By now there are already dozens of books — a few of them, groundbreaking works of reportage — about Al Qaeda and 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Bush and Obama administrations’ management of national security.
What makes “The Longest War,” a new book by Peter L. Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst, particularly useful is that it provides a succinct and compelling overview of these huge, complex subjects, drawing upon other journalists’ pioneering work as well as the author’s own expertise in terrorism and interviews with a broad spectrum of figures including leading counterterrorism officials, members of the Taliban, failed suicide bombers, family and friends of Osama bin Laden and top American military officers.
For readers interested in a highly informed, wide-angled, single-volume briefing on the war on terror so far, “The Longest War” is clearly that essential book.
Mr. Bergen, who was part of the CNN team that interviewed Mr. bin Laden in 1997, and who has written two earlier books about the Al Qaeda leader, writes with enormous authority in these pages. He gives the reader an intimate understanding of how Al Qaeda operates on a day-to-day basis: he says it’s a highly bureaucratic organization with bylaws dealing with everything from salary levels to furniture allowances to vacation schedules. And he creates a sharply observed portrait of Mr. bin Laden that amplifies those laid out by earlier writers like Lawrence Wright (“The Looming Tower”), Steve Coll (“The Bin Ladens”) and Jonathan Randal (“Osama: The Making of a Terrorist”).
Although some of Mr. Bergen’s conclusions are bound to be controversial, the lucidity, knowledge and carefully reasoned logic of his arguments lend his assessments credibility and weight, even when he is challenging conventional wisdom.
On the matter of the dangers posed by Pakistan, Mr. Bergen says that a rapidly increasing population combined with high unemployment will play into the hands of militants, but adds that “despite years of hysterical analysis by the commentariat in the United States, as the Obama administration came into office Pakistan was not poised for an Islamist takeover similar to what happened in the shah’s Iran.”
“There was no major religious figure around which opposition to the Pakistani government could form,” he writes, “and the alliance of pro-Taliban parties known as the MMA, which had come to power in two of Pakistan’s four provinces in 2002 and had implemented some window-dressing measures such as banning the sale of alcohol to non-Muslims, did nothing to govern effectively and in the election in 2008 they were annihilated in the polls. Ordinary Pakistanis were also increasingly fed up with the tactics used by the militants. Between 2005 and 2008, Pakistani support for suicide attacks dropped from 33 percent to 5 percent.”
In these pages Mr. Bergen also disputes parallels drawn between the experiences of America and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan (an argument invoked by the Pentagon under Donald H. Rumsfeld as a reason for keeping the number of United States troops there to a minimum). Mr. Bergen argues that there is no real analogy since “the Soviets employed a scorched-earth policy,” killing “more than a million Afghans and forcing some five million more to flee the country,” while more American troops have been needed — and wanted by the Afghan people — to secure the country from the Taliban and to “midwife a more secure and prosperous country.”
Mr. Bergen also contends that “the growing skepticism about Obama’s chances for success in Afghanistan” was “largely based on some deep misreadings of both the country’s history and the views of its people, which were often compounded by facile comparisons to the United States’ misadventures” in Vietnam and Iraq.
Skeptics who argue for a reduced American presence in Afghanistan are wrong, he contends, because “the United States had tried this already” twice: first, when it abandoned the country in the wake of the Soviet defeat there, creating a chaotic vacuum in the 1990s from which the Taliban emerged; and second, when the administration of George W. Bush got distracted with the war in Iraq and allowed the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The sections of this book dealing with 9/11, the war in Iraq and the prosecution of the war on terror retrace a lot of ground covered by the important work of other journalists, most notably Thomas Ricks, author of the book “Fiasco”; Bob Woodward of The Washington Post; and Jane Mayer, Seymour M. Hersh and George Packer of The New Yorker. These chapters by Mr. Bergen provide an utterly devastating indictment of the Bush administration on all levels — from its failure to heed warnings about a terrorist threat, to its determination to conduct the war in Afghanistan on the cheap, to its costly, unnecessary and thoroughly misguided invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Mr. Bergen gives us a sampling of the ominous threat reporting distributed to Bush officials in 2001 (not just the famous Aug. 6 brief titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”) and concludes that the problem “was not a lack of information about Al Qaeda’s intentions and capabilities, but the Bush administration’s inability to comprehend that an attack by Al Qaeda on the United States was a real possibility.” This failure, he says, came about partly because the thinking of the Bush White House was “frozen in a cold war mind-set” and partly because it saw Iraq as the No. 1 danger and “bin Laden and Al Qaeda were politically and ideologically inconvenient to square” with its worldview.
Both Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush, Mr. Bergen argues, made large strategic errors. Just as the Qaeda leader, in Mr. Bergen’s view, misjudged the consequences of the 9/11 attacks — which resulted in his terrorist organization’s losing a secure base in Afghanistan — so, he argues, did Mr. Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq have the perverse consequence of breathing “new life into bin Laden’s holy war.”
Echoing other experts like the former C.I.A. analyst Michael Scheuer, Mr. Bergen argues that the Iraq war represented “the very type of imperial adventure that bin Laden had long predicted was the United States’ long-term goal in the region.” Moreover, he notes, it “deposed the secular socialist Saddam, whom bin Laden had long despised,” ignited “Sunni and Shia fundamentalist fervor in Iraq” and provoked “a ‘defensive’ jihad that galvanized jihadi-minded Muslims around the world.”
For that matter, Mr. Bergen goes on, none of the war goals articulated by the Bush administration were achieved: “An alliance between Saddam and Al Qaeda wasn’t interrupted because there wasn’t one, according to any number of studies including one by the Institute for Defense Analyses, the Pentagon’s own internal think tank. There was no democratic domino effect around the Middle East; quite the opposite: the authoritarian regimes became more firmly entrenched.” And the war did not pay for itself as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz had predicted, but instead turned Iraq into “a giant money sink for the American economy.”
Not only did the war in Iraq divert crucial resources from Afghanistan, but a series of errors made by the Bush administration, Mr. Bergen says, also created a “perfect storm” that gave birth to the bloody Iraqi insurgency and led to the very thing the White House said it wanted to prevent, “a safe haven for Al Qaeda in the heart of the Arab world.”
Those errors, Mr. Bergen observes, included the decision to subject Iraq to a “full-blown American occupation” under the inept Coalition Provisional Authority; failing to provide sufficient troops to secure the country and establish order (which, in turn, led to huge weapons caches’ going unprotected); mandating the removal of some 30,000 Baath party officials from their former positions (which deprived the country of experienced administrators); and dissolving the Iraqi military, thereby taking jobs from hundreds of thousands of young men in an economy already reeling from unemployment.
Although the Sunni Awakening (in which Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar Province began cooperating with American forces in the battle against insurgents) and the surge in United States forces eventually helped put Al Qaeda in Iraq on the defensive, Mr. Bergen warns that the terrorists could still regain a role in that country.
So what is Al Qaeda’s future around the world? On one hand, Mr. Bergen writes that “many thousands of underemployed, disaffected men in the Muslim world will continue to embrace bin Laden’s doctrine of violent anti-Westernism” — he cites a 2008 survey showing that people in countries as diverse as Morocco, Indonesia, Jordan and Turkey expressed more “confidence” in the Qaeda leader than in President Bush by significant margins. On the other, he says that half a decade after 9/11 there emerged powerful new critics of Al Qaeda who had jihadist credentials themselves: Abdullah Anas, who had been a friend of Mr. bin Laden during the anti-Soviet jihad, denounced the 2005 suicide bombings in London as “criminal acts,” and Sheikh Salman al-Awdah, a leading Saudi religious scholar, personally rebuked Mr. bin Laden for killing innocent children, the elderly and women “in the name of Al Qaeda.”
In the end, Mr. Bergen says, Al Qaeda has four “crippling strategic weaknesses” that will affect its long-term future: 1) its killing of many Muslims civilians — acts forbidden by the Koran; 2) its failure to offer any positive vision of the future (“Afghanistan under the Taliban is not an attractive model of the future for most Muslims”); 3) the inability of jihadist militants to turn themselves “into genuine mass political movements because their ideology prevents them from making the kind of real-world compromises that would allow them to engage in normal politics”; and 4) an ever growing list of enemies, including any Muslims who don’t “exactly share their ultra-fundamentalist worldview.”
“By the end of the second Bush term,” Mr. Bergen writes near the end of this valuable book, “it was clear that Al Qaeda and allied groups were losing the ‘war of ideas’ in the Islamic world, not because America was winning that war — quite the contrary: most Muslims had a quite negative attitude toward the United States — but because Muslims themselves had largely turned against the ideology of bin Ladenism.”