the United States, too, the war was shaped by dogmatic beliefs. The Bush administration comes in for heavy criticism for its stubborn targeting of Iraq but this book is not a partisan polemic. It also gives Bush credit for finally switching strategy in 2007 to the "surge" that pushed back Al Qaeda.
Bush, Bergen notes, took the decision against the advice of most of his generals and advisers, with his own popularity at rock bottom and in face of Democratic opposition. The surge "was the single most consequential decision of his presidency".
When it comes to the present, the book is less certain. On the one hand, it identifies Al Qaeda’s weaknesses: its failure to develop a mass movement, its organisational decay and military overstretch. On the other, it presents it as a dangerous, unpredictable enemy, "like a snake backed into a corner". Bin Laden’s ideas will continue to attract followers, Bergen concludes. What should be done is less clear.
Given the public interest in this country in Blair’s decision to join Bush, it is interesting to note how little Britain and other allies matter in this American book.
Tellingly, Blair appears only once, and in passing, presiding at the G-8 summit in Scotland when the 7/7 bombers struck London.
This is a gripping and disturbing book. It reminds us that wars have a logic of their own that escapes the control of politicians and generals.
Frank Trentmann is Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London.
The Free Press, £17.99
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