FP Book Club: Peter Bergen’s The Longest War
An FP discussion on counterterrorism expert Peter Bergen's latest book. A decade after 9/11, is the war on terrorism a war we can win?
FP‘s panel of experts and participants in the war on terrorism takes on Peter Bergen’s major new book. Looking back on a decade of war between America and al Qaeda — literally the longest war in America’s history — Bergen offers a damning, step-by-step assessment of how a shadowy, often misinformed enemy managed to pull the world’s biggest superpower into a sometimes catastrophic and frequently damaging worldwide combat. So what have we learned from fighting this war? Bergen argues: Not as much as we should have.
- Daniel Byman: OK, So We Don’t Like the Old System: But What Now?
- Karen Greenberg: What’s the Difference Between Bush and Obama on Fighting Terror?
- Thomas E. Ricks: Why Bergen’s GWOT Book Is Better Than Mine Would’ve Been
- Blake Hall: Did All Those Soldiers Really Need to Die?
- Hugh Pope: Give the Taliban a Bit More Credit
- Peter Bergen: Yes, It Would Matter If We Lost to the Taliban
A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images
Daniel Byman: OK, So We Don’t Like the Old System: But What Now?
Helloeveryone. I’ll get things started by introducing the book and posing somequestions that came up in my reading of it. To begin, Peter Bergen’s The Longest War is yet another triumphfrom the author of Holy War, Inc. andThe Osama bin Laden I Know. Unlikehis past books, which focused squarely on the bad guys associated with al Qaeda,the emphasis of Bergen’s latest work is the United States. Although issues suchas al Qaeda’s changing tactics and the ideological revolt from within thesalafi-jihadist community get serious attention, the book makes its mostenduring contribution describing and assessing U.S. government counterterrorismpolicy in the years after 9/11. Much of TheLongest War is a blistering critique of U.S. interrogation abuses, themisuse of 9/11 as an issue to justify the war with Iraq, the under-resourcingof the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, and other mistakes that have hindered orundermined the struggle against al Qaeda.
Thepoint of this discussion, however, isnot violent agreement, and the best books generate doubts as well ascertainties. So let me focus on some of those doubts — but not, I hope, to thepoint where readers do not rush out to buy this book.
Thebiggest omission from the book (it receives a brief mention on pp. 246-247) isits neglect of global intelligence and law enforcement operations outside thesexier realms of renditions and interrogation procedures. In Europe, the Arabworld, and many Asian countries, the post-9/11 era is marked by a dramaticincrease in arrests of and intelligence gathering on suspected al Qaeda membersand their associates. These measures do not make for dramatic headlines, buttheir cumulative effective is staggering. Where once al Qaeda members couldavoid detection because few governments cared enough to look, now the manhuntis on. An operation like 9/11, where planning ranged from Malaysia and Germanyto Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States, would be far more likely to bedisrupted today.
Closerto home, Bergen regularly highlights FBI overreactions to aspirationaljihadists, but this leaves open the question of where the line should be. Bergenpoints out that someone like Najibullah Zazi,the Afghan-American who plotted several attacks in New York, is far moredangerous because of the training al Qaeda gave him in Pakistan (and, indeed,one of the best parts of the book is Bergen’s willingness to let the readerparse which threats matter and which do not). But if the FBI is not aggressivein the early stages, isn’t there a risk that a local chucklehead could go toPakistan for training and, in turn, become more formidable?
Bergenrightly criticizes the use of torture and the many other mistakes the Bush administrationmade, but I would have liked more on his thoughts about what new procedureswere appropriate after 9/11. As just one issue, what do you do with al Qaedaand associated fighters when you pick them up overseas? As The Longest War points out, Guantánamo was a disaster in many ways.Renditions are even worse from a human rights point of view. So should there bepreventive detention legislation, or are we stuck with the old system?
Aquestion I still wrestle with concerns the limits of the war on terror. Perhapsmost important today in Yemen, how does America decide who its enemies are?Osama bin Laden and his followers, of course, deserve no mercy. But does thelist expand to movements that have some links but are not fully integrated withthe core group, like al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb? If you excludeaffiliates, America risks getting blindsided, but drawing too wide a circlerisks fighting every battle and attracting new enemies.
Equallytricky is the acceptable level of risk. There’s not much controversy that9/11-scale casualties are intolerable. But there is a wary recognition that afew deaths here and there from terrorism, while horrible, do not meritfundamental changes in U.S. policy. Where to draw the line, however, remainsunclear.
Thisquestion of limits came to me as I read the book’s final chapters on Obama’swar and the many difficulties the United States faces in Afghanistan. I wouldlike Bergen’s thoughts about the argument of my colleague at Georgetown, PaulPillar, who contendsthat from a counterterrorism perspective the game in Afghanistan may not beworth the candle. In his book Bergen points out al Qaeda is well-ensconced inPakistan, and U.S. drone strikes are putting pressure on the organization’sleaders. Having an additional haven in Afghanistan would of course help them,but how big a difference would the Taliban’s return to power make? In other words,more Taliban victories would not recreate pre-9/11 Afghanistan, so why shouldthe longest war become even longer?
My finaltakeaway from The Longest War was thedepressing realization that a similar book may eventually be written about thenext 10 years of counterterrorism. So many of the problems that have plagued usfor the last 10 years remain unresolved, and new ones are certain to arise.Hopefully books like Bergen’s, read by the right people, will help us avoid theworst.
Daniel Byman is a professor in theSecurity Studies Program at Georgetown and the director of research at theSaban Center at Brookings Institution.
Karen Greenberg: What’s the Difference Between Bush and Obamaon Fighting Terror?
Hi everyone. I know we’re supposed to be raising interestingquestions, but I wanted to begin by saying how much I enjoyed Peter’s book andthe way in which he wove the many pieces of America’s war on terror into onecomprehensive narrative. Most of us who will be commenting on the book know ourown pieces of it, so seeing it in this grander context has been a gift. Havingsaid that, my own take-away from the book’s contribution to the knowledge onthe topic of the war on terror was a little different than DanByman’s. Dan saw the book as making its most enduring contribution to the U.S.counterterrorism effort. While it does provide an overview — and some muchappreciated cohesiveness — to a policy that often seems like a bunch of frayedends, one big contribution of this book is its insights into the changingstrength, goals, and positioning of al Qaeda. For this, it may be even moreoriginal than the counterterrorism narrative. After all, the willfulblindnesses and wrongdoings of George W. Bush’s administration have been toldand retold. But Peter’s well-drawn portrayal of the development of Osama binLaden’s political sensibility is a powerful contribution to our understandingof the terrorist leader — and one I think that is drawn with distinctivepersuasiveness. This is something I’d like other experts to weigh in on.
I’d like to address several of Dan’s comments about U.S.counterterrorism, beginning with his discussion of Najibullah Zazi and hisembrace of the FBI stings as measures that could prevent the likes of anotherZazi-like attempted plot. (Zazi’s goal was to carry out a suicide bombingmission on the New York subway.) Being aggressive in the early stages is onething — seeing who might be willing to participate in a crime of terrorism isanother thing. While stings may make us all feel better — and get wanna-be’sand potential hangers-on to terrorism plots off the streets — the fact remainsthat the most serious terrorist threats to US security have been individualswho are not necessarily part of this FBI aggressive program: e.g., Faisal Shahzad,David Headley, and the 2009 Christmas Day bomber, Abdulmutullab. So the realquestion is the allocation of resources, not a theoretical approach to thevirtues of preventive counterterrorism. And further, something this bookdoesn’t tell us, who actually has made the pivotal decision about how to assessand allocate these resources from the larger perspective of national securityand with what review processes? What high-level disagreements have there been?How is each and every case weighed and evaluated in the aftermath of thefindings — e.g. in court?
On the issue of coercive interrogation and torture, Peter’sdiscussion of the fruits of the coercive interrogations of Abu Zubaydah, KhalidSheikh Mohammed, and Ramzi Binalshibh are unsettling. Peter makes it clear thathe is unwaveringly opposed to the torture regime of the Bush administration –he underlines the legal immorality of John Yoo’s memos and notes that much ofthe information that KSM gave to his torturers showed “little or no difference”from interviews done without coercion by journalist al Jazeera Yosri Fouda orby FBI interviewers. But Peter also acknowledges that CIA confessions led tonumerous arrests at home, particularly as a result of the interrogation of AbuZubaydah, the detainee whose interrogation President Bush relied upon to defendthe enhanced interrogation policy. The link between interrogations and Guantánamoon the one hand, and domestic law enforcement and terrorism prosecutions on theother, is one that is seldom drawn. This is a plus of the book. One thing it suggestsis that the Justice Department had a more strategic, unified perspective on CIA/Gitmo-USAlaw enforcement policies than has previous been understood. Which raises thequestion: How involved was the Justice Department when it came to Guantánamoand to interrogations?
One of Peter’s accomplishments in The Longest War is to draw a picture that encompasses both the Bushand Obama administrations. Showing rather than telling, Peter deftly points outthat although Obama began with the intentions of turning the page to a newpolicy vis-à-vis Af/Pak — beginning with signaling to the Pentagon that hewould not just approve their requests without deliberative review — Obama hasessentially come to see the threat of al Qaeda in the region, and potentialremedies, in much the same way as the Bush administration did. The link betweenthe two administrations seems more and more prevalent as time passes, but I’mintrigued by the question about threat assessment. Is there a unifiedassessment of the threat al Qaeda poses across the political divide and acrossintelligence professionals? And what about Pakistan and its role in supportingor countering al Qaeda? Are the debates over the viability of the COIN strategytied to differences in threat assessment or to the remedy? The answers areimportant for understanding what choices may lie ahead for the nation.
A good foundational work gives us more to think about. Peterhas certainly done that!
Karen Greenberg isexecutive director of the Center on Law and Security at the NYU School of Lawand author of
TheLeast Worst Place: Guantanamo’s First 100 Days
ThomasE. Ricks: Why Bergen’s GWOT Book IsBetter Than Mine Would’ve Been
We all come at books differently. In readingPeter Bergen’s The Longest War, DanByman, a terrorism expert, seems to have been looking for policyprescriptions — i.e., just what would you do differently, bub? KarenGreenberg, an expert on the legal regime for counterterrorism, wants moreinformation on how crucial decisions were made in that area.
Myself, I looked at this work first of all fromthe perspective of a writer, having done three books on related subjects (twoabout the invasion of Iraq, Fiascoand TheGamble, plus a novelabout occupying Afghanistan, published in June 2001). What’s more, a couple ofyears ago I had actually contemplated someday trying to write a history of thewar on terror. My first reaction on reading Bergen’s book was how lucky I wasthat I didn’t go up against him, because he does a much better job than I thinkI would have. Among other things, I likely would have over-emphasized U.S.military views, which play a relatively small role in Bergen’s account,properly so. Nor will I ever know as much about al Qaeda as he does. My secondreaction was gratitude to him for the job he does in relating the history ofthe last 10 years, both in narrating events and offering reasoned judgments.Neither is easy, and doing both well in one book is unusual, especially so whenyou are the first one out of the gate on a huge and sprawling subject like this.There will be other books on this subject, but I think it will be a long timebefore we see one as well-written and as comprehensive.
Here is what I had to say about The Longest War in my reviewthat ran in Sunday’s New York Times BookReview:
–I think the book is a history of our time. Igot out of it what I had hoped to get from the stack of novels I’ve read about9/11, but didn’t.
–He kicks the hell out of the BushAdministration, rightly so in my view. Bush and Cheney take their hits, but sotoo do Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.
–I think this is an important book.
So, to be clear, we all agree that it is a finebook and that you should read it, dammit. Any questions?
Thomas E. Ricks writes the Best Defense blog on ForeignPolicy.com and is a senior fellow at the Center for aNew American Security.
Blake Hall: Did AllThose Soldiers Really Need To Die?
Hi all. I took the time toscroll through everyone’s bios, and I must say that it is humbling for acompany grade Infantry officer to join a debate among so many accomplishedexperts. Peter covers a lot of ground in TheLongest War; my own experience begins and ends with Iraq, so I was rivetedby the neat progression of the history of these wars as the narrative movedfrom a rich portrait of Osama bin Laden to the policy decisions that set inmotion a decade of war for American soldiers and marines. While Dan approachedthe text from a policyperspective, Karen from a legalone, and Tom as a writer,I write as a soldier; we like to speak our minds and ask lots of questions, sohang on. I am going to explore the narrative as well as some of the reasonedjudgments on morality Peter renders and our failed detention system, and thenraise questions I had after finishing the book.
After explaining how al Qaedawas at war with us long before we realized it, Peter traces the missteps of GeorgeW. Bush’s administration in the wake of 9/11 in excruciating detail. Thoughwriters like Tom Ricks have documented the groupthink, naivete, and powerstruggles of the Bush White House leading up to the Iraq War, Peter’s abilityto stitch together the political and cultural effects of Don Rumsfeld’s bizarrerefusal to let soldiers and marines secure the population — a world wheresoldiers became fobbits — is secondto none. And the scene where Rumsfeld and Bush quibble with a CIA analyst aboutwhether to call the insurgency in Iraq an insurgency, while Iraq is in the gripof not one but two insurgencies, is the rhetorical equivalent of playing thefiddle while Rome burns. I do wish that Peter had referenced General Erik Shinseki’scourageous stand before Congress, but the mistakes he enumerates are more thanenough to paint a portrait of an administration entirely out of touch withreality.
To carry Dan Byman’s concernsfurther than he probably intended, I want to ask Peter for help understandingthe moral justification for the difference in treatment between the CIA’sextraordinary rendition of Abu Omar from Italy and American actions inpost-Awakening Iraq. In the former, American intelligence officers handed overa man convicted of recruiting fighters to go to Iraq knowing that he wouldprobably be tortured, while in the latter, American military units resourcedand partnered with the Sons of Iraq militia who were brutally executing andtorturing members of al Qaeda in the streets without trial. Is there apractical difference between rendering prisoners to a centralized state thatdoes not recognize Geneva and aiding/equipping/organizing a decentralizednetwork that does not either?
I believe that these strains onour morality are a direct result of failed prisoner detention policy. In 2007,my scouts and snipers, along with two operators from the British SAS, capturedthe top two tiers of the al Qaeda-affiliated South Karkh vehicle bomb network –effectively destroying the organization, accordingto Ray Odierno. The top lieutenant in that network and a key vehicle bombcoordinator had already been captured and released before we re-captured them.
Later, citing the case ofAbdullah Salih al-Ajmi, Peter notes that Guantánamo Bay served as a breedingground for extremism, yet he does not extend the point to a systemicexamination of the detention system in total, and I think this is a crucialomission. At the height of the violence in Iraq, Camp Bucca rarely heldprisoners for over 12 months. Prison breaks, like the one in Mosul’s Badush prison in 2007,dealt a severe blow to the security situation. I have seen the correlationgraphs on prisoner releases versus subsequent attacks on coalition forces -more Americans die as a result of these releases. Not as quantifiable are thesetbacks to the security situation and the psychological intimidation visitedupon the local populace when these killers return. This problem ceased when theSunni tribes revolted against al Qaeda, but it has been reincarnated inAfghanistan today. Soldiers there are using a phrase I heard often in Iraq: “catchand release.” In my experience, our inability to keep insurgents in prison isthe single most demoralizing influence on soldiers, and it prevents us fromtaking a critical mass of the insurgency out of the game unless we can turn thetribes. Why risk our lives to catch them if we release them smarter and withmore contacts?
Finally, Peter notes that EliotCohen, the State Department counselor, had a son about to deploy to Iraq when heurged the president to replace Gen. George Casey with Gen. David Petraeus. Hisson’s deployment gave Cohen the courage to offer Bush his heartfelt advice.Maybe if more policymakers had children in this war, soldiers would get afairer shake and more honest leadership. I have lost friends in these wars; myIraqi interpreter Mohammed was killed by an al Qaeda house bomb in 2008, andthree months ago I said goodbye to my Ranger buddy at Walter Reed, a victim ofthe lonely war that soldiers face after returning from combat. Peter’smasterfully woven narrative of TheLongest War provides cohesion from start to finish; whereas before I hadknowledge of an individual scene, now I grasp the context. I am grateful to himfor writing such a lucid and detailed account. But it leaves me with the achingrealizations that maybe we did not need to suffer as much as we have and thatmore suffering is ahead.
As Peter carefully notes, it isal Qaeda that faces an existential threat today, not the United States. Yet hisbook illustrates the limits of American military power. We are still in Iraqand locked in a counterinsurgency against a mostly indigenous enemy. What havewe gained and at what cost? Even if we defeat al Qaeda, we might not “win” inAfghanistan. We are stuck to a tar baby, but Peter’s brilliantly told historyis a must-read for anyone who cares about America, how we got here, and wherewe should go.
Blake Hall is a former Army captain and a decorated memberof the Army Rangers who led a scout platoon in Iraq from July 2006 to September2007. He recently graduated from Harvard Business School and co-founded TroopSwap, a platform for themilitary community.
Hugh Pope: Give the Taliban a Bit More Credit
Greetings fromIstanbul! Peter Bergen’s The Longest War, I agree with you all, is atour de force of reporting and dazzling detail: I daresay that each chaptercould be a whole book for other writers. And what an achievement to be able toput it all this into one frame.
As Tom Ricks putit in his reviewfor the New York Times, I approached thebook seeking emotional satisfaction. I wanted vindication of my feelings when Iwas a foreign correspondent on the ground, frustratedly trying to bridge thegap between reality and the American Reader during those years after 9/11.
Bergen soon wonme over: He shows that America always knew much more than its leaders wanted tohear, and that things are changing. My main satisfaction is on the U.S. side ofthe story as he nails the willful, ideological incompetence of Cheney, Rice,Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, and the Bush administration. Similarly, he shows from severalangles how the contradictions of U.S. Middle East policy, particularlyunquestioning support of Israel, have landed the country in this complicated mess.He hammers home the absolute folly of the Iraq invasion and the self-deluding attemptsby the administration and some media to find a non-existent Saddam-bin Ladenconnection — Bergen doesn’t just close the case, he locks it up.
He does well onthe Middle Eastern side too. While I was somewhat less emotionally satisfiedhere, for reasons given below, Bergen taught me a lot and sometimes changed mymind.
In the end, I foundmyself having to accept much of Bergen’s evidence about how Islam played a big rolein the motivations of al Qaeda, while still giving due weight to what to mymind is the all-important politics of the situation. I still have my doubtsabout how all-embracing the purely religious factor is. For instance, Ihappened to talk to the British official who interviewed absolutely everyone inthe British Pakistani community about their co-religionists’ role in the 7/7London bombings. His bottom-line conclusion of their main motivation: “teenagerebellion gone ballistic.”
Bergenconvincingly portrays the tactical strengths and strategic weaknesses of binLaden and the “love” his followersfelt for him. I was fascinated to learn of his real day-to-day control of theorganization, and the clear parallels bin Laden was trying to draw between hislife and that of the Prophet Mohammed. TheLongest War is scattered with many insights, for instance how brave thescrawny al-Qaeda fighters in Tora Bora were, and how the Afghan villagers therestill revere their spirit by keeping up their graves.
New to me wereBergen’s definite statements that Saudis were not important in financing”terror”; the gun-shyness of the Pentagon that allowed bin Laden to escape fromTora Bora; the fact that al-Qaeda had no idea the U.S. would invade Afghanistanafter 9/11. I was surprised that al Qaeda “instructors” are back with theTaliban in the war in Afghanistan and shocked at just how many highlyintelligent people have their careers wrapped up in the negative entropy of the”war on terror.”
As for myreservations:
– WhileBergen was persuasive about Islam as an ideology as it is used by small groupsof militants, and has clear-eyed discussions about the distinction betweenal-Qaeda’s Islam and mainstream Islam, I still think Islam should be avoided asan adjective and analytical tool — everyone understands it to mean something different.A bit like Karen Greenberg’s criticismof FBI stings, to me “Islam” can often turn into a straw man of a concept.
-Iwouldn’t want the Taliban as my government, but I remain influenced by seeingthem try to get a grip on the country in 1998, and can’t see them as soextraordinary different from other Afghans. Bergen calls them “incompetent andbrutal” rulers of Afghanistan, but I think there’s more to them than that.
– Akey part of the conceptual background of the Middle East and its discontents iswhat date you begin at. Bergen chooses the 1967 Six-Day War as his key date forthe spread of hopelessness that ultimately bred extremist reactions. I thinkthe Middle East’s unstable frictions go back much further, and are arguably geo-politicallyeternal. As Dan Byman suggests,therefore, the question is: what level of casualties is America going to justhave to get used to as it deals with this reality. There is no solution to theMiddle East’s problems: There is only a more realistic, humane, and legally defensiblemanagement of them. Like the Londoners after 7/7, Americans should take thingsmore in their stride.
– Bergenmakes much of the work of LaurieMylroie in setting up Saddam and Iraq for attack. I remember her as arather marginal voice. I would have expected more on the influence of BernardLewis, whose baleful doctrine boils down to “if Muslims don’t respect you, makethem fear you,” who has had a formative influence on U.S. government attitudesand who was intimately connected to the Bush team. I think he’s the origin of Bergen’sreport of Bush’s wish for “demonstration effect.”
– Peopleseeking ideas for policies towards the Middle East will find many insights inthe book, but obviously should be wary of using the “war on terror” as thebe-all and end-all of how to manage the whole Middle East, or the unique prismthrough which to view the region. While keeping a vigilant eye ontrouble-makers, there is no substitute for a policy-making mechanism that isinformed by realities, by broad on the ground experience of context and humdrumeveryday realities, and not by America’s own ideologies or domestic lobbies.Bergen shows how a go-it-alone strategy fails: The lesson is that America needsallies, and that means listening to other countries’ concerns. This isundoubtedly the subject of another discussion, and should take as its point ofdeparture the fact that coercive methods work as badly with nations as they doin interrogating prisoners (which latter point Bergen so ably proves).
These observationsdo not subtract, however, from the satisfaction I felt at Bergen’s moralskewering of the U.S. policy-makers responsible for churning up the Middle Eastover the past decade and a half, especially the mad invasion of Iraq. Most ofthese misguided policies were executed in the name of the nearly 3,000 deathson 9/11. But at least 50 times more people have now been killed as a result,Middle Easterners and Americans, and millions displaced. Who will be givingtheir relatives and brutalized societies satisfaction, let alone justice, inthe decades to come?
HughPope is the author most recently of Diningwith al-Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East.
Peter Bergen: Yes, It Would Matter if We Lost to theTaliban
Thanks to all the talented experts and writers who took timeout of their busy lives to comment on my book. Before I respond to some of thequestions and issues several of those experts raised I’d like to make a broadpoint about how I approached writing this history of the “war on terror.”
In some ways, as important as what you write is the stuffyou take out after you have written it. When I wrote the first major manuscriptdraft of The Longest War it weighedin at 240,000 words. It was a monster that would have turned into adoor-stopper of a book; around 1,000 pages, if it had been published at thatlength. The footnotes alone ran to some 80,000 words, about the length of anaverage book.
I realized I had to take a machete to this behemoth to getto get it down to a size that readers would find digestible, and also to cutout the redundant, the irrelevant, the boring, and the arcane. In some case thatmeant eliminating whole chapters entirely, and it meant heavy pruning of allthe remaining chapters. This approach got the manuscript down to its presentsize of 145,000 words with some 30,000 words of footnotes; the published bookstill runs a shade under 500 pages. I believe making these drastic cuts was oneof the best decisions I made about the project, as it helped keep up the narrativeenergy of the book and distilled the substance of the history I was attemptingto tell to its essence.
In a sense an author has to perform triage on his or her ownwork, keeping alive only the elements that he or she believes are of criticalimportance while discarding the stuff that isn’t either of central importanceor of compelling interest.
This preamble helps explain (excuse?) why I didn’t tackle atany length an issue raised by DanByman. Dan is course absolutely correct that the stories of cooperationbetween the world’s intelligence agencies are an important part of the historyof the war on terrorism. In fact Dan would be well-placed to write such ahistory given his own wide-ranging inquiries about counterterrorism policy in countriesaround the world. Amy Zegart or John Diamond might also be positioned to tacklesuch a history given their own books on the recent history of the CIA.
Similarly, HughPope wishes I had spent more time considering the work of Bernard Lewis andthe impact his views had on the Bush administration. Certainly they wereimportant, and in earlier versions of the book I wrote about Lewis. However, Idecided to focus on the work of the academic Laurie Mylroie, who is much lesswell-known than Lewis, but whose book-length claims of Saddam Hussein’ssupposed role in anti-American terrorism were enormously influential on keydecision makers in the Bush administration, such as Paul Wolfowitz and topofficials in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, and were part of therationale to go to war.
KarenGreenberg asks if there is a unified assessment of the al Qaeda threatamong intelligence professionals. I think there is: In their view al Qaeda isweakened significantly, but is still dangerous like a snake backed in a corner andcan still attempt to carry off large-scale attacks, as we saw on Christmas Day2009 with the attempt to bring down Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit. The U.S.intelligence community in fact has a far better-calibrated sense of the threatthan those politicians and commentators who continue to assert that al Qaeda andits allies pose some kind of existential threat to the United States comparablein scope to Nazism or communism; a nonsensical claim.
Dan Byman, and to some extent Hugh Pope — whose coverage of the Middle Eastat the Wall Street Journal was firstclass — make similar points about the Taliban. Would a Taliban return to powerin some shape or form in Afghanistan be that big a deal? Pope sees the Talibanas not “so extraordinarily different from other Afghans.” And certainly the Talibanworldview is reflective, in part, of the values of many rural Pashtuns. However,I do think the return of the Taliban to power in some shape or form inAfghanistan would be a disaster for the Afghan people. Less than 10 percent ofAfghans have had a favorable view of the Taliban in any number of polls taken byBBC News going back to 2005. There is nothing quite like living under Talibanrule to persuade one that their promises of a 7th-century utopia here on Earth arehollow.
It is worth recalling that the Taliban destroyed what remained of the Afghaneconomy, incarcerated half the population in their homes, massacred thousandsof Shia, and provided sanctuary to al Qaeda as well as pretty much every Muslimterrorist and insurgent group from around the world.
Al Qaeda has been harbored for almost a decade now largely by the Haqqaninetwork, the ferocious Taliban militia based in Pakistan’s tribal regions. Andin the parts of Pakistan that the Taliban continue to control today, they host– in addition to al-Qaeda — an alphabetsoup of other jihadist groups including LeT, JeM, IMU, HUJI, and IJU. The notionthat somehow the Taliban are going to start becoming rational actors and giveup al Qaeda or its allied groups is wishful thinking on a baroque scale.
BlakeHall raises the important issue of the release of potentially dangerous prisonersfrom places like the massive prison at Camp Bucca in Iraq. Like many soldiers Ispoke to Anbar province in western Iraq in 2008, the “catch and release” programof Iraqi insurgents is something that Hall objects to. And indeed there islittle doubt that some of these released prisoners picked up arms when they gotout of jail. This is and was a serious problem. However, the countervailing argumentmade by those like General Doug Stone, who ran Camp Bucca at the time when manyof these prisoners were released, is that locking up thousands of Iraqis inthese jails was creating a larger set of militant insurgents because thevirulent jihadists in these jails were infecting the general population ofthese prison with their ideas.
Certainly someone like the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi,because much more radical while he was jailed in Jordan in the late 1990s. Prisonauthorities, whether in Jordan, or Iraq or Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia, mustbalance avoiding the radicalization of entire prison populations with seriousdownstream consequences, while at the same time trying to avoid releasingviolent killers back into the community. That is a difficult balancing act, andwe have seen with some of the graduates of Saudi Arabia’s militant”rehabilitation” program who have then gone on to join al Qaeda, it’s a toughone to get right
Finally, thanks to Tom Ricks for his detailed reviewof my book in the Sunday New York Timesand for repeatingsome of the takeaways of that review here in our book club discussion. Andthanks again to those who participated in this book club. Hopefully we won’t bedoing this for a similar book a decade from now, which Dan Byman rightlysuggests is all too possible.
To return to the main discussion page, click here.
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