Jan 14, 2011

Globe and Mail/The Longest War


Mission not accomplished, actually


From Saturday's Globe and Mail

On Sept. 11, 2001, I was among a team of reporters who drove from Toronto to New York City. We arrived at midnight. It was the fist time I ever saw the Manhattan skyline, and it was dwarfed by an enormous smoke plume. Nearly 3,000 people were underneath the rubble of what had been the World Trade Center.

The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al-Qaeda, by Peter L. Bergen, Free Press. 473 pages, $32 The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al-Qaeda, by Peter L. Bergen, Free Press. 473 pages, $32

To see this was to feel as if New York had been hit by an inscrutable bolt from the blue – not merely Boeing 767s commandeered by terrorists. Very few people had insights into al-Qaeda in those days; I certainly had none. In fact, most “authorities” – journalists, academics, intelligence professionals and government officials – knew far less than they should have known.

The consequence? A year and a half after the Afghanistan-trained suicide hijackers struck, American soldiers were busying themselves with toppling statues of Saddam Hussein – in Baghdad. This rapid-fire chain of global events had had its own convoluted logic, one that had cried out at almost every point for more sober assessment.

Many volumes have since been published on the 9/11 attacks, the rise of jihadist ideology and the intelligence failures of the U.S. government. Now, one journalist seeks to synthesize much of this into one cogent, pithy work, and he is a writer uniquely qualified for the job.

Peter Bergen looked Osama bin Laden in the eye in 1997. He was a prescient television producer then, part of a CNN team that interviewed the Saudi militant in Afghanistan to document al-Qaeda’s declaration of war against the United States.

Most of us failed to take heed of what Bergen had to say then, so we might want to pay more attention to what he is saying now. Almost 15 years after his meeting with bin Laden, Bergen has penned The Longest War as an authoritative history. For the breadth of the undertaking, this is a surprisingly short book (350 pages plus another 100 pages of footnotes). The distillation is made all the more surprising given that Bergen’s roster of interviewees incorporates dozens of top counterterrorism officials – and top terrorists.

Most of what’s covered is not new. The author is a fox darting across a lot of well-covered ground, and not a hedgehog given to lingering long in any particular surrounding. The journey starts with al-Qaeda splitting from the ranks of the “Afghan Arabs” who fought the Soviets during the 1980s. It ends with the Obama Administration grappling with the continuing spread of al-Qaeda’s sinister ideology, which continues to metastasize and inspire bombings.

Bergen underplays his access and his revelations for the sake of narrative flow and sweep. The Longest War is a pithy primer if you haven’t tackled the rest of the non-fiction canon documenting the conflict formerly known as the “War on Terrorism.” It’s also a good place to garner perspective if you’re struggling divine the significance of various insights that have popped up hither-thither over the years. Bergen delights in skewering canards about al-Qaeda circulated by politicians, academics and lesser journalists.

Neither a prophet of doom nor particularly reassuring about the future, Bergen sees al-Qaeda and its ilk as chronic threats. But he urges rational analysis of what al-Qaeda and its allies can do (inspire and perpetrate spectacular attacks) and what they can’t (govern Muslims or acquire nukes).

The book takes considerable pains to document al-Qaeda’s plots, its relationships to its terror-group allies and self-starting acolytes in the West.

One of The Longest War’s great strengths is also how it compiles complaints from dozens of counterterrorism officials about the ideological blinkers worn by the Bush cabinet – the gang that began to plot to the invasion of Iraq within hours of the World Trade Center towers falling.

Having ignored prior warnings about 9/11, the Republicans are also damned for their misguided invasion of Iraq, and nearly allowing the Taliban to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in Afghanistan. Bergen saves the best criticisms for his account of the battle of Tora Bora – Osama bin Laden faced imminent capture there in 2001, yet slipped away to Pakistan after U.S. generals inexplicably failed to cordon off the battlefield.

The Bush administration's homeland threat warnings often coincided with times when U.S. citizens were called to the polls, Bergen reminds readers. He does credit Bush for rightly signing off on the military “surge” in Iraq – a politically risky strategy that helped quell the insurgency – but it’s a compliment delivered with a powerful backhand.

“None of these positive developments was to suggest the Iraq War was somehow post facto worth the blood and treasure consumed,” Bergen writes, citing the 4,500 U.S. soldiers killed, the 30,000 wounded, the minimum 100,000 Iraqis killed and the $1-trillion-plus cost.

It remains to be seen whether “Obama’s War” – the renewed U.S. effort to fight the Taliban – will be successful. Unlike some writers, Bergen doesn’t peer into crystal balls. Nor does he reconstruct dialogue or cut journalistic corners for dramatic effect. Valuing accuracy above all else, he permits himself very few flourishes; he only tersely describes the gamut of al-Qaeda security measures he had to run to meet bin Laden, and that doesn’t come until page 339.

This is a weakness as well as a strength. Bergen has penned memoirs in the past. The Longest War is his history of a daunting subject that succeeds where other books have failed. That's because the author was one of the few people onto al-Qaeda years before the instant experts cropped up. And he is still there watching, long after most of those so-called experts packed it in and moved on.

Colin Freeze writes on national security issues for The Globe and Mail .