Guerillas in the Mist

Peter Bergen blows away the political fog surrounding our war against al-Qaeda.

By Christian Caryl

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The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and and Al-Qaeda
by Peter Bergen
Free Press, 480 pp.

 emember the Battle of Tora Bora? That was the one, back in December 2001, where Osama bin Laden got away. U.S. special forces and CIA paramilitaries, collaborating with local Afghan warlords, were closing in on the al-Qaeda leader, who had fled to the cave network high up in the White Mountains in eastern Afghanistan. The Americans called in airstrikes that dropped tens of thousands of pounds of bombs on bin Laden’s redoubt, but in the end the man who engineered 9/11 made his escape. In the intervening years countless commentators have spent countless man hours poring over that fateful error—to the extent that, by now, Tora Bora feels like oddly familiar terrain.

Or so I thought until I got to the relevant passage in The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and and Al-Qaeda,Peter Bergen’s new book. Rather than giving us yet another single-viewpoint version of the events at Tora Bora, Bergen lets a rich cast of characters do the talking. And so we find ourselves experiencing the battle through the multiple perspectives of those who fought it on both sides of the line. At one moment we’re with the Yemeni doctor Ayman Saeed Abdullah Batarfi, who’s treating wounded al-Qaeda men with little more than a knife and a pair of scissors. Abu Jaafar al Kuwaiti, another al-Qaeda fighter, is hunkered down in a trench as the B-52s make a bombing run, when he gets word that bin Laden has been killed. The rumor, needless to say, turns out to be wrong.

We hear from Muhammad Musa, an Afghan militia commander who watched as bin Laden’s men blew themselves up with grenades rather than surrender. We see the fighting through the eyes of Gary Berntsen, the CIA’s ranking officer on the ground, who listens in as bin Laden gives a pep talk to his troops on an open radio channel; Berntsen’s take is complemented by the perspective of Dalton Fury, the Delta Force commander at the battle. And we also experience the frustrations of Hank Crumpton, who was running the CIA’s operations back in Washington and briefing President George W. Bush in the White House. It was Crumpton who carried forth the CIA’s plea for more boots on the ground—a request that was rejected by then CENTCOM Commander Tommy Franks. Franks, as Bergen notes, would later argue that he hesitated to put more troops into Tora Bora because of uncertain intelligence about bin Laden’s whereabouts (a view echoed, nearly verbatim, by ex-President Bush in his recently published memoirs, Decision Points). Yet Bergen’s account of the battle is so comprehensive that readers will find it hard to buy that rationale. He cites an official U.S. military history, as well as one of Frank’s own deputies, who concur that it was adequately clear at the time where bin Laden was. But Franks and his staff, as Bergen points out, were already hard at work planning the war in Iraq.

And that, in a nutshell, is precisely the virtue of this new book. In The Longest War Bergen attempts to provide us with an overarching narrative of the first ten years of the epic struggle that resulted from the 9/11 attacks, and he does an admirable job of it. Bergen, who gained notice for the first-ever television interview with bin Laden in 1997, has clearly read every available text, scoured the court records of terrorist trials, compared notes from many of the major participants, and tramped across battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq. He is also the author of several best-selling books on al-Qaeda and bin Laden. One of the persistent themes that emerges from his account is that many of the key events of the “Long War” remain shrouded, either by political agendas or plain ignorance. Bergen sets out to clarify the matter. This isn’t a book full of scoops; much of what you’ll read here has already been said elsewhere. The author opts instead for a broad, almost stereoscopic account that brings an array of sources together into an illuminating synthesis.

Bergen meticulously details the extent to which the Bush administration neglected the al-Qaeda threat prior to 9/11, but he sees no evidence of a grand conspiracy—just the persistence of a Cold War mentality among the members of Bush’s national security team. That malicious nonstate actors like al-Qaeda might be a threat never quite registered. It was, writes Bergen, “the gravest national security failure in American history.”

The author also scoffs at the notion that bin Laden and his confederates are waging war on the U.S. because, as Bush once famously put it, “they hate our values.” Actually it’s the American presence in the Middle East that looms by far the largest in al-Qaeda’s public statements—with the Palestinian issue in close second, as Bergen notes. From the start, the author points out, bin Laden has bitterly bemoaned the Islamic world’s loss of control over Jerusalem. Bergen reminds us that al-Qaeda’s announcement of his World Islamic Front in 1998 was explicitly aimed at “the Crusaders and the Jews.”

Bergen is also profoundly critical of the Bush administration’s case for invading Iraq, and provides one of the most thorough examinations of the issue that I’ve seen so far. Yet he can’t be accused of lazy partisanship. Bergen takes care to give Bush high marks for following through on the surge in Iraq, and makes a point of showing how wrong leading Democrats—including both Obama and Hillary Clinton—turned out to be. (What’s more, Obama later used the success of Bush’s surge policy as a rationale for doing something similar in Afghanistan—even though the current president has never publicly acknowledged his mistaken stance on the surge in Iraq.)

One of the most interesting passages in the book concerns the Obama administration’s 2009 Afghanistan strategy review. Bergen lingers over Vice President Biden’s deep-rooted doubts about the counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan, and notes that Democratic war critics frequently compare the fight there with the war in Vietnam. As Bergen points out, the two conflicts actually have very little in common: the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese army, at their peak, numbered more than half a million men, equipped with artillery and tanks; the Taliban, by contrast, number something like 25,000, and barely have the resources to hold a large town under their control. Elsewhere Bergen pooh-poohs the notion that Afghanistan is somehow inherently resistant to “nation-building” efforts, noting, among a number of other entirely sensible observations, that the Afghans can look back on a history of statehood considerably longer than that of either Italians or Germans. Bergen also cites poll results that show that Afghans are strikingly open-minded about foreigners and, at least until recently, clearly continued to support the U.S. presence in their country—in stark contrast to the notably more xenophobic Pakistanis. This is not to say that he’s unduly sanguine about the West’s prospects in Afghanistan; Bergen is far too clear-eyed to indulge in propaganda, and he’s scrupulous about exploring the problems.

There’s only one aspect of The Longest War that doesn’t quite live up to its billing, and that’s Bergen’s portrayal of the jihadi mindset. In the book’s opening pages Bergen promises us an inside look at both sides of the conflict, but by the end I felt as though I had a far better handle on America’s take than al-Qaeda’s. Bergen has clearly made an effort to interview al-Qaeda alumni wherever the opportunity presents itself, and he picks over bin Laden’s every public statement with the thoroughness of an intelligence analyst, but our sense of what makes the holy warriors tick rarely gets beyond their sloganeering. Here and there Bergen offers some revealing details—like the intense feelings of loyalty, approaching love, that bin Laden manages to excite in some of his followers—but they don’t come anywhere close to the complexity of his portraits of the Washington decisionmaking process. And this is a pity, since our failure to comprehend the attitudes of the people we’re fighting against continues to hamper our efforts.

Still, viewed in the larger scheme of things, this is a quibble. If you want a solid, readable history of the Long War, this is a great place to start.

If you are interested in purchasing this book, we have included a link for your convenience.


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Christian Caryl is Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s chief editor in Washington and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy. He is frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books and the Washington Monthly.  
 
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