Jan 16, 2012

Review of Longest War In Dawn (Pakistan)

COVER STORY: Not yet the end

IS America’s longest war over? As I write this review, Osama bin Laden’s death has just been announced and journalist and al Qaeda expert Peter Bergen is on CNN discussing the implications of this development on the ‘war on terror’. Bin Laden and al Qaeda were so closely linked — as Bergen explains in The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al Qaeda, membership of the group was based on pledging allegiance to the man, not the organisation — that his killing at the hands of US special forces in Abbottabad raises questions about whether the organisation will even continue to exist. But if there is one lesson in the book, written just months before bin Laden’s assassination, it is that his ideology will easily prove to be more enduring than the man himself. Bergen argues compellingly that al Qaeda was a broken organisation long before Monday’s events, and that 9/11, while a tactical win with the destruction it caused, was a grave strategic error that marked the beginning of the defeat of al Qaeda. In chillingly vivid detail he describes the pitched battle at Tora Bora in 2001 and bin Laden’s narrow escape from American forces through rugged mountain passes as over 200 fighters were killed in airstrikes. Since then, its leaders have been on the run, not always successfully, and if bringing down the US was bin Laden’s main goal, he failed miserably to attain it. But as the rest of the book lays out, what the man did do is inspire an ideology of violent anti-Americanism that has now been adopted and shaped by any number of offshoots along a wide spectrum of engagement with al Qaeda. In fact, Bergen argues, “in the longer term bin Laden’s ‘martyrdom’ would likely give a boost to the power of his ideas… while eliminating the top leadership of al Qaeda will be useful in terms of seeking justice for the victims of 9/11… make no mistake: This will not end the war of the terrorists.” What follows the Tora Bora story is an account of the varied ways in which new terrorists have engaged with al Qaeda: lone wolves like Mohammed Bouyeri, who assassinated Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh; individuals like Faisal Shahzad, who trained in Afghanistan or Pakistan but was not directed by al Qaeda; al Qaeda-directed cells such as the one that carried out the 7/7 attacks in London; and groups that pledged allegiance to bin Laden such as al Qaeda in Iraq and the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. This story of the development and spread of bin Laden’s ideology also serves as a warning that America will need to tread carefully in the Middle East if it wants to contain it. Bin Laden turned from a jihadi fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan to a man who publicly declared war on America for one reason — US foreign policy. As Bergen explains, he was neither jealous of American freedom, as was suggested by some commentators after 9/11, nor particularly driven by a perception of cultural immorality in the United States. It was American involvement in the Muslim world, from Palestine to the Gulf War to Somalia (and later in Iraq and Afghanistan), combined with the theories of jihadist scholar Sayyid Qutb, that convinced bin Laden that violent attacks were justified, regardless of civilian casualties, on both the US and its Muslim allies. That is the type of exposition Bergen does best in this book, a user-friendly overview of the life and times of bin Laden, al Qaeda and some of its offshoots and followers. Unlike the wonderfully detailed Ghost Wars, for example, in which Steve Coll lays out in painstaking detail the CIA’s attempts to defeat al Qaeda, Bergen’s is a quicker guide to Bin Laden’s personal narrative, the rise and fall of al Qaeda, and the fallout from it, such as the blunder that was the war in Iraq, the moral and legal issue of Guantanamo Bay and torture, and the nature of terrorist attacks after 9/11. Given Sunday’s events, The Longest War is important, now more than ever, as a refresher course on bin Laden’s story and a reminder that the danger has not passed with his death. The beliefs and some of the methods of bin Laden continue to inspire his followers, and although he is gone, al Qaeda’s offshoots continue to plot anti-US attacks and the setting up of Islamic regimes in any number of countries; Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan are extreme examples of the mayhem that can result. The reviewer is Senior Assistant Editor at the monthly Herald The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al-Qaeda (CURRENT AFFAIRS) By Peter L. Bergen Simon & Schuster, New York ISBN 978-0-7432-7893-5 473pp. Rs2,350