The British Empire: A legacy of violence?

Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America, an author and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. Raised in London, Bergen has a degree in modern history from Oxford University. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

(CNN)Queen Elizabeth II was laid to rest last week at Windsor Castle, home to monarchs for the past thousand years. What was not laid to rest with the Queen’s internment was an important question: What does the future look like for countries of the Commonwealth, where the British monarch remains the head of state?

Charles III is the King today of 14 “realms” outside of the British Isles. In some of those realms, such as Australia, Canada and Jamaica, there are now calls to jettison the monarchy and instead install a republic, just as Barbados did last year.

A related question is also surfacing now: What is the legacy of the British Empire writ large? British schoolchildren have long been taught comforting fairy tales about the beneficence of the largest empire in history, but recent historical scholarship is painting a quite different picture.
Leading that charge is Harvard University historian Caroline Elkins, whose 2005 book, “Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya,” found that the British detained some 1.5 million Kenyans in detention camps or in barbed-wire villages during the Mau Mau uprising in that country in the 1950s, thousands of whom died and some of whom were tortured. The book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 2006.

Some initially criticized Elkins’ findings as exaggerated, but they were vindicated years later after Kenyan torture victims sued the British government for damages. Senior British officials eventually conceded publicly in 2013 that British forces had indeed tortured Kenyans, and the UK government paid out a nearly 20 million-pound settlement to more than 5,000 elderly Kenyan victims.

In recent years, Elkins has broadened the scope of her inquiries beyond Kenya, publishing a new book in March called “Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire.” I spoke to Elkins last week about her work. Our conversation was edited for clarity.

Peter Bergen: When Queen Elizabeth died, what was running through your mind?

Caroline Elkins: First, what an extraordinary life. Seventy years as monarch. As a person, as an historian, how can one not marvel at that? Second, the differences in public reactions in Britain and in the former empire. Incredible national mourning and outpouring of grief in Britain, yet in the former empire and now current Commonwealth there were different reactions — that the Queen oversaw what was a violent and exploitative empire.

Bergen: King Charles III doesn’t elicit quite the same feelings as his mother did: How will this affect the Commonwealth?

Elkins: There are 56 nations in the Commonwealth, most of whom were former British colonies, and of those former British colonies, 14 are what we would call “Commonwealth realms.” That is, they’re not republics, and they still recognize the British monarch as their head of state. So, Charles III is also King of Canada and King of Australia, and it’s in these countries where there is a real push for referendums to change and to become republics.

And then there’s the question of, what is the purpose of the broader 56 nations in this Commonwealth? The Queen obsessed over the Commonwealth; it was the coda to empire. She oversaw in her reign the dissolution of much of the empire and the creation, with a kind of monarchical mythmaking, of the Commonwealth as being a force of good, a force of peace, a force of democracy in the contemporary modern world of which she remained the head.

So, King Charles III is in a tricky situation because, in some ways, the Commonwealth is a confidence trick. How much do these nations today believe that they are part of something that’s greater than themselves? When these nations joined the Commonwealth in the ’50s and ’60s, one could make that claim. But I suspect there are now a lot of Commonwealth nations looking at this and asking themselves, “What’s the point?” Britain’s economy is in bad shape; going it alone with Brexit was a mistake, and geopolitically it’s on the wane.

Bergen: Queen Elizabeth found out that she was the new monarch in Kenya in 1952 when she was on a safari there. Tell us about your research in Kenya and reflect on the fact that the newly minted Queen Elizabeth was in the country around the time that the anti-British Mau Mau rebellion was starting to get serious.

Elkins: There’s the famous story that Elizabeth, staying at Treetops Hotel in Aberdare National Park in Kenya, went up a tree as a princess and came down a queen. At the same time, just beyond where Queen Elizabeth was viewing game, the Kikuyu, the largest ethnic group in Kenya, were taking mass oaths to join a movement called Mau Mau, whose stated purpose was, to kick all Whites out of the country, which were the British settlers and the British colonial administration.

Almost from the get-go in 1952, there were whistleblowers in Kenya. Missionaries were saying that torture by the British was going on. Eventually, the Church Missionary Society published a pamphlet called “Kenya — Time for Action!” describing the kind of horrible things that were happening.
When I started researching the history of the Mau Mau uprising, there were difficulties in writing the book because at the time of decolonialization, Britain went through a very systematic process of destroying documentation about the empire. In the case of Kenya, I estimate that about 3 1/2 tons of documents were destroyed, and some other documents were repatriated back to Britain and kept under lock and key. So, what it meant for an historian like me is I had to try to piece this story back together again, and it took about 10 years to do that.

In my 2005 book, “Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya,” I concluded that while the British government said that they had detained 70,000 to 80,000 Kenyans, in fact my research revealed that 1.5 million Kenyans were detained either in detention camps or in barbed-wire villages. These detention camps and villages were not the sites of “hearts and minds” campaigns but instead sites of systematized violence condoned from the very top of the British government and executed in a routinized way, and that every effort was made to cover this up.

The book came out to “critical acclaim.” There was probably more emphasis on the “critical” and less on the “acclaim” in part because it was one of the first books that really challenged this narrative of British exceptionalism in the empire. At that time, in 2005, I was a young academic historian. It was a rather crushing reception.

And then I was asked to be an expert witness for a case involving Kenyans suing the British government for torture endured while they were detained during the Mau Mau uprising. During the discovery process for this case, the British government said for the first time, “We’ve just discovered boxes of previously undisclosed files that we found at Hanslope Park.” Hanslope Park is where all the very highly sensitive British government documents are kept. And alongside those boxes from Kenya, there were also 8,800 files from 36 other British colonies similarly packed up and spirited away at the end of empire.

Having this documentation was crucial to the case. I pulled together a group of Harvard students, and we worked 24/7 going through these documents, and what became clear is that we had thousands of pages of additional evidence supporting my research and claims about what had happened in Kenya, and at the end of the day, the British government settled the case that had been brought by the Kenyan victims.

Bergen: Was Kenya exceptional in the British Empire?

Elkins: That took me about 15 years to answer and over 800 pages in my new book, “Legacy of Violence.” Not only is Kenya not exceptional, it’s one moment in a longer period of time that shows how the British created systems and practices to enforce colonial control, such as forced labor, torture and murder throughout the British Empire.

During the Boer War from 1899 to 1902 was the first time in history where extensive concentration camps were used to confine one ethnic population, in this case, the white Afrikaners, who the British considered uncivilized, although Africans were also detained.

Britain undertook similar confinement policies for criminals, as well as plague and famine victims, in India beginning around 1857. One of the things I spent a lot of time doing was tracing how these policies evolved — these practices of concentrating populations as well as forcibly moving them.

Bergen: This reassessment of British Empire: You are leading the charge. And also, William Dalrymple’s “The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire,” his history of the British East India Company is also part of this reassessment?

Elkins: There are many historians working on this. When you think about the kind of work that must take place for each colony, you have a lot of people who are real specialists in particular areas who might specialize in Cyprus or might specialize in India. Some of what I’m doing in this recent book, “Legacy of Violence,” is really drawing off this huge movement towards revisionism.

Bergen: Is all history revisionist history?

Elkins: Always. History is always being revised by folks like myself. I think in this case, it’s really a massive revision insofar as it really questions what continues to be a strongly held belief about British exceptionalism when it comes to empire.

Bergen: So, are the British in high school as they learn about British history being told a bunch of fairy tales?

Elkins: I think they’re being told a very particular official narrative that has been carefully cultivated, both by the British government and the monarchy. History is always used for national identity to galvanize a population, to imagine itself as something greater than any individual. And it’s important to remember that beginning in the 19th century, quite intentionally under Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, there was an entwinement of nation, monarchy and empire that was the bedrock of British national identity, a kind of British imperial national identity of which the monarchy is a part. And that continues down to the present day.

Should British school history textbooks be revised? There’s a struggle over this in Britain now. It will be a big moment when we start to see revisions within the textbooks of schoolchildren in Britain that reflect the kind of larger conversations that are happening now between historians and the broader public.

Bergen: “The Crown” on Netflix was a very well-executed TV drama. How does that contribute to the way Britain and the world in general sees all this history?

Elkins: I have to say, full disclosure, I watched all of “The Crown.” It’s very compelling, and I was writing this book, “Legacy of Violence,” while watching it. One of the few times that the Queen Elizabeth weighed in with her authority is around the issue of apartheid in South Africa.

Bergen: To say what?

Elkins: To basically disagree with then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, to say that apartheid cannot continue, that Britain cannot be on the wrong side of history, and she used the Commonwealth as a vehicle to make that known.

The second of which that struck me was the death of her cousin Louis Mountbatten. Mountbatten was the last viceroy of India. He oversaw the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 in which somewhere between 200,000 to 2 million people died from brutal sectarian violence, according to estimates.
The Irish Republican Army, or IRA, which was a paramilitary organization, formed in 1919 to end British rule in Ireland and create a republic, engaged in a long struggle to end Britain’s continued rule in Northern Ireland after 1922. There were many terrorist attacks, including the IRA planting a bomb on Mountbatten’s boat off the coast of Northern Ireland in 1979, killing him and three people on the boat. And that scene is in “The Crown.” Mountbatten was probably the closest confidant and mentor to Prince Charles, now King Charles III.

There is kind of a coda to this story when the Queen became the first British monarch in 100 years to go to Ireland in 2011 and (later) extended her hand to one of the former leaders in the IRA.
Four years later Prince Charles met with former IRA leader Gerry Adams and did a similar kind of thing. They had a private conversation. This shows you what the British monarchy can accomplish, the kind of moral authority that it does have, and instances of reaching out their hands to make reconciliation.

Bergen: Do the British pat themselves on the back because they were relatively early to abolish slavery, and that has colored their own self-conception as empire builders?
Elkins: Yes, I think it’s an important point. I think it’s often held up that Britain led the charge on the abolition movement in the trade of enslaved people (in 1807) and decades later in the use of enslaved labor (in 1833).

At the same time, I think it’s important to bear in mind that this is the same country that amassed the largest empire history has ever known, with a quarter of the world’s land mass and 700 million people at its height.

On the heels of the abolition of the trade in enslaved people and the use of enslaved labor, the British launched what is known as their “civilizing mission.” This idea was that, in fact, empire is not about national benefit and exploitation, but it’s really our duty, our “white man’s burden” to go and uplift and bring into the modern world the “backward populations.”

The interesting part to me is how is it that Britons in general can continue to work and rework their understanding of what the empire meant. What was the civilizing mission? How are they able to accommodate all this into this broader narrative of what is ultimately British imperial exceptionalism, that somehow or another — and it’s a narrative that endures to this present day — that Britain got empire right, particularly when compared to all the other European nations.
And so, to me that’s also wrapped up into how the Queen is being remembered today. By some, she’s being remembered as the matriarch of empire, an empire that was a force of good in the world, that really extended the notions of rule of law and free trade — all those things that we hold dear in liberal democracies — while others who say, no, that’s actually not what happened.

Look at all this violence in the empire. I think we’re in a particular moment because formerly colonized populations are demanding that there should be a reckoning, not just in terms of acknowledgement that certain things happened, but also how we write about and remember the past.

Bergen: The 1619 Project has reframed the history of the United States around the history of slavery in the country. Are there similarities between the 1619 Project and what you and other colleagues are doing in your reassessment of the British Empire?

Elkins: Yes, I do think so. If we look at the ways in which the struggle to understand who we are in the present day and what the future holds is also a struggle about the past. What gives us legitimacy? How did we come to be who we are today? In the United States, it’s often thought that the original sin is the period of enslavement, and we must contend with that if we’re going to move forward as a nation.

Now, the suggestion being made by many in the former empire is that the “original sin” on a global scale was empire. They’re asking: How do we contend with this, and how do you, Britain, address this in such a way that we can all move forward, both from a societal standpoint and an economic one? And it’s not just about reparations. It’s about looking at structural inequities on a global scale and how and why the world is the way it is today.

Look at Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world today. In the mid-18th century, Eastern Bengal was one of the wealthiest parts of the world. What happens in between? A very long period of wealth extraction and decimation engendered by British colonial rule.

Look at Jamaica and imagine the fact that this nation was populated because its citizens were literally chained and shackled beneath ships and brought over. At first, this wasn’t even a self-reproducing population because it was more economical to work people to death than it was to allow them to self-reproduce.

And so these nations are born out of a similar kind of cauldron of violence that has dramatic societal and economic consequences, and I think this is coming to a head, just as the 1619 Project is really raising all these issues about the kind of structural inequities that we have in the United States today. We must understand the past and really have a comprehensive accounting of it. And I think that’s what we’re seeing in different kinds of ways with the history of the British Empire.

The Fall of Osama bin Laden, National Geographic

“Bringing Americans Home 2022” Online New America/Foley Foundation

[ONLINE] – Bringing Americans Home 2022
Assessing Hostage and Detainee Policy Reforms

Having a son or daughter, husband or mother taken hostage or detained in a foreign land is one of the most frightening experiences imaginable. Recent years have brought a growing challenge of states wrongfully detaining Americans while the situation facing Americans held hostage by non-state groups has evolved.

To discuss the results of the Foley Foundation’s annual research report, “Bringing Americans Home” in this virtual event, New America in partnership with the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation welcomes a range of experts to discuss the current state of U.S. efforts to bring Americans held hostage abroad home.

Panel 1: The Hostage and Wrongful Detainee Landscape

Chris Costa
Executive Director, International Spy Museum
Former Special Assistant to the President & Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council

Brian Jenkins, @BrianMJenkins
Senior Adviser to the President, RAND Corporation

Ali Soufan, @Ali_H_Soufan
Chairman and CEO, The Soufan Group
Former FBI Supervisory Agent

Cynthia Loertscher, @CindyLoertscher
Director of Research, Hostage Advocacy, and Legislative Affairs, James W. Foley Legacy Foundation

Peter Bergen, @peterbergencnn (moderator)
Vice President, New America

Panel 2: Recovering U.S. Hostages and Wrongful Detainees: Challenges and Urgency

Michael Bergman, @MickeyBergman
Vice President and Executive Director, The Richardson Center

Jared Genser, @JaredGenser
Managing Director of Perseus Strategies

Nizar Zakka, @ZakkaNA
President, Hostage Aid Worldwide

Diane Foley, @JamesFoleyFund
President and Founder, James W. Foley Legacy Foundation

Neda Sharghi, @NedaSharghi
Sister of Emad Shargi, a U.S. citizen wrongfully detained in Iran since 2018

Amna Nawaz, @IAmAmnaNawaz (moderator)
Chief Correspondent, PBS NewsHour

The one word that defined Elizabeth II,

“Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America, an author and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.”

(CNN) Duty is a rather old-fashioned concept today in a world rife with public figures who hunger only for power to be achieved by any means available.

But duty is the one word to best summarize the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, who died on Thursday at 96. The Queen selflessly gave of herself. Hers was a role that is ceremonial, but it is also deeply embedded in the oldest constitutional monarchy in the world and in a country that has given the world so many of the concepts and policies that we associate with democracy.

Seven years after the end of World War II, the Queen, aged only 25, ascended to the British throne. Harry Truman was the President of the United States, and Winston Churchill was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Since then, the Queen reigned for 13 additional US presidencies: Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and, now, Joe Biden.

In many ways the Queen symbolized the “special relationship” between the United Kingdom and the United States. A rite of passage for almost every one of the 14 US presidents since she took the throne was her hosting a state visit for the president in the UK, or her attending a formal state dinner put on by the president in Washington, DC. Most recently she met with President Joe Biden in June at Windsor Castle.
According to Robert Hardman, the dean of royal biographers, she was particularly close to Reagan who she found to be “the most charming.” They shared a love of the outdoors and of horses. It was a friendship that went on long after Reagan had stepped down as president, Hardman reported in his 2018 book “Queen of the World.” The Queen and Obama also enjoyed a close relationship, according to Hardman.

She had an extraordinary run; most British subjects can only remember one monarch. During her long reign, the Queen presided over the dissolution of great swaths of the British Empire, continuing a process that began under her father’s reign. She also officially installed three women as her prime ministers — Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May and, just on Tuesday, Liz Truss, who met with the Queen for her formal investiture as prime minister at Balmoral Castle in Scotland.

As Queen, she performed an astonishing 21,000 engagements and was patron of hundreds of organizations, including those dedicated to education and training, sports and recreation, faith, arts and culture, according to statistics released by the Royal Household in May when Britain celebrated the Queen’s 70 years on the throne.

The contrast is striking between who the Queen was and the former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who stepped down on Tuesday after being forced out of office. Johnson is a serial liar about matters both large and small, who attended private parties at his official residence at Downing Street during a rigorous Covid-19 lockdown that he himself had authorized. (He later apologized.)

The Queen also provided a stark contrast to Trump –whose personal attorney at the time of his 2016 campaign for president, Michael Cohen, paid off a porn actress who claimed to have had an affair with the candidate, and who is recorded to have made more than 30,000 false or misleading statements while he was president, according to the Washington Post.

The Queen led an exemplary personal life, and she also rarely spoke in public except at state occasions such as the annual opening of Parliament. Earlier this year she missed her first speech before Parliament for the first time since 1953, and it was delivered in her stead by her son and heir, Charles. It was a telling sign of her increasing frailty.

The contents of the Queen’s weekly meetings with the 15 British men and women who have served as her prime ministers have mostly remained tightly held secrets, but one can imagine that a monarch who met regularly for seven decades with an extraordinary range of prime ministers from Churchill to Thatcher had some sage advice for many of them.

The Queen also was part of a long tradition of strong British female leadership that dates to Queen Boudicia who led a rebellion against the Roman Empire. It was her namesake Elizabeth I who fought off the mighty Spanish Empire, while Queen Victoria ruled during the era that is named after her during which the British Empire became the largest empire in history.

It is not an accident, I don’t think, that during Elizabeth II’s reign the British had three female prime ministers. The British were used to having a female serve as head of state, after all, so having a female leader didn’t seem a stretch. Meantime, the United States still has not had one female president.

Of course, during her extraordinarily long reign, the Queen made missteps, the most well-known of which was her initial public silence when Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris 25 years ago.

The stiff upper lip that had gotten the British thorough the London Blitz during World War II just wasn’t the right attitude for a population that was now much more willing to show their emotions publicly. The vast outpouring of public grief that followed Diana’s death caught the Queen wrong-footed. She remained in seclusion at Balmoral Castle and only lowered the Union Jack flying over Buckingham Palace after considerable public outrage that the royal family wasn’t doing enough publicly to show its grief.

But that dissatisfaction has long since dissipated. As she celebrated her Platinum Jubilee on the throne earlier this year, 86% of British citizens said they were satisfied with how the Queen was doing her job.

Charles inherits a monarchy that remains broadly popular with the British public. This year 68% of British citizens endorsed the continuation of the monarchy. It is one of Queen Elizabeth II’s key legacies and one more example of how she did her duty.

“The Future of Terrorism,” Rotary Club, Atlanta

October 3, at Loudermilk Center noon to 115pm

Peter Bergen, CNN’s National Security Analyst & VP at New America

Does the anti-Taliban resistance stand a chance?

Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. Bergen is the author of “The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

In August 2021, all US soldiers left Afghanistan, enabling the Taliban to take over the country. Since then, the Taliban have installed a theocracy that bans women from most jobs and bars girls over the age of 12 from attending school, while maintaining close relationships with terrorist groups, such as al Qaeda.

The Taliban today control more of Afghanistan than they did the last time they were in power before the 9/11 attacks. And they are better armed since they now possess American armored vehicles and M16 rifles left behind as the US military headed for the exits.

For the past year, a group known as the National Resistance Front has waged a guerrilla war against the Taliban. It is led by Ahmad Massoud, the son of legendary anti-Taliban mujahedeen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, whom al Qaeda suicide bombers assassinated two days before the 9/11 attacks.

I spoke to the head of foreign relations for the National Resistance Front, Ali Maisam Nazary, to ask him if the resistance to the Taliban was really viable. Nazary said that this resistance has grown in the past year and that it is fighting in six of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, largely in the north of the country with a force of 4,000 well-trained fighters. However, Nazary said no country is supporting the resistance movement with weapons or money.

Tajikistan, a country north of Afghanistan, is providing political support to the resistance movement. Nazary was in that former Soviet republic when he spoke to me by phone.

Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

Peter Bergen: What do you say to those who say your resistance movement doesn’t have much of a chance against the well-armed Taliban and without financial and military support from other countries?

Ali Maisam Nazary: Resistance throughout Afghanistan’s history has started and expanded without outside support. The late Cmdr. Massoud was able to build his resistance against the Soviets with a limited number of resources and successfully defeat the mighty Red Army. So international aid and support are not a requirement for us to be able to fight for our values and rights.

Our resistance in the past year has shown its potential to grow and successfully fight the Taliban. What is apparent to us is that a political solution to end the conflict in Afghanistan is not viable because of the Taliban’s position vis-à-vis women’s rights, human rights, democracy and terrorism. We can either liberate the country from the Taliban or force them to change and accept a peace process.

Bergen: The US withdrew from Afghanistan on August 30, 2021, and the National Resistance Front put up some resistance to the Taliban which then seemed to collapse. Now there seems to be resistance rising again. Walk us through the history of what happened over the last year.

Nazary: So, what happened is that from August 15, 2021, when the Taliban captured Kabul, until mid-September 2021, resistance started with thousands of former Afghan security forces in the Panjshir Valley in the Panjshir province of northern Afghanistan and Andarab Valley in the Baghlan province, adjacent to Panjshir. We fought a conventional war, with weapons and tanks, against the Taliban.

But we realized that without international support, it was difficult to continue the conventional war. Also, Panjshir and Andarab do not share any borders with a neighboring country, so that made it very difficult to bring in supplies.

So right before the second week of September, Ahmad Massoud convened all his commanders, and they discussed what to do because waging a conventional war was impossible. The Taliban had billions of dollars in weapons and equipment, and there was no regional or international support for the resistance. We pleaded everywhere, asked every single country to help us. Yet except for political and moral support from countries like Tajikistan, basically everyone else wanted to stay away. There was a fatigue when it came to Afghanistan.

We realized that for us to be able to survive, we had to change our strategy from a conventional war to an unconventional war, which was our approach back in the 1980s, when we were fighting the Soviets after they invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

And from September 5-15, 2021, our forces started withdrawing to remote valleys in Panjshir, which were also used as bases back in the 1980s.

During this past winter, we established a military presence in six provinces in northern Afghanistan: Panjshir, Kapisa, Baghlan, Badakhshan, Takhar and Parwan.

We also started seeing defections from the Taliban, such as Mawlawi Mahdi, the only Shia who played a prominent role in the Taliban. He defected and declared resistance in the Balkhab district of Sar-e Pol province in northern Afghanistan. (Mahdi was killed earlier this month.)

We were confident enough to start preparing for the spring offensive, and the first week of May was when the spring offensive started.

We want the Taliban to understand that they will face strategic defeat in the north. They cannot keep control of the north the way that they are doing right now, occupying it with an invading force that is not native to the north, a force that is oppressing the people. We have been able to keep our casualties very low because we have the high ground. We attack them, and then we go back to our positions. And the Taliban fighters who are coming from Kandahar and Helmand in southern Afghanistan are not trained to fight in mountains.

Bergen: What are the Taliban’s strengths?

Nazary: The Taliban strength right now is that they have unlimited weapons and munitions, resources that were left behind by the Americans.

They also have jihadist allies. They have partnered with regional and international terrorist groups. You have groups like Jamaat Ansarullah, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. They’ve allowed Afghanistan to become a sanctuary for terrorism.

For example, right now, they’ve armed and equipped the Jamaat Ansarullah terrorist group, which is made up of Tajik nationals from Tajikistan, and they’ve given this group US-made gear, weapons and munitions, and have allowed them to take control of the Tajik border.

Bergen: Can you give us a sense of the strengths of the National Resistance Front?

Nazary: First, we enjoy legitimacy and popular support. We see people accepting resistance as the only option right now for them to acquire their freedom again.

The second strength is having capable forces. The military wing of the National Resistance Front isn’t made up of ordinary citizens. It’s made up of the former Afghan military who were trained, advised and funded by the US and NATO for the past 20 years. They’re professional soldiers and officers who have fought against the Taliban for two decades. They know the mindset and mentality of the Taliban. Our numbers are around 4,000 right now.

And the other strength that we have is strong leadership. The Taliban have fractured into a few factions, and they’re competing against one another. Yet for us, all our forces are loyal to one individual. They pledge their allegiance to one individual.

Bergen: You’re speaking about Ahmad Massoud.

Nazary: Yes.

Bergen: What do you make of former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s leadership?

Nazary: Ghani was a weak leader. Ghani, from the time he became President, started the process of disintegration in Afghanistan. When he became President, he didn’t trust anyone. So he built a small circle of advisers around him and the presidential palace. He weakened the ministries. He brought all powers and authority into the presidential palace, started making military and political decisions all by himself, and he marginalized everyone from decision-making and policymaking. He micromanaged everything from 2014 onward.

Ghani also didn’t trust his own armed forces and started purging the army of capable officers. He brought in a few loyalists. It was those loyalists who surrendered to the Taliban.

Bergen: What was the effect of the Trump administration’s 2020 Doha peace agreement with the Taliban and then President Joe Biden announcing in April 2021 that he was going to go through with the total US withdrawal?

Nazary: When it comes to the Doha agreement, we believe it was a disaster. And this is something that we warned US officials about more than a year before the agreement was signed. We said that by signing the agreement with the Taliban and excluding the elected Afghan government from being part of the agreement, it would take legitimacy away from the Afghan government and would legitimize the Taliban. The Taliban would not negotiate with us after they signed an agreement with the United States.

Bergen: Right now, are you getting any outside help of any kind?

Nazary: Unfortunately, not. No country is willing to support the resistance. Our message has been that we are not fighting a civil war. The mentality that helping the National Resistance Front will fuel a civil war is false because what we’re fighting is the continuation of the global war on terror. We have regional and other international terrorist groups helping the Taliban, so how can we characterize this as a civil war? This has to be a regional and international effort to contain and eradicate terrorism. Ignoring Afghanistan and allowing terrorism to take root and find sanctuary in this country doesn’t only threaten our interests. It threatens regional countries and global security.

And the latest developments in Afghanistan, especially with the US drone strike last month in Kabul against al Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, shows the level of terror inside the country. Right now, the National Resistance Front is the last remaining anti-terrorist force in the country.

Bergen: And what is your vision of the future? The Taliban control more of the country than they did before 9/11. They’re better armed. They’ve been fighting for 20 years. So what’s the end goal here for you?

Nazary: One thing that is certain for us is that we are going to liberate the country. Afghanistan has seen oppressive regimes throughout its history, but these oppressive regimes have never lasted long. They were never permanent.

The vision that we have for Afghanistan’s future is a democratic, decentralized republic where every single citizen, regardless of their race, religion and gender, will enjoy equal rights. An Afghanistan where you have political and cultural pluralism. An Afghanistan where men and women are given the same opportunities. And an Afghanistan where power is distributed equally throughout the country.
Get our free weekly newsletter

One of the mistakes of the past 20 years was a political system where one individual, the President, enjoyed decision-making, while everyone else was left out. We saw how fragile the political system became on August 15, 2021. As soon as President Ghani fled the country, the whole political system collapsed like a house of cards. The reason it collapsed so quickly was because of the highly centralized political system.

As time passes, more political parties and forces realize that reconciliation with the Taliban is becoming impossible and that the Taliban had a year to absorb these political parties and other figures and form an inclusive government, which they failed to do. And so they believe that resistance is the only option right now.

Our criteria is we welcome anyone who accepts our vision, who shares our vision for Afghanistan’s future. If you are in favor of a democratic, decentralized republic where every single citizen will enjoy full rights and will enjoy their freedom, then you’re welcome to join us.

Jared Kushner’s excellent internship,

Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. Bergen’ is “The Cost of Chaos: The Trump Administration and the World.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

(CNN)In the Trump White House, Jared and Ivanka Kushner were famously referred to as “the interns.” Now, Jared Kushner has written a book about his internship, modestly titled “Breaking History,” in which he casts himself as a diplomatic genius — a latter-day Metternich with a solid dose of Henry Kissinger thrown in.

Describing his time in government, he writes: “Humbled by the complexity of the task, I orchestrated some of the most significant breakthroughs in diplomacy in the last fifty years.” And that’s just in the preface. The nearly 500 pages that follow are rife with this kind of self-congratulatory puffery.
To be fair, Kushner was arguably the most important person in the Trump administration after his mercurial father-in-law. But that was less about his abilities and more because he was one of the very few people — along with his wife and Olympic-level sycophant Vice President Mike Pence — who had seemingly guaranteed job security in an administration known for its rapidly revolving door.

At the Trump White House, Kushner was allowed to dabble in pretty much anything he wanted, while never officially taking responsibility for many of those roles — an enviable position to be in when things didn’t go well. He took over the portfolios of China, Mexico, the Middle East and NAFTA. When the coronavirus hit, he became one of the de facto Covid-19 leaders as well.

By Kushner’s own account, he performed brilliantly in all of these gigs, a fact that, in his view, would be more widely recognized if only other senior administration officials hadn’t been so incapable of appreciating his inestimable talents.

Kushner recounts an episode in which Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, and Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, supposedly drafted a resignation letter for Kushner to sign. Kushner takes the opportunity to settle some scores with a number of those top officials, including Bannon, former Trump chief of staff John Kelly, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Kushner’s real-world experience before entering the White House was running his family real estate company. In that role, he presided over what was arguably the worst real estate deal in Manhattan’s history: Buying 666 Fifth Avenue for a record $1.8 billion in 2007, which became a financial albatross when the recession hit a short time later.

Kushner also purchased the New York Observer, which he reportedly used to attempt to undermine his rivals and suppress unflattering stories about his cronies. The Observer went entirely digital in 2016, and CNN reported at the time that its influence had “diminished” since Kushner had taken it over.

Never mind those failures: When Trump took the White House, Kushner became the go-to guy on an ever-widening set of portfolios. On NAFTA, which Trump called “the worst trade deal ever,” Kushner inserted himself into the re-negotiations around the trade accord.

But, in the end, the deal that he struck, which was rebranded as the United States Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA),was a lot like the old NAFTA.

The new deal included relatively minor changes, such as opening up the Canadian market to US dairy farmers and requiring automobiles to have a higher percentage (75% instead of 62.5%) of their components manufactured in the three countries in order to qualify for zero tariffs.
Kushner presented the USMCA as momentous (“I helped renegotiate the largest trade deal in history”) despite the fact that the changes between NATFA and USMCA were “mostly cosmetic,” according to a Brookings Institution analysis of the new deal.

The Abraham Accords

Kushner can certainly count the “Abraham Accords” as an achievement, given that two small Gulf monarchies, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, signed deals recognizing the state of Israel for the first time during the Trump administration. Kosovo, Morocco and Sudan all forged ties with Israel as well.

But the Abraham Accords hardly compare with the 1978 Camp David Accords that then-President Jimmy Carter brokered between Egypt and Israel, two countries that had been at war for decades.
The UAE and Bahrain, meanwhile, had never fought a war with Israel, and the fact that they normalized relations with the Jewish state was more about creating a coalition against their common enemy Iran than Kushner’s brilliant negotiations. Yet, Kushner recounts his role with blustering bravado: “Getting this deal done was like trying to land a plane on an aircraft carrier in the middle of a storm.” Alrighty.

A key part of Kushner’s plan to bring peace to the Palestinian territories was to secure $50 billion of investment for Palestinian projects. But both the Palestinians and the Israelis boycotted the much-ballyhooed Palestinian investment conference that Kushner hosted in Bahrain in June 2019.

And there doesn’t seem to be evidence that Kushner’s investment plans ever came to fruition.
Kushner also seems to have forgotten the original purpose of why he took up the “peace process.” It was purportedly to bring about a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians.

Kushner seemed to be operating on the theory that normalizing relations between Israel and the Arab states would cause the Arab countries to push the Palestinians to agree to a two-state solution.

Providing significant Arab investment in the Palestinian territories would also help sweeten the deal. But none of that worked and by the end of the Trump administration, the two-state solution seemed more a mirage than ever.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration gave then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — an old family friend of the Kushners — pretty much everything he wanted: pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal, reversing American policy and declaring that it did not consider Israeli settlements in the West Bank a violation of international law and withdrawing US support for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which among other things, educated hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinian kids living as refugees in countries around the Middle East.

The Crown Prince

Trump’s first overseas visit was to Saudi Arabia, a trip that Kushner had pushed hard for. Shortly after the trip, the Saudis imposed a blockade on Qatar, which had long found their enormously wealthy neighbor to be an irritant. The Saudis knew that with President Barack Obama in the White House, a blockade of Qatar likely wouldn’t fly, but the Trump-Kushner team was another matter.

It’s unclear whether Trump and Kushner were either unaware or simply didn’t care that Qatar sits on some of the largest natural gas reserves in the world and is also home to the largest US military base in the Middle East.

The two Trump cabinet officials who knew the most about Qatar, Tillerson, who was previously the chairman and CEO of Exxon, and then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who had commanded CENTCOM, were both angered by the blockade. But Kushner sidelined them both on the Qatar issue.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, knew that the one person who really counted in all this was Kushner, who had his back. The absolute Gulf monarchies who run their fiefdoms as family businesses had a shrewd understanding of where the power really resided in the Trump administration.
Kushner’s relationship with MBS, who the CIA concluded ordered the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, has certainly proven lucrative. Against the advice of its own board of advisers, a Saudi sovereign wealth fund led by MBS reportedly invested $2 billion in Kushner’s newly formed private equity firm just six months after Trump left office. This extraordinarily cushy deal goes unmentioned in Kushner’s very long book.

Prison Reform

In fairness to Kushner, he certainly did get some things right. One of most important events in his adult life was, inarguably, the imprisonment of his father Charles Kushner, who was convicted of witness tampering and several other charges after he hired a prostitute to seduce his brother-in-law in a New Jersey hotel room while a hidden camera rolled.

As part of the revenge plot, he then sent the tape to his own sister, who along with her husband, had been cooperating with the feds in an investigation into Charles Kushner’s campaign contributions. He was sentenced to two years, and his son movingly describes visiting his father every weekend at the Alabama prison where he was incarcerated.

Given this personal experience, Kushner campaigned for prison reform during his time in the Trump White House and helped create a coalition with Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois and CNN commentator Van Jones, among others, to move this bipartisan measure through Congress. The resulting reforms helped address some of the disparities in sentencing between crack cocaine convictions and powder cocaine offenses that tended to penalize Black offenders.

It also lowered mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent crimes and gave judges the leeway to dole out more lenient sentences to those who deserved them.


Kushner also deserves credit for helping orchestrate the Trump administration’s vaccination program, known as “Operation Warp Speed,” during the pandemic. The government invested $1 billion in Moderna, which produced a testable vaccine in just a matter of months and placed another $1.5 billion order for 100 million doses of the vaccine.

And while Pfizer didn’t directly take US government money in the research phase, the administration did strike an advance-purchase deal with the company to obtain more than 100 million doses for $1.95 billion.

Yet, Kushner never grapples with his father-in-law’s role as a one-man super-spreader of lies and disinformation. This surely contributed to many unnecessary deaths during the pandemic, given Trump’s influence on his supporters and the key role that the president’s bully pulpit plays in American life.
Early on, Trump repeatedly downplayed the severity of the pandemic, saying the virus would “go away” or “disappear.” Trump also denigrated mask-wearing and almost invariably refused to wear a mask himself at a time when vaccines were not yet available and masks were one of the most effective ways to curb the spread of the virus.

Dr. Deborah Birx, Trump’s coronavirus response coordinator, told a House select subcommittee that that the Trump administration’s botched response to Covid-19 proved lethal for many tens of thousands of Americans. If the administration had followed the science and implemented more mitigation measures, she testified, “We probably could have decreased fatalities into the 30-percent-less to 40-percent-less range.”

Kushner also gives his father-in-law a free pass on spreading falsehoods about the 2020 election being stolen from him. At one point, Kushner writes that “2020 was full of electoral anomalies” without saying exactly what they were. He also credits Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani with efforts to overturn the election, while Kushner himself remained focused on Operation Warp Speed and his Middle East peace efforts.

Of course, Kushner also fails to acknowledge his father-in-law’s role in fomenting the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, and he makes the now debunked claim that “no one at the White House expected violence that day.” In fact, Cassidy Hutchinson, a top aide to the White House’s chief of staff, testified publicly under oath in June that Trump’s national security adviser and the deputy chief of staff for operations had raised the issue of potential violence in the days before January 6.

For readers looking for a robust defense of the Trump administration that makes no pretense to being an impartial account, Kushner’s “Breaking History” is the book for you. For those who are looking for a more wide-ranging and balanced accounting of Trump’s four years in office, I’m looking forward to Peter Baker and Susan Glasser’s book, which is scheduled for release next month, as well as Maggie Haberman’s, which will be out in October.

New America, Arizona State University, 2022 Future Security Forum, Co-sponsors, Joint Special Operations University, Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College ONLINE event

New America and Arizona State University invite you to the 2022 Future Security Forum, to be held online on September 13, 2022.

Monday, September 13, 2022 | 12:30 p.m. – 5:00 p.m. EDT


Forum sessions will assess the state of global affairs, from revisiting the security situation in Afghanistan one year after the Taliban takeover, analyzing the rise of domestic extremism, and planning for future cybersecurity threats. Future Security Forum 2022 will feature remarks from:

Joshua A. Geltzer, PhD
Deputy Assistant to the President & Deputy Homeland Security Advisor, National Security Council

Jen Easterly
Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA),
Department of Homeland Security

For more information, please visit the conference website where you can find a detailed agenda.

The Forum is the premier annual event of New America and Arizona State University’s Future Security project—a research, education, and policy partnership that develops new paradigms for understanding and addressing new and emerging global challenges. Co-sponsors for the 2022 Future Security Forum are Joint Special Operations University and the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College.

Biden’s Afghanistan exit decision looks even worse a year later,

Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. Bergen’s new paperback is “The Rise and fall of Osama bin Laden.” from which this article is, in part, adapted. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

In 1961, after a CIA-backed invasion of Cuba failed spectacularly, President John F. Kennedy said of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, “Victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan.”

Last week, President Joe Biden took a victory lap when he announced that the US had tracked down and killed its most wanted terrorist, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was living in a house in Kabul, Afghanistan. Don’t expect a similar celebration on August 30, the first anniversary of the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, which ended the longest war in American history. Any realistic assessment of that action shows that it will long be seen as a defeat rather than a victory – and it’s likely no one will own up to the responsibility for the decision.

The US launched a war against Afghanistan in 2001 after the Taliban regime harbored Osama bin Laden, giving him the ability to plot and carry out the 9/11 terrorist attacks which killed almost 3,000 Americans.

As US and NATO troops battled Taliban and al Qaeda forces, the new US-backed government in Kabul also presided over two decades of progress in Afghanistan. To be sure, Afghanistan wasn’t Norway, but it was becoming a somewhat functional, democratizing Central Asian state that saw striking progress in reducing child mortality and increasing life expectancy, one that provided jobs for women and education for millions of girls; it nurtured scores of independent media outlets, and held regular, if flawed, presidential elections.

All of that changed when the US began withdrawing and the Taliban took over the entire country on August 15, 2021. Women’s rights evaporated. They have no right to work, except in a narrow set of female-related jobs such as cleaning women’s toilets in Kabul; when they travel distances of more than 45 miles they must be accompanied by a male relative, and the Taliban have ordered women to stay at home and to cover themselves completely should they ever venture out. Their male relatives will be punished by the Taliban if women don’t follow these directives. Girls do not have the right to be educated after the age of 12.

On the Taliban’s management of Afghanistan, one data point suffices to underline the group’s gross incompetence: Around half of the Afghan population are today “facing acute hunger,” according to the UN.

On the Taliban’s respect for other ethnic Afghan groups: There is no evidence that the Taliban are creating an “inclusive” government as their leaders claimed they would. Pashtuns make up almost all the leadership of the Taliban, while other ethnic groups in Afghanistan such as the Hazaras, Tajiks and Uzbeks are almost entirely excluded from leadership roles.

On their respect for democracy: The Taliban, conveniently, don’t believe in elections. Instead, they are a theocracy; their leader is known as the “Commander of the Faithful,” a title that claims he is the leader of all Muslims. In the past year under Taliban rule, 40% of Afghanistan’s independent media outlets have closed.

On the Taliban’s alliance with al Qaeda: Well, last week’s news made clear the relationship is thriving. The fact that the leader of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri was living in downtown Kabul for months – with what the Biden administration describes as the awareness of some Taliban officials – speaks for itself. Zawahiri was killed late last month in a US drone strike.

After the news broke that Zawahiri had been hiding in Kabul, Lisa Curtis, the top official at the White House for Afghanistan during the Trump administration, tweeted “#Taliban basically asserting Doha agreement allows them to shelter #AlQaeda. Proves it was the worst agreement in US history. Not worth the paper on which it’s written.” This was a particularly damning assessment coming from a senior American official who was working on Afghanistan while the Doha agreement between the US and the Taliban was being negotiated.

One of the most powerful men in Afghanistan today is the acting Minister of Interior, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who has ties to al Qaeda, according to a United Nations report that said he is “assessed to be a member of the wider Al-Qaida leadership, but not of the Al-Qaida core leadership.”

A February 2020 opinion piece in The New York Times with Haqqani’s byline blandly identified him only as “the deputy leader of the Taliban.” What the Times didn’t tell its readers is that Haqqani was also on the FBI’s most wanted list and that his men had kidnapped a reporter for … The New York Times.

This op-ed featured ludicrous lies including, “We together will find a way to build an Islamic system in which all Afghans have equal rights, where the rights of women that are granted by Islam – from the right to education to the right to work – are protected” and “reports about foreign [terrorist] groups in Afghanistan are politically motivated exaggerations by the warmongering players on all sides of the war.”
How it happened

The US pullout from Afghanistan a year ago was orchestrated by a successive series of decisions by former President Donald Trump, President Joe Biden and the chief US negotiator with the Taliban, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. None of these men are ever likely to fully acknowledge their paternity of the debacle that unfolded in Afghanistan, which followed the worst diplomatic agreement in US history that enabled the Taliban to win at the negotiating table in Doha, Qatar what they could never win on the battlefield.

Khalilzad has defended the deal saying, “The negotiation was a result of–based on the judgment that we weren’t winning the war and therefore time was not on our side and better to make a deal sooner than later.”

By the end of the Trump administration, the fledgling Afghan state was supported by only some 2,500 US troops, a tiny fraction of the more than two million men and women in the active-duty US military, reserves, and National Guard units. Assisted by 9,000 allied, mostly NATO troops and 18,000 contractors this small US force was enough to enable the Afghan military to fend off the Taliban, which was never able to capture and hold any of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals before Biden announced the total American withdrawal in April 2021.

Why Biden went through with the withdrawal plan that he had inherited from Trump is still something of a puzzle since there was no large, vocal constituency in the Democratic Party that was demanding a total US pullout from Afghanistan, and Biden’s top military advisers had clearly warned him of the risks of doing so.

In public testimony before the US Senate Armed Services Committee, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and US CENTCOM commander Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, said they had advised the Biden administration that unless the US kept around 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, the Afghan military would collapse. Collapse it did.
The “Taliban 2.0” delusion

The publication of Haqqani’s op-ed in The New York Times was emblematic of the wishful thinking about the Taliban in the US that had persisted for years. In this view the Taliban were just a bunch of misunderstood backwoodsmen who would eventually do what was only sensible: break with al Qaeda and abandon much of their misogynistic ideology as a quid pro quo for their recognition on the world stage.

This was a classic case of mirror imaging; the belief that the Taliban would do the rational things some gullible Americans expected them to do, as opposed to implementing the quasi-mediaeval ideology that has been at the core of their armed movement since they first emerged almost three decades ago. It was like imagining the Khmer Rouge would “mature” once they had taken power in Cambodia

A key proponent of the view that the Taliban would change if the right carrots were dangled in front of them was Barnett Rubin of NYU, an expert on Afghanistan, who claimed in a paper that he published with the United States Institute of Peace in March 2021 that the US had “underestimated the leverage that the Taliban’s quest for sanctions relief, recognition and international assistance provides.”

Turns out that it was Rubin who overestimated how much the Taliban cared about sanctions relief and international assistance, while he had also vastly underestimated their desire to banish women from jobs and education and maintain their warm relations with their old buddies in al Qaeda. This shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise, since that was exactly how the Taliban had ruled the last time that they were in power in the years before 9/11. The Taliban hadn’t fought the US and Afghan militaries for two decades only to install a quasi-democracy when they came to power for the second time.

The “moderate” Taliban 2.0 that was supposedly emerging in recent years was a profound delusion that gripped US policymakers.

A month after Biden had announced the impending withdrawal of all US troops from Afghanistan, the US negotiator with the Taliban, Khalilzad, testified to the US House Foreign Affairs Committee on May 16, 2021, that those who thought the Taliban would quickly take over the country as the US pulled out were “mistaken.” Khalilzad also asserted that the Taliban would opt for a political settlement over a military victory, testifying, “They say they seek normalcy in terms of relations — acceptability, removal from sanctions, not to remain a pariah.”

Just months later the distinctive white flags of the Taliban were fluttering over the capital, Kabul, and the Taliban began implementing their theocratic state. In a symbolic move the Taliban’s feared religious police soon commandeered what had formerly been the ministry for women’s affairs. Obviously, that ministry would no longer be needed, but the “Vice and Virtue” police would have to be properly accommodated.

The United Nations released a report in May in which it observed that an astonishing 41 members of the Taliban serving in the cabinet or other senior-level government positions in Afghanistan are on UN sanctions lists.

Taliban 2.0 was a mirage, and the Taliban today is Taliban 1.0 with one major difference; they are far better armed than the Taliban that ruled over most of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. Now they ride into battle with American armored vehicles and M-16 rifles that were left behind as the US military rushed for the exits last summer. The Taliban today also face a far weaker opposition movement in Afghanistan than was the case for the pre-9/11 Taliban.

Signaling weakness to Russia and China

When Biden spoke to the American people on Aug. 31, 2021, as the last US soldiers departed Afghanistan, he framed the withdrawal as a way of positioning the US to compete better against great-power rivals, saying, “We’re engaged in a serious competition with China. We’re dealing with the challenges on multiple fronts with Russia…And there’s nothing China or Russia would rather have, would want more in this competition than the United States to be bogged down another decade in Afghanistan.”

This was an absurd rationale: For years both China and Russia had hoped to push American forces out of Afghanistan because the country borders both China and the republics of the former Soviet Union. Russia had covertly supported the Taliban, according to the US military, while the Chinese had drawn closer to the Taliban in recent years.

As they pulled out of Afghanistan, the Americans abandoned the vast Bagram Air Base which could house up to 10,000 troops; a more ideal site from which to engage in competition with either China or Russia is hard to imagine.

You could practically hear the high fives in the Kremlin as the US ignominiously retreated from Afghanistan, which seemed to herald an era of the US pulling back from the world.

It hardly seems accidental that three months later Russian President Vladimir Putin moved an army to the border with Ukraine as a prelude to his invasion of the country.

A predictable fiasco

In June 2021, I wrote for CNN, “We could see in Afghanistan a remix of the disastrous US pullout from Saigon in 1975 and the summer of 2014 in Iraq when ISIS took over much of the country following the US pullout from the country.”

That prediction, unfortunately, proved to be accurate; the American pullout from Saigon looked like a dignified retreat compared to the scenes of thousands of desperate Afghans trying to get on planes leaving Kabul airport last August. Some Afghans were so desperate to leave that they clung to the fuselage of a plane that was taking off – and two plunged to their deaths. On Aug. 25, 2021, 13 US soldiers and at least 170 Afghans were killed at the airport by a suicide bomber dispatched by the Afghan branch of ISIS. And the Taliban took over the entire country even before the last US soldiers had left Afghanistan.

Compounding Biden’s disastrous policy decision to completely pull out of Afghanistan was the botched handling of the withdrawal. According to a report about that withdrawal released in February by Republican senators sitting on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the first White House meeting to discuss evacuating Americans and Afghans from Afghanistan took place on Aug. 14, only one day before the Taliban seized Kabul and five months after Biden had first publicly announced the total US withdrawal from the country.

Biden patted himself on the back that the US military subsequently extracted 124,000 Afghans from Afghanistan, calling the operation an “extraordinary success,” which was like an arsonist praising himself for helping to try to put out a fire that he had started.

But even accepting the most self-congratulatory view of the Biden administration’s handling of the withdrawal, the vast majority of the Afghans who had worked with the US were abandoned. The Association of Wartime Allies, an advocacy group for Afghans who had worked for the US, estimated in March that only about 3% of the 81,000 Afghans who had worked for the US government and had applied for special visas had made it out of Afghanistan, leaving 78,000 behind.

Four months after the Taliban took over Afghanistan, the Biden administration convened the “Summit for Democracy” in Washington consisting of the world’s democracies. Five months earlier Afghanistan would have warranted an invitation to this summit, but Biden had enabled the Taliban to take over the country, which ended almost every shred of a liberal democracy that had once existed there.

Following the Afghan debacle, Biden’s favorable ratings dropped to the lowest level of his presidency to that point to 46%. They have never recovered.

The Biden administration now faces a policy dilemma of its own making. Since so many millions of Afghans are on the brink of starvation, Biden officials cannot completely turn their backs on Afghanistan. And yet, it’s hard to help Afghans without propping up the Taliban in some manner. The Biden administration has tried to ensure that all US aid to Afghanistan is administered in a way that it doesn’t end up in the hands of the Taliban, but realistically any help that the US sends to Afghanistan tends to help the Taliban remain in power.

This is surely one of the most spectacular own goals the US has ever scored.

Charisma-free al-Zawahiri was running al-Qaeda into the ground,

“Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. Bergen’s new paperback is “The Rise and fall of Osama bin Laden.” from which this article is, in part, adapted. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.”

(CNN)The airstrike that killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri over the weekend in Afghanistan is part of the long and justified campaign by the United States to bring all the heads of the terror group to justice.

Let’s be clear about who Zawahiri really was. In remarks at the White House on Monday, President Joe Biden described Zawahiri as a terrorist mastermind “deeply involved in the planning of 9/11,” as well as the bombings of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 and two US embassies in Africa in 1998 that killed more than 200 people.

But in my two-and-a-half decades of intensive reporting on al Qaeda, and based on discussions with key CIA and FBI officials tracking both Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden, as well as militants who knew both men, I have found little or no evidence for those assertions.

As for Zawahiri’s role in recent years as al Qaeda leader, he was unable to resuscitate the terrorist group, which hasn’t carried out a major attack in the West since al Qaeda-trained suicide bombers killed 52 commuters in London in 2005.

Zawahiri was not a charismatic leader of al Qaeda in the mold of Osama bin Laden. Instead, he had all the charisma of a boring uncle given to long, arcane monologues, someone that you would best avoid sitting next to at Thanksgiving dinner.

This is not to undercut the significance of killing bin Laden’s successor. But let’s be realistic about Zawahiri’s importance historically in the hierarchy of al Qaeda and his role in the organization in more recent years.

While Zawahiri was influential in the very early years of al Qaeda in turning bin Laden against the regimes in the Middle East, he wasn’t involved in bin Laden’s most important strategic decisions — that is, turning him against the US and planning 9/11. And Zawahiri proved to be an incompetent leader of al Qaeda when he took over the group more than a decade ago.

Looking ahead, might there be a plausible successor to Zawahiri waiting in the wings who could revive the group’s flagging fortunes?

The strike against Zawahiri indicates that his successor will likely have substantial freedom of movement to operate in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Indeed Zawahiri was living in downtown Kabul, a fact that was well known to some leaders of the Taliban, according to senior US government officials.

Zawahiri’s marginal role in al Qaeda before 9/11

Before 9/11, Zawahiri was a relatively marginal player in al-Qaeda, despite his role as one of the public faces of the organization.

In 1986, bin Laden first met Zawahiri, an Egyptian surgeon, at a hospital in Peshawar, Pakistan where bin Laden was giving a lecture. Bin Laden was intrigued by the older, more politically experienced Zawahiri, who had joined a jihadist group at 15 and had served three years in prison in Egypt. The two became close and Zawahiri encouraged bin Laden to imagine the possibilities of overthrowing the regimes in Arab countries such as Egypt.

As a result, during the late 1980s Zawahiri influenced bin Laden’s thinking about the need to fight the “near-enemy” Arab regimes such as Egypt. But by the time bin Laden had taken up residence in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in 1996 the two men’s relative importance on the “field of jihad” had changed quite dramatically. Zawahiri was a penniless refugee with virtually no followers whereas bin Laden was a well-known jihadist hero the Taliban had appointed to be responsible for all the Arabs living in Afghanistan.

But bin Laden found a way to use Zawahiri for his own purposes — to advance his goals instead of those of this fellow jihadist whose focus was not on the US but on Egypt. Bin Laden released a statement on behalf of the “World Islamic Front,” a joint declaration made by himself, Zawahiri, and other militant leaders from Bangladesh, Egypt and Pakistan on February 22, 1998. The declaration claimed it was now a religious duty for any Muslim to kill American civilians anywhere in the world.

This declaration of war made no mention of Zawahiri’s lifelong goal of overthrowing the “near-enemy” Egyptian regime and instead was focused on bin Laden’s “far-enemy” goal of attacking America. Bin Laden had co-opted Zawahiri to be part of his holy war against the US, not the other way around, which was the dominant narrative in the years after the 9/11 attacks.

There is no evidence that bin Laden’s decision to target the US had any input from Zawahiri, despite later claims that Zawahiri was really the “brains” behind bin Laden.

The troika who founded and ran al-Qaeda was bin Laden at the apex and his two key lieutenants, the Egyptian military commanders, Abu Ubaidah and Abu Hafs al-Masri (whose real name was Mohammed Atef), both of whom had been on bin Laden’s payroll since the beginning of 1987. They were bin Laden’s men, not Zawahiri’s.

Like other reporters, I had inflated Zawahiri’s importance to bin Laden’s thinking in my 2001 book, “Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama Bin Laden.” After examining all the evidence, I have since concluded that Zawahiri was a marginal figure when it came to influencing bin Laden’s views, and that he played only a small role in the actions of al-Qaeda in the years leading up the 9/11 attacks.

This view is also shared by Michael Scheuer, who led the bin Laden unit at CIA from 1996 to 1999, by Daniel Coleman, the most knowledgeable FBI agent investigating bin Laden in the years before 9/11 and by Montasser al-Zayyat, who spent years in prison in Egypt with Zawahiri.

Noman Benotman, a leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, who knew both men, also said it was bin Laden who told Zawahiri, “Forget about the ‘near enemy’ [the Egyptian government]. The main enemy is the Americans because they dominate the whole area and they’re supporting these Arab regimes.”

According to the 9/11 Commission, it was bin Laden, Abu Hafs al-Masri, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, an operational planner of 9/11, who discussed what American targets to hit. They selected the US Capitol, the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Zawahiri was not involved in deciding to attack these targets, according to the Commission.

Bin Laden formally merged Zawahiri’s own Egyptian Jihad Group into al-Qaeda in June 2001. Feroz Ali Abbasi, a Ugandan Briton who was then training at an al-Qaeda camp, described the merger as “more like the assimilation” of Zawahiri’s group. At this point, Zawahiri’s group consisted of only ten men, according to Abu Walid al-Misri, who edited the Taliban’s Arabic-language newspaper. Abu Jandal, one of bin Laden’s key bodyguards, put the number of Zawahiri’s followers at seven Egyptians.

It was only in the summer of 2001 that bin Laden told Zawahiri the details of the upcoming attacks on New York and Washington.

Months after the 9/11 attacks, Abu Hafs al-Masri was killed in a US airstrike and Zawahiri succeeded him as bin Laden’s deputy. For the next decade bin Laden and Zawahiri both disappeared until bin Laden was tracked down by the CIA to the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, where he was killed in a US Navy SEAL operation in early May 2011.

Zawahiri takes over al Qaeda

Even though Zawahiri had been bin Laden’s deputy since 2001, it took more than six weeks for the group to announce Zawahiri’s ascension to the top spot. Saif al-Adel, an Egyptian former Special Forces officer was appointed “caretaker” leader of al Qaeda in the wake of bin Laden’s death, according to CNN. Adel had long played a prominent role in the terrorist group.

Eventually Zawahiri was appointed to the top job but proved so incompetent in the job that al-Qaeda and its most successful affiliate, ISIS, formally split in 2014. It was the first time in its history that al-Qaeda had officially rejected one of its affiliates, and this was not a sign of strength since ISIS was now the most lethal terrorist group in the world.

During Zawahiri’s time as leader of al Qaeda, the terrorist group was never able to launch an attack in the US, nor against American interests around the world. (An al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen was in communication with a Saudi military officer who killed three US sailors at Naval Air Station Pensacola in 2019, but the central al Qaeda organization led by Zawahiri seems to have had no role in that attack.)

A possible successor?

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has given al Qaeda “increased freedom of action” in Afghanistan according to a report by the United Nations released in May. Zawahiri apparently felt comfortable at his safehouse in Kabul where he produced video messages, according to senior US officials.

According to the UN, Zawahiri “issued more frequent recorded messages after the Taliban took over Afghanistan last August,” appearing in eight videos. And al Qaeda also renewed its pledge of allegiance to the leader of the Taliban, according to the UN.

The most likely successor to Zawahiri is Saif al Adel — the former al Qaeda caretaker when bin Laden was killed — who lived in Iran for years after 9/11 and could already be back in Afghanistan.

Adel fought the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s, which is how he became part of al Qaeda during its earliest days. According to senior Saudi counterterrorism officials, from Iran, Adel authorized al Qaeda’s branch in Saudi Arabia to launch a campaign of terrorist attacks in the Saudi kingdom that began in May 2003, a campaign that killed scores of people.

If it is Adel who is tapped for the top job in al Qaeda, he will likely do a far better job of resuscitating al Qaeda than Zawahiri did, which, admittedly, is a low bar.