Jan 06, 2011

The Longest War review in the Economist

The Economist
January 8, 2011
U.S. Edition
History of an unfinished fight;
The war on terror
LENGTH: 633 words

HIGHLIGHT: How America got it wrong

HISTORIANS may well wonder one day at the fuss America's rulers made over a few thousand Islamist fanatics. They will certainly look unkindly on some of the steps taken against them.

America has not suffered a major terrorist incident within its borders since the September 11th attacks almost a decade ago. But it has spent over a trillion dollars on two inglorious wars, in which thousands have perished. It has insulted some of its oldest allies, tortured its enemies and helped inspire a surge in Islamist militancy in many countries. America's armed forces, though still supreme, are weary and in need of reinvestment. Osama bin Laden

is still at large and his former hosts, the Taliban, are running riot. The war on terror, as it was wrongly called, has been damaging to America and the world.

To read "The Longest War" by Peter Bergen, an American journalist and al-Qaeda watcher, is to be amazed afresh at how badly America has handled the affair. Largely ignorant of al-Qaeda, Islam and weak states, the Bush administration's response to September 11th was, he argues, conditioned more by its existing prejudices and strategic impulses than by any proper assessment of the terrorist threat. The invasion of Iraq, based on false intelligence and mendacious claims of a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, was the most obvious example of this. The administration's enthusiasm for such interrogation techniques as simulated drowning, which yielded little or no crucial new intelligence, according to Mr Bergen, was another. So, too, was the bungling of the invasion of Afghanistan. In 2002 America had 8,000 troops there and an aversion to nation-building; now it has 100,000 and faces the possibility of defeat.

So the war is not over. Yet weariness of it, a change of American leadership, the emergence of other pressing problems and a widespread suspicion that the terrorists' capability was exaggerated have made it less prominent. That makes Mr Bergen's readable and well-reported appraisal timely. His book also includes much fascinating new detail on several important episodes, including the battle of Tora Bora and Mr bin Laden's

escape from it, America's "enhanced interrogation" programme and the deliberations leading to the troop surges in Iraq in 2007 and in Afghanistan this year. But Mr Bergen does not provide an especially novel analysis of these events, some of which—especially of the Iraq war—have been covered more thoroughly elsewhere. And where American sources are thin on the ground, his account is less accomplished, particularly on Pakistan, which is arguably the most important battlefield.

A bigger criticism is that Mr Bergen does not offer the considered judgment on al-Qaeda that his endeavour cries out for. Despite all his stringent and justified criticism of America's prosecution of the war, he never spells out quite what the right response to September 11th should have been. Indeed, it is not altogether clear how big a threat he thinks al-Qaeda poses. He argues, convincingly, that American decision-makers frequently exaggerated its capability, and even that they revitalised al-Qaeda, in Iraq and elsewhere, through bad policy. He writes penetratingly about the spreading opposition to jihadist militancy among mainstream Muslims. Yet he dismisses the view of some Europeans that al-Qaeda is essentially a law and order problem—more or less arguing, with odd logic, that since it declared war on America, then America must be at war.

After a decade of conflict, it is surprising that al-Qaeda is not better understood. Perhaps future historians will consider several of the war's unintended outcomes, including a chastened America, a stronger Iran and the accelerating descent of Pakistan, to have been more significant than Mr bin Laden

and his gang.