Monday, January 17, 2011

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?

JANUARY 17, 2011


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?

Hello everyone. I'll get things started by introducing the book and posing some questions that came up in my reading of it. To begin, Peter Bergen's The Longest War is yet another triumph from the author of Holy War, Inc. and The Osama bin Laden I Know. Unlike his 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 such as al Qaeda's changing tactics and the ideological revolt from within the salafi-jihadist community get serious attention, the book makes its most enduring contribution describing and assessing U.S. government counterterrorism policy in the years after 9/11. Much of The Longest War is a blistering critique of U.S. interrogation abuses, the misuse of 9/11 as an issue to justify the war with Iraq, the under-resourcing of the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, and other mistakes that have hindered or undermined the struggle against al Qaeda.

The point of this discussion, however, is not violent agreement, and the best books generate doubts as well as certainties. So let me focus on some of those doubts -- but not, I hope, to the point where readers do not rush out to buy this book.

The biggest omission from the book (it receives a brief mention on pp. 246-247) is its neglect of global intelligence and law enforcement operations outside the sexier realms of renditions and interrogation procedures. In Europe, the Arab world, and many Asian countries, the post-9/11 era is marked by a dramatic increase in arrests of and intelligence gathering on suspected al Qaeda members and their associates. These measures do not make for dramatic headlines, but their cumulative effective is staggering. Where once al Qaeda members could avoid detection because few governments cared enough to look, now the manhunt is on. An operation like 9/11, where planning ranged from Malaysia and Germany to Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States, would be far more likely to be disrupted today.

Closer to home, Bergen regularly highlights FBI overreactions to aspirational jihadists, but this leaves open the question of where the line should be. Bergen points out that someone like Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan-American who plotted several attacks in New York, is far more dangerous 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 reader parse which threats matter and which do not). But if the FBI is not aggressive in the early stages, isn't there a risk that a local chucklehead could go to Pakistan for training and, in turn, become more formidable?

Bergen rightly criticizes the use of torture and the many other mistakes the Bush administration made, but I would have liked more on his thoughts about what new procedures were appropriate after 9/11. As just one issue, what do you do with al Qaeda and 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 be preventive detention legislation, or are we stuck with the old system?

A question I still wrestle with concerns the limits of the war on terror. Perhaps most 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 the list expand to movements that have some links but are not fully integrated with the core group, like al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb? If you exclude affiliates, America risks getting blindsided, but drawing too wide a circle risks fighting every battle and attracting new enemies.

Equally tricky is the acceptable level of risk. There's not much controversy that 9/11-scale casualties are intolerable. But there is a wary recognition that a few deaths here and there from terrorism, while horrible, do not merit fundamental changes in U.S. policy. Where to draw the line, however, remains unclear.

This question of limits came to me as I read the book's final chapters on Obama's war and the many difficulties the United States faces in Afghanistan. I would like Bergen's thoughts about the argument of my colleague at Georgetown, Paul Pillar, who contends that from a counterterrorism perspective the game in Afghanistan may not be worth the candle. In his book Bergen points out al Qaeda is well-ensconced in Pakistan, and U.S. drone strikes are putting pressure on the organization's leaders. 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 should the longest war become even longer?

My final takeaway from The Longest War was the depressing realization that a similar book may eventually be written about the next 10 years of counterterrorism. So many of the problems that have plagued us for 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 the worst.

Daniel Byman is a professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown and the director of research at the Saban Center at Brookings Institution.

To read Karen Greenberg's take on The Longest War, click here.

Karen Greenberg: What's the Difference Between Bush and Obama on Fighting Terror?

Hi everyone. I know we're supposed to be raising interesting questions, but I wanted to begin by saying how much I enjoyed Peter's book and the way in which he wove the many pieces of America's war on terror into one comprehensive narrative. Most of us who will be commenting on the book know our own pieces of it, so seeing it in this grander context has been a gift. Having said that, my own take-away from the book's contribution to the knowledge on the topic of the war on terror was a little different than Dan Byman'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 much appreciated cohesiveness -- to a policy that often seems like a bunch of frayed ends, one big contribution of this book is its insights into the changing strength, goals, and positioning of al Qaeda. For this, it may be even more original than the counterterrorism narrative. After all, the willful blindnesses and wrongdoings of George W. Bush's administration have been told and retold. But Peter's well-drawn portrayal of the development of Osama bin Laden's political sensibility is a powerful contribution to our understanding of the terrorist leader -- and one I think that is drawn with distinctive persuasiveness. 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 his embrace of the FBI stings as measures that could prevent the likes of another Zazi-like attempted plot. (Zazi's goal was to carry out a suicide bombing mission on the New York subway.) Being aggressive in the early stages is one thing -- seeing who might be willing to participate in a crime of terrorism is another thing. While stings may make us all feel better -- and get wanna-be's and potential hangers-on to terrorism plots off the streets -- the fact remains that the most serious terrorist threats to US security have been individuals who are not necessarily part of this FBI aggressive program: e.g., Faisal Shahzad, David Headley, and the 2009 Christmas Day bomber, Abdulmutullab. So the real question is the allocation of resources, not a theoretical approach to the virtues of preventive counterterrorism. And further, something this book doesn't tell us, who actually has made the pivotal decision about how to assess and allocate these resources from the larger perspective of national security and with what review processes? What high-level disagreements have there been? How is each and every case weighed and evaluated in the aftermath of the findings -- e.g. in court?

On the issue of coercive interrogation and torture, Peter's discussion of the fruits of the coercive interrogations of Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and Ramzi Binalshibh are unsettling. Peter makes it clear that he 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 of the information that KSM gave to his torturers showed "little or no difference" from interviews done without coercion by journalist al Jazeera Yosri Fouda or by FBI interviewers. But Peter also acknowledges that CIA confessions led to numerous arrests at home, particularly as a result of the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, the detainee whose interrogation President Bush relied upon to defend the enhanced interrogation policy. The link between interrogations and Guantánamo on the one hand, and domestic law enforcement and terrorism prosecutions on the other, is one that is seldom drawn. This is a plus of the book. One thing it suggests is that the Justice Department had a more strategic, unified perspective on CIA/Gitmo-USA law enforcement policies than has previous been understood. Which raises the question: How involved was the Justice Department when it came to Guantánamo and to interrogations?

One of Peter's accomplishments in The Longest War is to draw a picture that encompasses both the Bush and Obama administrations. Showing rather than telling, Peter deftly points out that although Obama began with the intentions of turning the page to a new policy vis-à-vis Af/Pak -- beginning with signaling to the Pentagon that he would not just approve their requests without deliberative review -- Obama has essentially come to see the threat of al Qaeda in the region, and potential remedies, in much the same way as the Bush administration did. The link between the two administrations seems more and more prevalent as time passes, but I'm intrigued by the question about threat assessment. Is there a unified assessment of the threat al Qaeda poses across the political divide and across intelligence professionals? And what about Pakistan and its role in supporting or countering al Qaeda? Are the debates over the viability of the COIN strategy tied to differences in threat assessment or to the remedy? The answers are important for understanding what choices may lie ahead for the nation.

A good foundational work gives us more to think about. Peter has certainly done that!

Karen Greenberg is executive director of the Center on Law and Security at the NYU School of Law and author of The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo's First 100 Days.

To read Thomas E. Ricks's take on The Longest War, click here.

Thomas E. Ricks: Why Bergen's GWOT Book Is Better Than Mine Would've Been

We all come at books differently. In reading Peter Bergen's The Longest War, Dan Byman, a terrorism expert, seems to have been looking for policy prescriptions -- i.e., just what would you do differently, bub? Karen Greenberg, an expert on the legal regime for counterterrorism, wants more information on how crucial decisions were made in that area.

Myself, I looked at this work first of all from the perspective of a writer, having done three books on related subjects (two about the invasion of Iraq, Fiasco and The Gamble, plus a novel about occupying Afghanistan, published in June 2001). What's more, a couple of years ago I had actually contemplated someday trying to write a history of the war on terror. My first reaction on reading Bergen's book was how lucky I was that I didn't go up against him, because he does a much better job than I think I 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 second reaction was gratitude to him for the job he does in relating the history of the 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 when you 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 time before we see one as well-written and as comprehensive.

Here is what I had to say about The Longest War in my review that ran in Sunday's New York Times Book Review:

--I think the book is a history of our time. I got out of it what I had hoped to get from the stack of novels I've read about 9/11, but didn't.

--He kicks the hell out of the Bush Administration, rightly so in my view. Bush and Cheney take their hits, but so too do Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.

--I think this is an important book.

So, to be clear, we all agree that it is a fine book and that you should read it, dammit. Any questions?

Thomas E. Ricks writes the Best Defense blog on and is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

To read Blake Hall's take on The Longest War, click here.

Blake Hall: Did All Those Soldiers Really Need To Die?

Hi all. I took the time to scroll through everyone's bios, and I must say that it is humbling for a company grade Infantry officer to join a debate among so many accomplished experts. Peter covers a lot of ground in The Longest War; my own experience begins and ends with Iraq, so I was riveted by the neat progression of the history of these wars as the narrative moved from a rich portrait of Osama bin Laden to the policy decisions that set in motion a decade of war for American soldiers and marines. While Dan approached the text from a policy perspective, Karen from a legal one, and Tom as a writer, I write as a soldier; we like to speak our minds and ask lots of questions, so hang on. I am going to explore the narrative as well as some of the reasoned judgments on morality Peter renders and our failed detention system, and then raise questions I had after finishing the book.

After explaining how al Qaeda was at war with us long before we realized it, Peter traces the missteps of George W. Bush's administration in the wake of 9/11 in excruciating detail. Though writers like Tom Ricks have documented the groupthink, naivete, and power struggles of the Bush White House leading up to the Iraq War, Peter's ability to stitch together the political and cultural effects of Don Rumsfeld's bizarre refusal to let soldiers and marines secure the population -- a world where soldiers became fobbits -- is second to none. And the scene where Rumsfeld and Bush quibble with a CIA analyst about whether to call the insurgency in Iraq an insurgency, while Iraq is in the grip of not one but two insurgencies, is the rhetorical equivalent of playing the fiddle while Rome burns. I do wish that Peter had referenced General Erik Shinseki's courageous stand before Congress, but the mistakes he enumerates are more than enough to paint a portrait of an administration entirely out of touch with reality.

To carry Dan Byman's concerns further than he probably intended, I want to ask Peter for help understanding the moral justification for the difference in treatment between the CIA's extraordinary rendition of Abu Omar from Italy and American actions in post-Awakening Iraq. In the former, American intelligence officers handed over a man convicted of recruiting fighters to go to Iraq knowing that he would probably be tortured, while in the latter, American military units resourced and partnered with the Sons of Iraq militia who were brutally executing and torturing members of al Qaeda in the streets without trial. Is there a practical difference between rendering prisoners to a centralized state that does not recognize Geneva and aiding/equipping/organizing a decentralized network that does not either?

I believe that these strains on our morality are a direct result of failed prisoner detention policy. In 2007, my scouts and snipers, along with two operators from the British SAS, captured the top two tiers of the al Qaeda-affiliated South Karkh vehicle bomb network -- effectively destroying the organization, according to Ray Odierno. The top lieutenant in that network and a key vehicle bomb coordinator had already been captured and released before we re-captured them.

Later, citing the case of Abdullah Salih al-Ajmi, Peter notes that Guantánamo Bay served as a breeding ground for extremism, yet he does not extend the point to a systemic examination of the detention system in total, and I think this is a crucial omission. At the height of the violence in Iraq, Camp Bucca rarely held prisoners 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 correlation graphs on prisoner releases versus subsequent attacks on coalition forces - more Americans die as a result of these releases. Not as quantifiable are the setbacks to the security situation and the psychological intimidation visited upon the local populace when these killers return. This problem ceased when the Sunni tribes revolted against al Qaeda, but it has been reincarnated in Afghanistan today. Soldiers there are using a phrase I heard often in Iraq: "catch and release." In my experience, our inability to keep insurgents in prison is the single most demoralizing influence on soldiers, and it prevents us from taking a critical mass of the insurgency out of the game unless we can turn the tribes. Why risk our lives to catch them if we release them smarter and with more contacts?

Finally, Peter notes that Eliot Cohen, the State Department counselor, had a son about to deploy to Iraq when he urged the president to replace Gen. George Casey with Gen. David Petraeus. His son's deployment gave Cohen the courage to offer Bush his heartfelt advice. Maybe if more policymakers had children in this war, soldiers would get a fairer shake and more honest leadership. I have lost friends in these wars; my Iraqi interpreter Mohammed was killed by an al Qaeda house bomb in 2008, and three months ago I said goodbye to my Ranger buddy at Walter Reed, a victim of the lonely war that soldiers face after returning from combat. Peter's masterfully woven narrative of The Longest War provides cohesion from start to finish; whereas before I had knowledge of an individual scene, now I grasp the context. I am grateful to him for writing such a lucid and detailed account. But it leaves me with the aching realizations that maybe we did not need to suffer as much as we have and that more suffering is ahead.

As Peter carefully notes, it is al Qaeda that faces an existential threat today, not the United States. Yet his book illustrates the limits of American military power. We are still in Iraq and locked in a counterinsurgency against a mostly indigenous enemy. What have we gained and at what cost? Even if we defeat al Qaeda, we might not "win" in Afghanistan. We are stuck to a tar baby, but Peter's brilliantly told history is a must-read for anyone who cares about America, how we got here, and where we should go.

Blake Hall is a former Army captain and a decorated member of the Army Rangers who led a scout platoon in Iraq from July 2006 to September 2007. He recently graduated from Harvard Business School and co-founded TroopSwap, a platform for the military community.

For Hugh Pope's take on The Longest War, click here.

Hugh Pope: Give the Taliban a Bit More Credit

Greetings from Istanbul! Peter Bergen's The Longest War, I agree with you all, is a tour de force of reporting and dazzling detail: I daresay that each chapter could be a whole book for other writers. And what an achievement to be able to put it all this into one frame.

As Tom Ricks put it in his review for the New York Times, I approached the book seeking emotional satisfaction. I wanted vindication of my feelings when I was a foreign correspondent on the ground, frustratedly trying to bridge the gap between reality and the American Reader during those years after 9/11.

Bergen soon won me over: He shows that America always knew much more than its leaders wanted to hear, and that things are changing. My main satisfaction is on the U.S. side of the story as he nails the willful, ideological incompetence of Cheney, Rice, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, and the Bush administration. Similarly, he shows from several angles how the contradictions of U.S. Middle East policy, particularly unquestioning 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 attempts by the administration and some media to find a non-existent Saddam-bin Laden connection -- Bergen doesn't just close the case, he locks it up.

He does well on the Middle Eastern side too. While I was somewhat less emotionally satisfied here, for reasons given below, Bergen taught me a lot and sometimes changed my mind.

In the end, I found myself having to accept much of Bergen's evidence about how Islam played a big role in the motivations of al Qaeda, while still giving due weight to what to my mind is the all-important politics of the situation. I still have my doubts about how all-embracing the purely religious factor is. For instance, I happened to talk to the British official who interviewed absolutely everyone in the British Pakistani community about their co-religionists' role in the 7/7 London bombings. His bottom-line conclusion of their main motivation: "teenage rebellion gone ballistic."

Bergen convincingly portrays the tactical strengths and strategic weaknesses of bin Laden and the "love" his followers felt for him. I was fascinated to learn of his real day-to-day control of the organization, and the clear parallels bin Laden was trying to draw between his life and that of the Prophet Mohammed. The Longest War is scattered with many insights, for instance how brave the scrawny al-Qaeda fighters in Tora Bora were, and how the Afghan villagers there still revere their spirit by keeping up their graves.

New to me were Bergen's definite statements that Saudis were not important in financing "terror"; the gun-shyness of the Pentagon that allowed bin Laden to escape from Tora Bora; the fact that al-Qaeda had no idea the U.S. would invade Afghanistan after 9/11. I was surprised that al Qaeda "instructors" are back with the Taliban in the war in Afghanistan and shocked at just how many highly intelligent people have their careers wrapped up in the negative entropy of the "war on terror."

As for my reservations:

- While Bergen was persuasive about Islam as an ideology as it is used by small groups of militants, and has clear-eyed discussions about the distinction between al-Qaeda's Islam and mainstream Islam, I still think Islam should be avoided as an adjective and analytical tool -- everyone understands it to mean something different. A bit like Karen Greenberg's criticism of FBI stings, to me "Islam" can often turn into a straw man of a concept.

- I wouldn't want the Taliban as my government, but I remain influenced by seeing them try to get a grip on the country in 1998, and can't see them as so extraordinary different from other Afghans. Bergen calls them "incompetent and brutal" rulers of Afghanistan, but I think there's more to them than that.

- A key part of the conceptual background of the Middle East and its discontents is what date you begin at. Bergen chooses the 1967 Six-Day War as his key date for the spread of hopelessness that ultimately bred extremist reactions. I think the Middle East's unstable frictions go back much further, and are arguably geo-politically eternal. As Dan Byman suggests, therefore, the question is: what level of casualties is America going to just have to get used to as it deals with this reality. There is no solution to the Middle East's problems: There is only a more realistic, humane, and legally defensible management of them. Like the Londoners after 7/7, Americans should take things more in their stride.

- Bergen makes much of the work of Laurie Mylroie in setting up Saddam and Iraq for attack. I remember her as a rather marginal voice. I would have expected more on the influence of Bernard Lewis, whose baleful doctrine boils down to "if Muslims don't respect you, make them fear you," who has had a formative influence on U.S. government attitudes and who was intimately connected to the Bush team. I think he's the origin of Bergen's report of Bush's wish for "demonstration effect."

- People seeking ideas for policies towards the Middle East will find many insights in the book, but obviously should be wary of using the "war on terror" as the be-all and end-all of how to manage the whole Middle East, or the unique prism through which to view the region. While keeping a vigilant eye on trouble-makers, there is no substitute for a policy-making mechanism that is informed by realities, by broad on the ground experience of context and humdrum everyday 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 needs allies, and that means listening to other countries' concerns. This is undoubtedly the subject of another discussion, and should take as its point of departure the fact that coercive methods work as badly with nations as they do in interrogating prisoners (which latter point Bergen so ably proves).

These observations do not subtract, however, from the satisfaction I felt at Bergen's moral skewering of the U.S. policy-makers responsible for churning up the Middle East over the past decade and a half, especially the mad invasion of Iraq. Most of these misguided policies were executed in the name of the nearly 3,000 deaths on 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 giving their relatives and brutalized societies satisfaction, let alone justice, in the decades to come?

Hugh Pope is the author most recently of Dining with al-Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East.


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