Tuesday, 22 February 2011

A review of "The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and al-Qaeda", by Peter Bergen

Peter Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst, first became interested in al-Qaeda in the mid 1990s, and since that point he has established himself as one of America’s foremost experts on the subject. In addition to an impressive back catalogue of books, articles and lectures, Bergen has conducted interviews with a wide variety of important figures and is one of the few Western journalists to have interviewed Osama bin Laden. In his new book, Bergen attempts to tell the history of the war on terror, from the origins of al-Qaeda’s outlandish aspirations to the present day.
In the opening passages, Bergen presents an enthralling account of the origins of the 9/11 attacks, tracing the development of al-Qaeda’s strategy following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 and demonstrating America’s inability to respond to this challenge. He paints a damming picture of the Clinton and Bush administrations’ actions in the years and months before 9/11, claiming that the problem did not lie in a lack of information about al-Qaeda’s intentions and capabilities, but in America’s unwillingness to see an attack from such an organisation as a realistic threat. He goes on to show how this incompetence continued into the early stages of the war in Afghanistan through the Bush administration’s failure to capture or kill bin Laden in Tora Bora in late 2001, and their reluctance to commit adequate troops or aid to the beleaguered nation for fear of entangling themselves in ‘nation building’. He also demonstrates how the attacks of 9/11 constituted a tactical mistake on the part of al-Qaeda since they brought about the exact opposite of bin Laden’s stated aim of removing US troops from Muslim lands and embroiled the organisation in a war it cannot possibly win.
However, when it comes to the origins of the Iraq War, Bergen is much less convincing. To read Bergen on Iraq is to get the impression that nobody considered Saddam’s regime a problem until the neo-cons came along with an unshakable determination to overthrow him, even if that meant fabricating evidence of Saddam’s WMD programme and making non-existent links between Iraq and al-Qaeda. Yet to make this position seem coherent he has to leave out a lot of important information. Not once does he mention Saddam’s numerous violations of UN resolutions or the fact that his military had fired at coalition forces protecting the no-fly zones over Iraq every day for ten years. Nor does he care to remind us that it was under the Clinton administration in 1998 that the Iraq Liberation Act was passed in the Senate declaring that it should be the policy of the United States to move Iraq into a post Saddam era. Of course, the Bush (and Blair) administrations attempted to frighten rather than persuade their populations into supporting the war in Iraq by using flawed, and ultimately dishonest, methods and Bergen is right to point this out. Yet, by completely ignoring Saddam’s undeniable record of crime; his constant flouting of UN resolutions; his campaigns of genocide; his invasions of neighbouring countries; and the state of perpetual fear and misery that he created in Iraqi society, Bergen is himself presenting a rather dishonest account of the origins of the Iraq war.
The author also contradicts himself in a number of places. For example, near the beginning of the book he expresses his surprise that so many have overlooked the important role of religion when discussing the ‘root causes’ of Islamic terrorism and bin Laden’s motivation. Yet a few pages later he declares that there can be no justification for al-Qaeda’s attacks in the Koran or other key texts and, for the rest of the book, continuously stresses that bin Laden is motivated primarily by US foreign policy. Of course, it is possible (and undoubtedly true) that bin Laden is motivated by both religion and foreign policy, but to deliberately emphasise the importance of religion on one page and then play it down just a few pages later seems a little odd.     
And there are also one or two nonsensical statements in the book. Take for instance:
Bush would style himself as a “wartime president,” but by way of sacrifice he stopped playing golf, cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans, and did not institute a draft. At the height of the Battle of Britain in 1940, Churchill could say with some truth, “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.” After 9/11, never was so little asked from so many.
Apart from drawing a rather crude contrast to Churchill, what point is Bergen trying to make here? Is he seriously suggesting that President Bush should have implemented a draft; something commonly agreed by both right and left during the 1970s to constitute a form of slavery? And what does whether or not the president plays golf have to do with anything?
The book’s closing chapters are a great deal more persuasive, with Bergen laying out how the Bush administration – in the face of considerable opposition from the Democratic Party, foreign policy experts and the general public – decided to send more troops to Iraq and implement a counter insurgency strategy, thus helping to radically alter America’s fortunes in the war. This is followed by a superb chapter on the dilemma’s that confronted the incoming Obama administration in the deteriorating war in Afghanistan, in which Bergen manages in 25 pages to present a more interesting account of the challenges the administration faced and the options it considered, than Bob Woodward was able to do in his incredibly repetitive 400 page book on the subject, Obama’s Wars, released last year.
Ultimately, the book’s success lies in its ability to tell the story from both sides; to bring to light the misconceptions and miscalculations that both al-Qaeda and America made both before and after the events of 9/11. Though Bergen is convinced that al-Qaeda’s philosophy and tactics mean it is destined to eventually be defeated, he shows us that the longest war is not set to end any time soon.

by Matt Jones

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