we lose, it's going to be because of the civilians."
This pre-emptive attempt to define the epitaph of the Afghanistan war (made by a U.S. official at NATO) could almost be the one-line summary of Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Little America. The author himself spreads the blame even wider. "Our government was incapable of meeting the challenge. Our generals and diplomats were too ambitious and arrogant. Our uniformed and civilian bureaucracies were rife with internal rivalries... Our development experts were inept. Our leaders were distracted."
Little America is a well-researched, clearly-written exposé of the debates, disputes and political skullduggery between those involved in the Afghanistan "surge" in 2009. I found it easy to read: it mixes together comedy, tragedy, suspense and political analysis.
It is inevitably influenced by the people who talked to the author, who include (to judge from the endnotes) a large number of people in or close to the U.S. military; military perspectives predominate. And the losers in the book are more numerous than the winners.
Loser: Little America. It turns out that this project, intended to revitalize Afghanistan's agriculture in Helmand in the 1950s, essentially failed. The story of its failure -- over-ambitious, overfunded projects unsuited to Afghan realities -- is eerily prescient.
Loser: The Afghan Army, which comes across as badly-led and inept. "It's better for us," an Afghan soldier tells Chandrasekaran, "to let the Americans chase the Taliban."
Loser: The civilian surge. The image of drunken party-goers urinating against the outer wall of the U.S. Embassy's political section is hard to forget. But there is a lot of truth in the broader, more serious point. Security rules stopped civilians from engaging with Afghans, making the civilians' presence in Afghanistan in the first place a very expensive exercise in futility.
Loser: USAID. Chandrasekaran describes its bizarre war against the sensible, if
short-term, idea of combating drugs production by subsidising alternative
crops. "Their thinking is all about free trade," a USAID official is quoted
saying about the agency's management. "But what about the goal of keeping
people from shooting at our troops?"
Loser: The Brits and the Canadians. I thought this was going to happen as soon as I read the sentence "British commanders planned to show the Americans... how the pros executed counterinsurgency". As ever, pride came before a fall. By the end of the book, the British are suffering casualties at a higher proportion than the Americans, and are not too proud to ask the Marines for help. The Canadians, who preferred to run Kandahar with far fewer troops than the British and without Marine help, also come in for criticism. (As Chandrasekaran hints, the underlying problem was the original decision that provinces of Afghanistan should each be farmed out to separate NATO allies. Surely, the reader might think, there could have been a better way for NATO allies to work together than this.)
Loser: The chain of command. A U.S. company commander was transferred to a desk job as a punishment. His crime? Posting up remarks made by General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan. This was apparently an unwise move in a brigade whose commander disagreed with McChrystal's approach. And that wasn't the only time that McChrystal was thwarted by technically more junior staff. The Marines were largely outside his control, thanks to a deal they had made with the Pentagon prior to their deployment to Afghanistan (they reported to a separate, three-star general at US Central Command). McChrystal, despite nominally being the most senior military officer in Afghanistan, wasn't even able to shut down fast-food restaurants at the Kandahar Airfield, which he felt were distractions in a warzone.
Loser: President Obama, whose decision to surge and withdraw comes across as the worst of all worlds - not giving Afghans any reassurance that the Taliban would not come back in a few years' time, while meantime costing tens of billions of dollars and reducing pressure on the Afghan Army to do its job properly. "To many Afghans...more troops meant more insecurity," Chandrasekaran suggests. The book also makes the case that the President was ill-served by bickering among his senior staff.
Winner: The warlords and their militias - presented by Chandrasekaran as brutal and exploitative, but also as effective fighters against the Taliban. Take Spin Boldak police chief Abdul Razziq's militia: "Unlike Afghan army units, many of which needed to be prodded and led into battle, Razziq's troops charged right in."
Winner: Joe Biden, whose proposal of "counterterrorism-plus" in Afghanistan looks to have been dead on. Raids against Taliban commanders could still have continued without pinning down tens of thousands of U.S. troops in the field day after day.
Turning the pages of this book, I felt that I was reading the obituary of muscular nation-building. Chandrasekaran's conclusion suggests not only that America has failed in Afghanistan, but that it was bound to fail. "It wasn't America's war," he concludes.
the reduction in the Pentagon's budget and a shift to East Asia - where the
United States is less likely to get directly involved in combat -
Afghanistan-style interventions may indeed be things of the past. And it's hard
to feel sorry about it after reading this sentence:
"The United States was spending more each year to keep Marine battalions in Nawa and Garmser than it was providing the entire nation of Egypt in military and development assistance."
Nawa and Garmser: population, 160,000; remote agricultural communities; few from the area have ever travelled outside it. Egypt: population, 85 million; highly urbanised and connected by direct flights to the USA; birthplace of modern Islamic militancy and of the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
We need not stop at Nawa and Garmser. The whole operation in Afghanistan departed far from its original objectives, which were to deal a blow to al-Qaeda and reduce its chances of attacking America again. The United States could surely have dealt al-Qaeda a greater blow with the half a trillion dollars that it has spent in Afghanistan, if it had spent a large part of that money elsewhere (Egypt, Somalia, Yemen, Mali...). As this book implies, it would have done a better job in Afghanistan, too, if it had spent less money and been more focused on its original goal.
That is what makes me just a little bit more optimistic about Afghanistan than Chandrasekaran. He is giving the war in Afghanistan a fail grade: it was winnable, he says, but the West lost it -- and maybe was bound to lose it, because we just aren't configured to conduct and win such campaigns.
This may be premature. Public discontent with the war and President Obama's determination to pull back combat troops will likely now force a move to a new kind of U.S. presence in Afghanistan -- one that is small-scale, out of the faces of Afghan civilians, and long-term. It may or may not be enough to save Afghanistan from a renewed plunge into civil war; it will almost certainly set a limit on Taliban ambitions and make them keep their distance from al-Qaeda. It makes a great deal more sense than the Sisyphean labors that the United States has set itself for the last six years or so.
Gerard Russell headed the U.K. Government's
outreach efforts to Muslim audiences worldwide after September 11, 2001. He
subsequently worked as a diplomat in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, where
he headed the U.K. Government's political team. He was a Research Fellow at
Harvard 2009-10 and is writing a book on religious minorities in the Middle
East, to be published by Basic Books in 2013/14. He is fluent in Dari and Arabic.
DAVID FURST/AFP/Getty Images
On 5 October 2001, the London Evening Standard reported that a veteran commander of the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad was calling for then-U.S. President George W. Bush's imminent bombing campaign of Afghanistan to be delayed. The commander, whose name was Abdul Haq, needed time, he said, to implement his plan for an internal, peaceful toppling of the Taliban.
‘Every time I meet commanders who cross the mountains in darkness to brief me,' he said, ‘they are part of the Taliban forces, but they no longer support them. These men will join us and there are many of them. When the time is right they and others will rise up and this Taliban Government will be swept aside.'
Haq went on to add: "The people are starving, they are already against [the Taliban]."
But his voice, so authoritative when visiting President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to call for more support to the mujahideen during the Soviet war, was barely heard in the aftermath of September 11. The bombing started, and Abdul Haq began his perilous mission. Two weeks later, on 25 October 2001, he was dead.
In November 2001, after his death, Abdul Haq's obituaries were dismissive, even overtly condemning. Not only was the manner of his death questioned, but so too was his life and, implicit to that, his ‘value.' When the New York Times described him demeaningly as "a middle aged man on a mule" or a "privately financed freelancer trying to overthrow the Taliban" the implication was that there should be nothing to regret about his loss. In London, an unattributed piece in Private Eye added snidely, "Like so many erstwhile terrorists, Haq managed to reinvent himself as a ‘moderate' and a ‘peacemaker' -- so successfully that his murderous exploits were entirely omitted from every single obituary."
Other pieces begged to differ and one, written by a cultural anthropologist and former U.S. Diplomat to Afghanistan, had a different take on the story:
To hear them talk in Washington and Islamabad, you'd think there was some doubt. In fact, you'd think his death no great loss. Listen carefully. It's scared talk, the kind of stuff you hear from bureaucrats whose backsides are exposed.
Abdul Haq, they rush to insist, was on a mission of his own. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn't. Either way, it's shameful to demean him.
There is some doubt about how the man died and where and when. We know he was ‘questioned' and then executed. But was it by hanging with his body then used for swaying small-arms target practice, or was he shot in cold blood in a prison courtyard? It was in eastern Afghanistan -- but Jalalabad or Kabul? It was two weeks ago -- but late Thursday or early Friday? There's some doubt about who sent him and who betrayed him. There could even be confusion about his name were it not so well known:
‘Born Hamayoun Arsala 44 years ago, he became "Abdul Haq" -- Servant of Justice -- in the crucible of our Cold War's most decisive battleground.'
Kabul, January 2004
Towards the end of January 2004, I finally met the Taliban's Deputy Interior Minister, Mullah Khaksar. It was his boss, the Taliban Interior Minister, Mullah Razzaq, who had apparently given the orders for Haq to be killed.
The family told me that Khaksar had visited Haq in Peshawar after September 11 and helped him with his plan to overthrow the Taliban, intending to work with Haq in forming a broad-based government. The plan was for Khaksar to work with Khan Mir, another of Haq's jihadi commanders, in Kabul as Haq went into Afghanistan from the East on his mission. The two would work on turning over several divisions of the Interior Ministry. In the event though, Haq had been killed and captured before the fall of Kabul.
Khaksar had apparently turned himself over to the Karzai government following the routing of the Taliban and was now hiding out in a "safe house." At this stage there was still no Taliban Reconciliation Program.
I hooked up with my interpreter, Hanif and we headed in the direction of Khair Khana on a cold January day, the air thick with a winter freeze. Eventually we arrived at a rundown suburban house, stepped into a concrete hallway and were shown into a curtained room. The Mullah sat there alone. He had a shaggy dark beard, a voluminous dark grey turban and dark, spaniel-shaped eyes. I could see my breath in the cold air and was relieved when a young man arrived to stoke the bukhari stove heater and bring us green tea and nuts.
Khaksar's dark looks were utterly incongruous with his quiet, high-pitched voice and the phone which periodically jingled ‘happy birthday' from inside his salwar kameez. After some explanations of who I was, I asked whether, given the current situation, it might have been better for many members of the Taliban if Haq had not been killed?
Khaksar replied, "At the last days the friends of Abdul Haq in the Interior Ministry practically began a war. We were ready to act" he said, telling me Haq had wanted a broad-based government, like himself. Later, he had stayed at the Arsala house in Peshawar and spoken with Haq's brothers Haji din Mohammad and Haji Qadir. He told me that he had known the regime would collapse two years before it did. I asked why Mullah Razzaq had wanted Haq dead and Khaksar said:
He used his competence as it was an emergency situation. But he also said that, at this time, the Taliban still did not believe they would lose their power. They thought, rather naively, that Afghans would rise up against the foreign invaders in their support. They executed [Haq] as they thought the USA would rescue him and then he'd stand against the Taliban again. But the act [of killing Haq] was against human rights law and [Islamic] law. As he was killed without a fight and without a trial.
As to why the Taliban had killed Haq so fast, he said:
If he was alive and his programme had been a success, then from my point of view he would now be President of Afghanistan...If they had put him in jail the people would have been rising up and pushing for a revolution.
Again, his phone tinkled ‘happy birthday' from somewhere deep within his salwar kameez. Fixing me with his bottomless dark eyes he added, "A lot of people supported his plan, even in Khost, Paktia, Gardez and throughout Afghanistan."
These were the same places one of Haq's British supporters, nobleman and famed Afghan war photographer Sir John Gunston, had mentioned as being the backbone of the Taliban's hold over the south: the places which had fallen due to Haq's commanders and the willingness of the people who were fed up with the regime. Not due to some ‘secret deals' made by MI6 -- as asserted in the British press -- who had been nowhere to be seen when help was needed.
His comments echoed Gunston's assessment of the sad irony that, in Kabul, Abdul Haq had been deemed a threat to the Taliban, yet in Washington and London, those charged with knowing better were just blithely unaware. I asked Khaksar if it was too late to include moderate Taliban in the government. "Yes of course," he snapped. "But if not 100 percent fruitful, it could be 20 percent at least." It was a short interview. He had people to see, but he agreed to meet again the next day to talk more about the circumstances surrounding Haq's death.
Lucy Morgan Edwards is a former Political Advisor to the EU Ambassador in Kabul and author of The Afghan Solution: The Inside Story of Abdul Haq, the CIA and How Western Hubris Lost Afghanistan, from which the above passages are derived.
MICHEL PORRO/AFP/Getty Images
Real enemies will whisper about you. The murmursand hisses to discredit Ali Soufan have echoed through the community of opinionmakers and terrorism experts, and have even reached me. Shortly before Soufan's book, The Black Banners, was published, aproducer from a major media outlet spoke with me. "Was it true that Soufan had been a low-levelFBI employee, who could not speak with authority about the nature of theterrorist threats to the United States because he lacked the necessarysenior-level perspective? Wasn't he exaggerating his knowledge and role? Wasn't he a bit of a self-promoter?" theproducer asked.
I could not help but smile to myself as Ilistened; the same character assassination had happened to me when my own bookon interrogation and the War on Terror came out. I had been kept off a number of programs as aresult. I also knew that Soufan already hadbeen targeted this way several years earlier when his name first became public.I told the producer that Soufan's career and mine had overlapped on manyoccasions, and although we had never to my knowledge met, in many instances Iknew first-hand that Soufan's description of events and policies were accurate.
Soufan was an FBI special agent for eight years, arare native Arabic speaker in a professional FBI culture that was shaped byformer Marines, often Irish Catholic and working class, and which hadtraditionally viewed counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism work as secondtier specializations. CIA culture, too, although white collar rather than blue,viewed these specializations as adjuncts to the "real" work of espionage, whichwas to steal secrets and recruit spies from our historic enemies in the SovietUnion, North Korea, or Iran. It wouldprove an ironic twist that the Bush Administration also viewed terroristthreats as small-bore issues. Until 9/11,that is, after which the Bush Administration subjected us all to eight years oflarge-bore, misguided, and muscular obsessions. But, Soufan, the FBI officerswho had worked the first World Trade Center bombing case, and especially hisoriginal mentor, the head of the FBI's New York office, John O'Neill (killed onSeptember 11, 2001, at the base of the World Trade Center towers,) had long understoodthe seriousness of the jihadist threat from the mid-1990s-as had the ClintonAdministration and many in the CIA. Soufan quickly found himself playing a keyrole in the FBI's counterterrorism efforts, and spent a frantic decade tryingto piece together enough information to stop the Muslim terrorists trying tokill us.
TheBlack Banners at first seems to lose the reader inan endless series of incomprehensible names, unrelated dates, places, andcases. But what emerges from Soufan's welter ofdetails and minor episodes is his answer to one of the critical questions abouthow the U.S. should protect itself from terrorism.
Should counterterrorism work be approached as acriminal matter, or as a war which considers terrorists neither enemycombatants nor criminals? The issue, ofcourse, became instantly politicized after 9/11, as the Bush Administrationturned U.S. counterterrorism efforts into the "War on Terror," in so doingjustifying the jettisoning of habeascorpus, the utility of U.S. civilian courts for terrorism cases, and varioushistoric constraints on what American intelligence, military, and lawenforcement officials could do. Soufan's involvement in investigating most ofthe major al-Qaeda attacks and plots that have afflicted us, from the "BlindSheik" of the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, to al-Qaeda's attackagainst the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen, tothe long struggle to find Osama bin Laden, makes clear that painstakingcriminal and intelligence work-classic FBI investigations, relying on andshaped by the legal requirements of U.S. law-led to the perpetrators in waysthat made prosecution possible and, even more importantly, identified terroristorganizations, individual terrorists, and their plans and intentions.
Even as a sense of reassurance grows with eachharried, scrambling response Soufan and his colleagues make to new threats andincomprehensible bits of information our anger grows, too, as we become awareof a second critical theme of The BlackBanners. Certainly before 9/11, andeven after the reforms of the 9/11 Commission to the intelligence andcounterterrorism communities, the FBI and CIA were afflicted by bureaucraticinfighting, pettiness, and parochialism, while political leaders exploitedterrorist threats to serve political objectives not always related to thethreats themselves. Soufan relates what many in the intelligence communityexperienced: "Prior to the Iraq war,when there was a lot of pressure on the FBI from the White House to produce a"link" between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, the 9/11 Team's assessment, againand again, was that there was no link. The White House didn't like that answer, and told the bureau to lookinto it more and ‘come up with one.'" These vices may well have kept us fromstopping the 9/11 attacks and from far more quickly destroying al-Qaeda than wehave.
We share Soufan's repeated frustration with whatthe FBI and CIA called "the Wall." Neither agency shared information fully with the other, out of acombination of bureaucratic rivalry, mutual disdain, and honest belief thatlegal constraints forbid the sharing of information. I lived this self-harmmyself in the years prior to 9/11 with some of Soufan's New York FBIcolleagues, as one of them told me he would not share information I neededbecause I was a CIA officer, and he could not "compromise the source." I evenresponded, "but we are on the same team!" And so, our counterterrorist operation fizzled.
It is important that one bear first-hand witnessto our failings, as Soufan does. We shouldsit on the bathroom floor and cry with him after the 9/11 attacks, inheartbreak and anger, believing that we could have stopped the attacks and hadbeen done in by our own failings. "I threw up....my whole body was shaking....I wasstill trying to process the fact that the information I had requested aboutmajor al-Qaeda operatives, information the CIA had claimed they knew nothingabout, had been in the agency's hands since January 2000..." And what can one feel but the astonishment andcontempt Soufan relates when he was told in June 2001 that the Bushadministration had decided for political reasons to misrepresent the factsabout the Cole investigation, and toclaim the attack had not been the work of al-Qaeda and was, in any event,"stale." "Maybe to them," Soufan writes in understated anger, "but not to us,not to the victims and their families, and certainly not to bin Laden andal-Qaeda." Less than three months later the administration's Cold Warriorswould no longer be able to decide that the president could not "risk[political] capital going after al-Qaeda in Afghanistan."
The third theme of The Black Banners is the most disturbing, poignant and effectivesection of the book: Soufan's growingdisgust at how the interrogation methods developed and imposed on theintelligence community by the Bush Administration undermine our principles,break our laws, and do not work-indeed, how they actually hinder ourintelligence work. Soufan and hiscolleagues in the FBI had been successfully interrogating terrorists for yearsbefore the sudden introduction of "enhanced interrogation techniques"-"torture"is the word a layman would use. We seeconvincing, devastating proof in his detailed descriptions of how, in caseafter case (e.g., Jamal Al-Fadl, Abu Jandal, Abu Zubaydah, Khaled bin Rasheedand on and on) he and his colleagues successfully interrogated al-Qaeda membersby "establish[ing] rapport" with them, by talking about religion, or family, bysharing a taste for sweets, or by laughing with them, if necessary, rather thanby intimidating and physically abusing a detainee. He describes his and his colleagues'consternation when confronted with the snake oil salesmen who peddled andimposed "enhanced interrogation techniques"-a pseudo-expert the CIA brought into oversee interrogations, whom Soufan gives the appropriately menacing andfoolish sobriquet "Boris"-who had never conducted an interrogation, knewnothing about terrorism, and who knew nothing about intelligence work. "Why is this necessary" Soufan asked whenfirst confronted with such measures as sensory deprivation, overload, orhumiliation, "given that Abu Zubydah is cooperating?" As "Boris" tinkered with ever-increasinglyharsh, and ever-ineffective, ways to break detainees, Soufan and his colleaguestried to oppose them, but as was the case with everyone involved in theinterrogation program (myself included,) failed. Soufan and the FBI formally ceased anyinvolvement in the case. "I can nolonger remain here. Either I leave orI'll arrest [Boris]." It is tellingthat, to my knowledge, four individuals with first-hand experience ininterrogations during the "War on Terror," have spoken out about enhancedinterrogation methods: two Air Forceofficers (Steve Kleinman and another officer writing under the pseudonymMatthew Alexander), an FBI officer (Soufan), and a CIA officer (myself). All ofus, independently, make the same points: interrogation must be based on rapport; enhanced interrogation methodsare ineffective, counterproductive, immoral, illegal, and unnecessary, and theyhad nothing to do with obtaining much, if any, information not otherwiseobtainable. It is only apologists forthe Bush Administration, or Bush Administration policymakers themselves, whoassert that "enhanced interrogation techniques" are legal, or work. Soufan is devastating about thesemethods: "The person or persons runningthe program were not sane....the interrogation was stepping over the line fromborderline torture. Way over the line.""In FBI headquarters, the situation was clear....What Boris was doing wasun-American and ineffective."
The book on occasion manifests a characteristictypical of many memoirs: if only they had listened to me, well, we would havedone everything right. The damning factsin Soufan's book, though, are powerful. Yes, the FBI and CIA did so much right, but got so much wrong. The Bush Administration was purblind andarrogant, from dismissing terrorism at first, to down-playing the Cole case for political reasons, toinstituting ineffective, and illegal "enhanced interrogation" techniques. Well, I was there, too. Soufan's and my workoverlapped-we served with the same people, in the same places, dealt with thesame "Wall" imposed by the same people in the CIA and the FBI. We worked with remarkable men and women, whogave their souls to stopping the terrorist threats facing the UnitedStates. We reacted precisely the same ways to the same challenges, in almost literallythe same words, to what we experienced about terrorist threats, enhancedinterrogation and bureaucratic infighting. Soufan knows exactly what he is talking about, and does us all a serviceby having set it down in The Black Banner.
Glenn L. Carle is a former Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Transnational Threats, and spent 23 years in the Clandestine Servicesof the Central Intelligence Agency. He is also the author of TheInterrogator: An Education.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker's Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al-Qaeda,traces the evolution since 9/11 of U.S. counterterrorism strategy within themilitary, intelligence agencies, and law enforcement, the results of which are nowat work in combating al-Qaeda and its affiliates worldwide. Schmitt and Shankerdo a thorough job of pulling together all of the bits and pieces of the effortsacross the myriad agencies and departments now dealing with terrorism, and presentingthem in a fast paced, gripping story. The authors personalize the often mundanebureaucratic policy initiatives such as Presidential findings, resources, andauthorities needed to gradually shift our approach to terrorism through thestories of key individuals working on these issues over the last ten years.
The pair further put flesh on the bones of our counterterrorismcampaign by highlighting key milestones such as the raids on al-Qaeda leaders andsafehouses in places like Taji and Sinjar in Iraq. These battlefield detailsshow the reader how policy initiatives and technology developed in Washingtonand elsewhere actually played out on the ground, and how the treasure trove ofintelligence gained from such operations then, in turn, helped our policies shiftand enhanced our knowledge of al-Qaida's operations and leadership.
Shanker and Schmitt describe in detail how people like thePentagon's former Assistant Secretary for Special Operations and Low IntensityConflict (now Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence) Michael Vickers and then-JointSpecial Operations Command chief Gen. Stanley McChrystal pushed for the droppingof information barriers and the massive influx of resources that allowed forceson the ground to "find, fix, finish, exploit, and analyze" information gainedfrom the battlefield. This push in turn made the discovery of al-Qaeda's "Rolodex"at Sinjar and their "database" at Taji possible. The information proved sovaluable that it changed our diplomatic approach to countries producingterrorist recruits and harboring facilitation networks. Rather than keeping theinformation gleaned classified, McChrystal:
Decided to break down more walls.He believed that effective pressure could be mounted by sharing the informationwith the countries of origin for the jihadists -- even those countries withwhich the United States had little or no alliance in the struggle. And, evenmore, he thought the pages of the highly classified intelligence findingsshould be thrust into the very public marketplace of ideas to shape theinternational debate on terrorism.
From my own experience commanding Special Forces unitsduring multiple tours in Afghanistan, the authors' description of how themilitary and intelligence agencies grappled with integrating the various "INTs"(signals intelligence, human intelligence, imagery intelligence, etc) islargely accurate. Throughout my tour in 2006 we had to request these assetsfrom the theater headquarters level. However, by my next tour in 2009, not onlywere the various types of intelligence pushed out to my forces in the field,but we had actual representatives from the various intelligence agencies aswell as the FBI attached directly to my command, representing a sea change inour ability to exploit intelligence and target insurgent leadership.
The pair then turn to how our counterterrorism campaign hasgrown and developed beyond kill-capture missions to executing increasinglysophisticated counter-messaging campaigns, as well as efforts to counter all aspectsof terrorist networks, such as their ability to recruit and train, theirability to raise funds, and the legitimacy of their actions within the broaderMuslim world. The authors are critical of the Bush Administration for itsinitially narrow focus on kinetic missions, the lack of an overall strategy andthe paucity of resources applied to the campaign, and in turn, credit the ObamaAdministration for our now more expansive approach. Yet I would argue, based onmy time in the Pentagon's Office of Special Operations and Low IntensityConflict and later in the White House, that the current, more sophisticatedcounterterrorism campaign is a natural progression that benefitted greatly fromthe trial and error of previous years.
But setting these details and descriptions aside, perhaps thecentral theme running throughout Counterstrikeis the application of deterrence theory from the Cold war to the issue of counteringterrorism. Schmitt and Shanker do a masterful job of explaining the important elementsof the theory and the problems key Bush Administration officials had with usingtraditional tools to possibly deter a person willing to die for a cause. Theearly post-9/11 thinking was that terrorists did not seize or want to hold territoryin the traditional sense, were not afraid of retribution, and did not have resourcesthey needed or wanted to protect. In keeping with that thinking, theintelligence community's initial focus was to shift resources to fill itsinitial intelligence gaps, while the military focused on enhancing its abilityto kill or capture individual al-Qaeda leaders.
However, Schmitt and Shanker trace how a small group of formerCold War theorists slowly began gaining traction with their idea of a "newdeterrence." Douglas Feith, Barry Pavel, Tom Kroenig and others promoted thenotion that terrorists do indeed have issues they care about, issues that canbe used to pressure individual terrorists and whole groups. The advocates ofthe new deterrence argued that the "terrain" extremist organizations need tohold is the hearts and minds of the Muslim world. In a pivotal briefing toPresident Bush, Gen. James Cartwright, then head of America's nuclear arsenal,applied Cold War-era deterrence theory to terrorism, stating "If you canintroduce ambiguity and uncertainty into the minds of the attacker...if you canremove a certainty of success in striking an objective, if you make the pricetoo high, then you increase the opportunity the adversary will notstrike."
Furthermore, terrorist networks hoping for large-scaleaction and sustained campaigns need a constant stream of fresh recruits, fundsto operate, sanctuary in physical locations to train and prepare, and to knowthat their efforts will have an effect on the United States or other targets. Isaw these efforts first hand during my participation in the White House's CounterterrorismSecurity Group, where we worked to develop and implement a whole of government --military, diplomatic, intelligence, homeland defense, and development --approach to pressure, deter, and harden against terrorist groups, techniques thatcould indeed minimize the threat in the short term while slowly eroding it inthe long term. Over the course of time, as Schmitt and Shanker accuratelydescribe, we moved our efforts beyond reforming our bureaucracies andintegrating our streams of information to undermining the legitimacy of the extremists'ideology (later known as counter-messaging), disrupting financial flows, andworking through military or diplomatic means with other countries(as well asextending development aid to ungoverned spaces) to deny terrorists thesanctuary they need to operate.
Schmitt and Shanker, carefully following key individuals inthis process, go on describe how al-Qaeda began metastasizing and reacting toour initiatives by shifting their efforts onto the Internet. The authors giveinsight into enormously complicated issues of military versus intelligenceauthorities and the long-running debates within government about whether todestroy an extremist website facilitating the killing of Americans or continueto monitor the sites for additional information. The authors reference a numberof government sources to describe how we have purportedly gained the ability togo on to radical websites and post information and orders that areindistinguishable from legitimate orders issued by al-Qaeda's leadership,resulting in dissent and confusion among supporters and operators.
Finally, they describe the speed with which the cloak anddagger of counterterrorism on the Web is evolving and changing in chillingdetail. The most dangerous trend to emerge is the recruitment of home-grownfanatics to attack the West from within. Schmitt and Shanker highlight thecases of Najibullah Zazi, Nidal Hassan, and Faisal Shahzad to call attention toal-Qaeda's new dual track strategy of radicalizing individuals in the West throughthe internet to conduct smaller scale and harder to detect attacks with ahigher probability of success while still aiming to repeat a massive 9/11 styleattack.
Counterstrike willbe a revealing and informative read to the average reader, who may have spentthe last ten years only vaguely aware of simplified terms and governmentclichés popularly used in the media, from "drone strikes," to "intelligencefusion," and "connecting the dots." Schmittand Shanker effectively bring to life the confusing vernacular that mycolleagues in Washington national security circles use as part of theireveryday speech. The authors also effectively tell the story of ourcounterterrorism campaign by personalizing the struggles of key individuals whorecognized the need to radically change the way our law enforcement agencies,intelligence agencies, the military and our policy-making bodies did -- andstill do -- business.
Curiously, however, the vitally important issue of detaineeinterrogations and their significant contribution to the counterterrorismcampaign is missing from the book. I was surprised to not see an entire chapterdevoted to the detainee issue, given its centrality to the effort to understandterrorist networks, the important intelligence gained from the capture ofal-Qaeda members and fellow-travelers, and the controversy surrounding detaineetreatment and proper interrogation practices that persists to this day. In my own experience in eastern Afghanistan in2009, the information gained from detainees -- from that dealing with thecomplicity of the Pakistani Army with insurgent networks to tribal motivations behindindividual support for the insurgency -- was critical to our counterinsurgencyand counterterrorism efforts. In fact, at the strategic level, one of the maindrivers behind the push within the last administration to conductcross border raids into Pakistan rather than kinetic strikes, even with theinevitable diplomatic fallout they caused, was to create the possibility forcapturing key al-Qaeda leaders for the information they could provide.
Also left unexamined are the hugely significant implicationsof the Arab Spring on al-Qaeda's legitimacy. Schmitt and Shanker conclude Counterstrikewith a discussion of ‘How this Ends,' and the authors rightly discuss thetransformation of al-Qaeda from being an individual man and highly-ordered butsmall vanguard group to being an inspirational philosophy and a movement. However,I disagree with the authors' conclusion that "you can't destroy the idea of al-Qaeda."The philosophical underpinnings of the organization are currently crumbling inthe midst of peaceful protests in the Middle East rather than the violent jihadit preaches, which by nearly all measures has failed. Most damning is that the protestsmovements have not made the introduction of Islamic law a central point of contention.The much decried corrupt governments in North Africa and the Middle East arefalling one by one, and al-Qaeda is becoming less and less relevant on the ArabStreet. This could be the beginning of ‘How this Ends,' much as perestroika andthe solidarity movement marked the beginning of the end of communism as apopular ideal.
Overall, the educated lay reader who is going to pick upCounterstrike will find this book to be a well reported, well written dive intothe arcane world of counterterrorism over the past decade. It largely comportswith my own experiences both in the field and in Washington, and is asignificant contribution to our body of knowledge regarding our campaign thusfar in the "Long War" against al-Qaeda and affiliated groups.
Michael Waltz formerlyserved as a senior advisor for counterterrorism to Vice President RichardCheney and still serves as a U.S. Army Special Forces officer in the reservecomponent. He is currently Vice President for Strategy at Metis Solutions, LLC.
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The ten-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks has led tostock-taking of the attacks and their legacy. Even after ten years, debates remain fierce about the scope of thethreat, and the proper nature of any response.
Making sense of the aftermath of 9/11, the subject of JasonBurke's The 9/11 Wars, is amonumental task -- but Burke is up to the job. The 9/11 Wars is insightful, thorough, and at times fascinating. Burkebrings the reader from villages in Afghanistan and Iraq to slums in London andFrance, offering individual portraits of combatants and those overrun by warwhile also weaving in government policies and scholarly research to portray thebroader context. The resulting tapestry leaves the reader more informed, thoughoften appalled by policymakers' ignorance and furious when well-intentionedpolicies backfire.
Burke himself is well-qualified for his ambitious task. Aveteran reporter for The Guardian andThe Observer, he has writtenextensively on al-Qaeda, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. The 9/11 Wars draws on a wide range of sources and, in contrast tothe works of many journalists, is meticulously documented.
Burke's work is a book big in scope and, weighing in at a hefty752 pages, in substance. Such size is understandable. As he points out, theconflicts associated with 9/11's aftermath are not one but many, and each onehas its own intricacies. Burke is at hisbest giving ground truth to the war on terrorism. He claims his book is aboutpeople, not politicians, and for the most part he stays true to his promise.
The United States and al-Qaeda, Burke contends, repeatedlymisunderstood the complexity of the societies in which they waged their wars. Whetherit was trying to impose Western concepts of women's rights on villages inAfghanistan or viewing the Kurdistan-based terrorist group Ansar al-Islam asfriendly to Saddam Hussein's regime (when it was in fact hostile to the former),the United States frequently was its own worst enemy. Nor do U.S. allies farebetter. Indeed, after the July 2005terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom, the discourse in Europe on terrorism becameparticularly absurd. Muslimorganizations had embraced a crude anti-Americanism and made claims that they werereceiving Nazi-like treatment from European governments, while nativistscaricatured Muslims as brutal rapists.
Al-Qaeda, however, fares even worse in Burke's telling. It wasoften disorganized and fractious, held together by personal links rather thanfirm institutional ties. Attacks oncivilians turned locals against al-Qaeda in places like Jordan and Indonesia,squandering the goodwill its fighters had gained from their battles againstU.S. soldiers. Striking at Americans inIraq was seen as heroic, Burke points out, "But when the violence came home itprovoked a very different reaction. Thesight of blood on one's own streets, the dismembered bodies of one's owncompatriots, the grieving parents who could have been one's own ... turnedentire populations away from violence." As they lost popularity, the terroristsrelied more on coercion -- and in so doing made themselves even lesspopular.
Burke's fundamental argument is a simple one: the local isthe enemy of the global. For the United States, this meant that grandiosemissions to transform the Arab world into a mirror image of Western democracyled to insurgency and scorn. For al-Qaeda, attempts to impose an Islamic stateran into stiff opposition from nationalists, practitioners of more traditionalforms of Islam, tribal leaders, and others with a stake in their long-establishedways of life. In the battle against al-Qaeda, "Bloody-minded localparticularism" is America's greatest ally.
Burke at times offers guarded praise for U.S. and alliedpolicies after 2006. The new U.S. counter-insurgency manual, for example,stresses cultural sensitivities and local concerns as a way to win the war,while Burke describes how deradicalization programs in Europe and the MiddleEast offer a softer, but in his view often more effective, form ofcounter-terrorism.
Al-Qaeda, in contrast, remains under siege. To secure aplace to hide its leaders, the group often must avoid training, planning, andrecruiting on a large scale. Conditions forwould-be fighters hiding out in the tribal parts of Pakistan are much worsethan they were before 9/11 under the Taliban in Afghanistan. Burke relates howone Belgian recruit who got malaria was "left in the corner" and "given a jabevery few days by a kid who was the little brother of the local doctor." Even al-Qaeda'smany affiliates, which offer some bench strength to the group, often do notheed the central leadership, or frequently they lack popularity themselves. Asa result, the much-vaunted "network of networks," he argues, is "battered anddisjointed."
Pakistan, which Burke correctly identifies as the mostimportant theater in the 9/11 wars, comes off the most poorly (thoughAfghanistan is a close second). Use of jihadist proxies has long been part ofPakistan's overall strategy, and the Pakistani security establishment remainscommitted to them, even after 9/11 and subsequent violence in Pakistan showedthat the militants were off the leash. Sadly, Burke finds that in this dividedcountry there is more unity than ever on one issue: that the United States and its allies arepart of an anti-Pakistan and anti-Muslim conspiracy.
Perhaps the biggest weakness of The 9/11 Wars -- one common to many accounts of counter-terrorism-- is that it misses much of the day-to-day of intelligence gathering andpolice work against suspected jihadists around the world. The CIA is blastedfor its "extensive [program] of kidnapping suspects overseas, illegaldetention, collusion and direct participation in torture." However, thenear-constant, and largely successful, intelligence effort against al-Qaedagets little attention. In countries as far apart (politically as well asgeographically) as Sweden, Malaysia, Morocco, and Russia, security serviceshunt suspected jihadists with U.S. support and guidance. Such behind-the-scenesarrests rarely make good stories, but they put pressure on al-Qaeda and itsallies worldwide, making it far harder for the organization to communicate,plan, and conduct attacks. Indeed, the biggest threats emanate from where counter-terrorismcooperation is poor due to the host country's support for jihadists (Pakistan)or lack of governance (such as in Somalia or Yemen).
In its attempt to be comprehensive, the book at times offerstoo much detail. The story of the U.S. fiasco in Iraq has been told, and toldwell, in other books, and another detailed repetition won't offer most readerstoo much (though the additional attention on the followers of radical Shi'acleric Moqtada al-Sadr is most welcome, as their role in the Iraq conflict isoften poorly understood). While the ups and downs of terrorism andcounterterrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan are less-known, some of thematerial could be condensed, as the reader may get bogged down in each twistand turn and lose sight of the bigger picture.
The 9/11 Wars wentto press as the Arab Spring broke out and al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden waskilled, so understandably Burke doesn't have much to add on thesetransformative events beyond the most general analysis. Such events, however,are in keeping with Burke's theme that local politics and the aspirations ofordinary people shape the battlefield, and that the most profound events areoften the least expected.
Burke ends, appropriately, on a sober and grim note: thebody counts. As he points out, there is no clear winner of the 9/11 wars, but"losers are not hard to identify." Thetens of thousands dead from the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan arelikely to be joined by tens of thousands more in the next decade. New theaters,ranging from Yemen to Nigeria, may also become enflamed. Stopping theconflagration is beyond the skill and means of even the best of leaders, but ifthey avoid the mistakes Burke identifies, they can better shield their owncitizens and avoid adding fuel to the fire.
Daniel Byman is theauthor of A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of IsraeliCounterterrorism. He is a professor atGeorgetown University and the research director of the Saban Center atBrookings.
RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images
Were Shakespeare alive, he would find ample material for a high tragedy among the players in veteran intelligence correspondent Joby Warrick's new book, The Triple Agent. All the ingredients are there, including betrayal, shame, heroism, and more than one person with a recklessly determined hubris worthy of King Lear himself. Yet as those who have operated in the world of human intelligence will viscerally feel, this is not cathartic fiction, but a factual account of a modern day human intelligence operation gone terribly wrong, involving real men and women, with all the failings thereof. The Triple Agent provides a riveting look at the disastrous attempt by the CIA and their partners in the Jordanian General Intelligence Department (GID) to maneuver the Jordanian doctor-cum-cyber-jihadist, Humam al-Balawi, into penetrating the leadership of al-Qaeda.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
The past week has witnessed major attacks on key Pakistani military and intelligence facilities by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a group that for the past several years has fought an increasingly brutal and brash war in the heart of the Pakistani state. Yet while the attacks, and in particular the lengthy siege of the Mehran naval base in Karachi, have brought condemnation on the military for lax security procedures, few within Pakistan have openly questioned the state's long-running dance with militant groups, many of whom cooperate closely while alternately working with and fighting Pakistan. But a string of events in the past few years have made the question of Pakistani support for - or allowance of - terrorist and militant groups unavoidable.
HASHAM AHMED/AFP/Getty Images
Osama bin Laden's death at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALs ignited debate about al-Qaeda's future as well as the future of militancy in Pakistan, where various outfits retain the capability to strike locally and globally. In the near term, analysts expect al-Qaeda Central's leaders in Pakistan will seek to ensure their security and execute a succession plan in the wake of bin Laden's capture, necessitating a communications lockdown and forestalling any direct retaliation. Instead, al-Qaeda Central is likely to rely on other outfits to respond on its behalf, either locally or globally. It already has called on fellow Muslims in Pakistan "to rise up and revolt to cleanse this shame that has been attached to them by a clique of traitors and thieves who sold everything to the enemies."
BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images
I was in Germany when Osama bin Laden was killed in a U.S. military operation in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 2. German news coverage of the killing repeatedly raised one question about the incident: Did the attack violate international law? An interviewer on ZDF television asked this of former U.S. ambassador to Germany, John Kornblum, who responded that he was sure it was lawful. But that was all he said - he did not explain why.
The Ambassador is probably correct, but it is a closer case than he may realize. The question turns on one critical factor: President Obama's orders to the Navy SEAL team that carried out the raid on bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad.
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
News of Osama bin Laden's death broke last night just in time for this morning's papers to carry on their front pages his wiry-bearded ascetic's face and their own triumphant headlines. Thus the latest, but surely not the last, in the grim pageant of spectacle that has marked our decade of the Global War on Terror: apocalyptic Manhattan, bombs over Baghdad, the naked figures of Abu Ghraib, and killer drones buzzing over the western Himalayas.
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In what Afghan government spokesman Waheed Omar called a "disaster," at least 476 prisoners escaped yesterday from Kandahar's Sarposa prison, after an audacious nighttime operation by the Taliban that reportedly involved the digging of a 320-meter tunnel underneath the Kabul-Kandahar highway and the involvement of three prisoners who were previously informed of the escape plans (NYT, AP, Guardian, BBC, AJE, Pajhwok, CNN, AFP). Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told journalists in an email that the tunnel took five months to build and freed 541 prisoners, including 106 Taliban commanders, while another spokesman claimed the escaped detainees included four provincial commanders (AP). Sarposa, which is under Afghan control, was the site of a massive prison break in 2008 in which nearly 900 inmates escaped (WSJ).
The Pakistani government would like the CIA's aggressive drone campaign "suspended" and only resumed under "new rules" and "formalized terms," according to a Pakistani military official familiar with discussions between the two nations.
Only then, in the instances where there was "compelling evidence" that a militant "high value target" had been located and that the operation was jointly coordinated between Pakistan and the United States, would the Pakistani government sanction a drone strike in the future, the official said.
The Pakistani official pointed out that there have been more than 100 reported CIA drone strikes in Pakistan in 2010 -- a record number -- yet almost no one killed in these strikes were "high value targets," such as leaders in al-Qaeda or allied militant groups. Instead, the official said, the vast majority of the victims of the strikes have been militant foot soldiers or civilians.
According to an independent count of the drone strikes maintained by the New America Foundation, there were 118 U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan in 2010 killing somewhere between 600 and 1,000 people.
To read the rest of this article, visit CNN.com, where this was originally published.
Peter Bergen, the editor of the AfPak Channel, is the Director of the National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation, a senior fellow at New York University's Center on Law and Security, and the author of The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al Qaeda. He is a national security analyst for CNN.
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
Day in court
Raymond Davis, the CIA contractor who shot and killed two Pakistanis in Lahore in late January, has just been released by Pakistani authorities after the families of the victims agreed to accept compensation from him (BBC, Reuters, AP, AFP, ET). A lawyer for the family said they were "forcibly taken" to the jail and "made to sign papers" pardoning him (ET, Reuters). Davis has flown to London, according to some reports. Earlier today, a judge in Lahore had formally charged Davis with two counts of murder (AJE, Reuters, Dawn, ET).
Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
One of the first cables released by the website WikiLeaks was a May, 2009 cable regarding the delay of removing High Enriched Uranium (HEU) by the U.S. from Pakistan's Atomic Research Reactor-1 (PARR) near Islamabad. In 2007, the Pakistani government agreed to allow the U.S. to ship the unknown quantity of HEU back to the U.S. However, in 2009 when U.S. technical experts arrived to discuss the fuel transfer, the Pakistani government balked for fear of local media backlash of the U.S. "stealing" Pakistani fuel. The event provided one more example of the poor relationship between the two countries and the U.S. not respecting Pakistani national concerns.
TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images
Exactly 10 years ago this month, just days after the inauguration of George W. Bush as president, Richard Clarke, the top counterterrorism aide in the White House, wrote a now famous memo warning the administration of the challenge posed by al-Qaeda. He "urgently" requested a high-level review of American efforts to deal with Osama bin Laden and his terrorist organization. The warning was not heeded-and, even if it had been, there is no way of knowing whether the 9/11 attacks could have been prevented. The attacks came, and in their aftermath, encouraged by political leaders and national-security experts, a particular view of terrorism and of al-Qaeda took hold, and remains entrenched to this day. The idea, simply put, is that Islamist terrorism, spearheaded by al-Qaeda, poses an "existential" threat to America and the West. That sentiment was repeatedly voiced by Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Tony Blair, and many others. We continue to hear it today.
That reaction was perhaps understandable, but it was always wrong. Few terrorist actions pose an existential threat, though the fear engendered by terrorism-particularly if that fear is stoked, manipulated, and institutionalized-may well accomplish what attacks themselves cannot. But whatever harm the terminology may have done, the language of existential threat also blinds us to what has long been a basic truth: it is not the West that faces an existential threat, but al-Qaeda. About two months after 9/11, bin Laden boasted to a group of supporters, "When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse." The weak horse turned out to be bin Laden's own. During the past decade, misguided actions taken in the name of the War on Terror-notably the invasion of Iraq, the bungled war in Afghanistan, and the heavy-handed approach to the treatment of prisoners-have bought bin Laden and his allies some time. These actions have won a certain amount of sympathy among Muslims for the Islamist cause. But they have not changed the underlying reality: al-Qaeda and groups that share its ideology are on the wrong side of history.
To read the rest of this article, visit VanityFair.com, where this was originally published.
Peter Bergen, the editor of the AfPak Channel, is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and at New York University's Center on Law and Security, and the author of The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda's Leader. He is a national security analyst for CNN.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
Soon after the 9/11 attacks, then-U.S. President George W. Bush gave "non-negotiable demands" to his Pakistani counterpart Pervez Musharraf, telling the general that he "had to decide whose side he was on" and the former dictator revealed in 2006 (if he can be believed) that he was also given the threat that Pakistan would be bombed "back to the Stone Age" in the absence of cooperation.
Eric Draper/The White House via Getty Images
An incredible flood
The website WikiLeaks.org released roughly 92,000 government documents related to the war in Afghanistan from 2004-2010 yesterday evening, after giving the documents to the New York Times, The Guardian, and Germany's Der Spiegel weeks ago (NYT, Guardian, Guardian, Der Spiegel, NYT). Composed in large measure of "secret" reports and cables from the U.S. military, the initial review of the documents reveals new details about multiple aspects of the war, including civilian casualties caused by international forces, the increased use of sometimes unreliable armed drones, Pakistan's alleged role in supporting various Taliban and militant factions and suspicion of Iranian involvement as well, secret special operations task forces that hunt Taliban and al Qaeda leaders, formerly unrevealed reports that the Taliban may have used heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles against coalition helicopters, and increased evidence that Afghan government corruption is undermining efforts to win over the Afghan population (Wash Post, AJE, CNN, Guardian WSJ, Atlantic, Danger Room, Guardian, Guardian).
LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images
Restrepo, a documentary that tracks an Army platoon serving in a dangerous part of northeast Afghanistan near the Pakistani border a little more than two years ago, arrives as a summer of discontent and uncertainty over the Afghanistan war unfolds in America. As I watched the opening scenes of the movie, a wave of déjà vu washed over me -- I have seen this movie several times before, and it doesn't end nice.
Restrepo is the movie of the year that Americans should see but most won't. The film won't likely compete with the choices of an American public seeking distraction from economic malaise, an oil spill, and not least but usually last as an afterthought in our national consciousness: a war in Afghanistan not going so well. Restrepo has one similarity with many of the box office hits of the summer -- the latest installments of the Twilight saga, Toy Story, and Shrek or revamped versions of the Karate Kid and an updated movie version of the 1980s television show the A-Team -- they are all retreads containing figments of the past and similarities to previous movies.
John Moore/Getty Images
Four days before the fall of Kabul in November 2001, Osama bin Laden was still in town. The Al Qaeda leader's movements before and after September 11 are difficult to trace precisely, but, just prior to the attacks, we know that he appeared in Kandahar and urged his followers to evacuate to safer locations in anticipation of U.S. retaliation. Then, on November 8, he was in Kabul, despite the fact that U.S. forces and their Afghan allies were closing in on the city. That morning, while eating a meal of meat and olives, he gave an interview to Hamid Mir, a Pakistani journalist who was writing his biography. He defended the attacks on New York and Washington, saying, "America and its allies are massacring us in Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir, and Iraq. The Muslims have the right to attack America in reprisal." Six months later, when I met Mir in Pakistan, he told me that the Al Qaeda leader had, on that day, appeared to be in remarkably good spirits.
Kabul fell on November 12, and bin Laden, along with other Al Qaeda leaders, fled to Jalalabad, a compact city in eastern Afghanistan surrounded by lush fruit groves. (He was quite familiar with the area, having maintained a compound in a Jalalabad suburb in the 1990s.) Tracking bin Laden closely was Gary Berntsen, a bear-sized CIA officer with a pronounced Long Island accent, who arrived in Kabul on the day it fell. Berntsen had been serving in Latin America on September 11 when he was yanked to run the CIA's fast-moving ground operations in Afghanistan. It was a perfect job for an operative with a distinctly independent and aggressive style.
By November 14, Berntsen was receiving a stream of intelligence reports from the Northern Alliance that the Al Qaeda leader was in Jalalabad, giving pep talks to an ever-growing caravan of fighters. Berntsen dispatched an eight-man CIA team to the city. To provide them with local guides, he made contact with Hazarat Ali--an Afghan commander, longtime opponent of the Taliban, and nose-picking semi-illiterate. Ali sent three teenaged fighters to escort the U.S. team into Jalalabad, which was now crawling with fleeing Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters.
But bin Laden wasn't in Jalalabad for long. Following the fall of Kabul, Jalalabad descended into chaos; no one was in charge for at least a week. Abdullah Tabarak, a Moroccan who is alleged to be one of bin Laden's bodyguards, reportedly told interrogators that, during the month of Ramadan, which began on November 17, bin Laden and his top deputy, Egyptian surgeon Ayman Al Zawahiri, left Jalalabad and headed about 30 miles south. Their destination was Tora Bora, a series of mountain caves near the Pakistani border. Berntsen's team remained one step behind them, for now.
Tora Bora was not yet a familiar name to many Americans. But what would unfold there over the subsequent days remains, eight years later, the single most consequential battle of the war on terrorism. Presented with an opportunity to kill or capture Al Qaeda's top leadership just three months after September 11, the United States was instead outmaneuvered by bin Laden, who slipped into Pakistan, largely disappeared from U.S. radar, and slowly began rebuilding his organization.
What really happened at Tora Bora? Not long after the battle ended, the answer to that question would become extremely clouded. Americans perceived the Afghan war as a stunning victory, and the failure at Tora Bora seemed like an unfortunate footnote to an otherwise upbeat story. By 2004, with George W. Bush locked in a tough reelection battle, some U.S. officials were even asserting, inaccurately, that bin Laden himself may not have been present at the battle.
The real history of Tora Bora is far more disturbing. Having reconstructed the battle--based on interviews with the top American ground commander, three Afghan commanders, and three CIA officials; accounts by Al Qaeda eyewitnesses that were subsequently published on jihadist websites; recollections of captured survivors who were later questioned by interrogators or reporters; an official history of the Afghan war by the U.S. Special Operations Command; an investigation by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; and visits to the battle sites themselves--I am convinced that Tora Bora constitutes one of the greatest military blunders in recent U.S. history. It is worth revisiting now not just in the interest of historical accuracy, but also because the story contains valuable lessons as we renew our push against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
For the rest of the story, visit The New Republic, where this was originally published.
Peter Bergen, AfPak Channel editor, is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and a national security analyst for CNN.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
By Marc Lynch
The heavy focus on al Qaeda in the new AfPak strategy could complicate America's broader strategy of strategic public engagement with the Muslim world. The politics of the focus make perfect domestic sense, as Obama -- quite effectively, in a disappointingly Bush-like way -- tried to recapture the mantle of the "good war" and to focus American public attention on 9/11. And to the extent that this represents a limiting of American objectives, then I'm all for it. But the heavy focus on al Qaeda risks rescuing it from the position of marginality in Arab and Muslim politics to which it has largely been relegated over the last year --- and could end up strengthening the strategic threat of violent extremism even if it weakens al Qaeda Central.
I am not talking here about the much-discussed point that al Qaeda does not seem to actually be present in any significant way in Afghanistan. The argument here rests on claims that the goal is to prevent al Qaeda from returning to Afghanistan and that al Qaeda is so deeply interwoven with the various Talibans as to make the distinction meaningless. Both arguments are problematic -– but since both have been discussed elsewhere at some length, I won't dwell on them.
I am more concerned with an issue more in the areas where I focus: the relationship between al Qaeda Central and the broader network of affiliated movements (AQAM, in the lingo) and like-minded individuals (which me might call AQN, the al Qaeda Network). A key part of the Obama administration's strategy has been a very successful reorientation of America's relationship with the Muslim world, downplaying al Qaeda and refusing to allow that extremist fringe to hijack or monopolize those vital relationships. But the new focus on al Qaeda in the AfPak strategy threatens to reverse that vital achievement ... and even to revive al Qaeda's flagging fortunes in the wider Muslim world.
In part, this refects a debate which has been raging for years over the importance of AQC to the wider network of salafi-jihadist groups and individuals. The Obama administration's Afghanistan strategy seems to have taken one side in that debate –- but whether that is because it is correct, or because it is useful to justify an Afghan military strategy chosen for other reasons, is hugely important.
For Bruce Hoffmann and other "Centralists," al Qaeda Central continues to play an extremely important role in guiding, shaping, arming, and directing the seemingly inchoate network of jihadists. They point to evidence of contacts between the perpetrators of well-known cases and AQC affiliated people in Pakistan or elsewhere. They point to the deluge of AQ propaganda still pouring out of al-Sahab and other jihadist media outlets. On the other side, Marc Sageman and other "bunch of guys" analysts see the threat as primarily one of a very loosely affiliated network of like-minded individuals and organizations who neither need nor want direction from AQC. If AQC was needed as a spark to light the fire, it is no longer needed to keep the fires burning or new fires from breaking out when local conditions come together.
In reality both approaches likely have some degree of merit. AQC does still exist, does put out its propaganda, does try to shape and guide the jihad. But individuals and local organizations carry out their own analysis and planning, explode into action for their own private reasons, seek out and network with other like-minded people without being told to do so. A healthy strategy pays attention to both dimensions.
Clearly, the Obama administration does not intend to ignore the other areas of concern -– countering violent extremism across the spectrum and around the world. But the AfPak strategy puts a tremendous amount of resources into one side of the equation -– al Qaeda Central. This could only be justified if it were the case that AQC is in fact vitally important to the survival and efficacy of the broader jihadist challenge (AQAM and/or the AQN). The case here remains fairly weak, though. Even granted that they try to make a difference, it seems likely that were bin Laden and Zawahiri to be killed or brought to justice -– inshallah –- it is unlikely that this would materially affect the ideologically motivated actions of the pockets of salafi-jihadist mobilization around the world.
And all other things are not equal. The AfPak escalation may well increase the pressure on AQC –- especially if the Pakistanis can be brought more fully on board. But at the same time, it may well galvanize and strengthen the affiliated movements and like-minded individuals around the world. Affiliated movements may benefit from personnel or resources leaving the Afghan theater or Pakistani safe havens, and strengthen the capabilities of insurgencies in Yemen, North Africa, Somalia, Iraq or elsewhere.
And to the extent that the escalation angers Arab and Muslim public opinion, it could create a point of entry into mainstream attitudes which al Qaeda has largely lacked in recent years. It could reinforce the growing notion that Obama is no different from Bush, that the U.S. is waging a war against Islam, that moderation does not pay. This would resonate dangerously with the breakdown of Obama's efforts to push Israel towards a settlement freeze (especially if the Israeli-Palestinian front collapses into violence comparable to the 2000 al-Aqsa Intifada) or if tensions with Iran spike into military confrontation.
It is therefore absolutely vital that the Obama administration coordinate its AfPak strategy with its wider Middle East foreign policy and with its efforts at strategic public engagement with Arab and Muslim audiences. It needs to be sharply attuned to signs suggesting that its escalation in Afghanistan is restoring the ability of al Qaeda to appeal to the generalized "resistance" discourse which retains great sway with Arab public opinion. If it doesn't do that, then even a successful campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan against AQC may end up actually strengthening the wider challenge of violent extremism which it is ostensibly meant to defeat.
This post was orginally published on March Lynch's Foreign Policy blog.
MANPREET ROMANA/AFP/Getty Images
By J Alexander Thier
On October 7, 2001, Operation Enduring Freedom was launched. U.S. President George W. Bush announced that "U.S. forces have begun strikes on terrorist camps of al Qaeda, and the military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan." He closed the statement with this self-appraisal: "To all the men and women in our military... I say this: your mission is defined; your objectives are clear; your goal is just."
This response to the events of September 11, 2001 was just, but the mission and objectives were never clear. Even in those earliest days, virtually devoid of self-doubt, there was a deep tension between the "war on terror" and the effort to create a sustainable anti-al Qaeda status quo in the wake of violent regime change.
The following spring, Bush made a speech at the Virginia Military Institute -- apparently burying his administration's disdain for nation-building -- by calling for a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan. This speech was less a volte face than an acknowledgment of existing policy. Through the Bonn process in December 2001 that established an interim government and an international pledging conference in Tokyo in early 2002, Afghans and the international community had voted overwhelmingly for an approach that would reconstruct, and even democratize, war-torn Afghanistan. Sadly, despite the rhetoric, the scale of the effort needed to overcome Afghanistan's enormous challenges was never realized.
Eight years on, we are still betwixt and between when it comes to defining our objectives for Afghanistan. This conundrum is not due to mission creep or waffling, but rather the inexorable logic of intervention and the limitations of our capabilities. Afghanistan, its fabric of governance and society rent by war, became a petri dish of Islamist extremism and global jihadists. Unrepaired, its inaccessible landscape would continue to produce these horrific aberrations. And so, logically, to succeed in the anti-terror mission, we had not only to throw the bastards out, but put in something else that would prevent them from coming back.
Creating viable, legitimate governments out of the ashes of decades of conflict is a low-probability undertaking even in the best of circumstances. Everything can, and will, go wrong. Internationals will do too much, crowding out indigenous initiative, or too little, leaving the green shoots of renewal to whither. International troops will be seen as aggressive occupiers, or as ineffectual and value-neutral, failing to contain spoilers. A strong domestic leader will rile factional, ethnic, or sectarian divisions and a weak one will fail to unify in divisive times. A failure to deal with past abuses by powerful actors will undermine the possibility for reconciliation in society, or digging up the past will prevent the possibility for a stable political settlement. Indeed, every one of these charges has been made in Afghanistan in the last eight years.
Today our stated objectives remain largely the same -- destroy al Qaeda and build some semblance of responsible government in Afghanistan that can prevent the return of al Qaeda and provide some modicum of succor to its beleaguered population than the last three decades of despotism and chaos.
So what is different? On the plus side, it finally looks like the U.S. is serious about achieving these goals. In 2002, there were 10,000 international forces in Afghanistan. Now there are in excess of 100,000. U.S. spending on the creation of a new Afghan National Army and Police -- a centerpiece of our strategy from the start -- was $191 million in 2002. The 2010 request is $7.5 billion. The U.S. embassy in Afghanistan has six ambassadors, we are recruiting hundreds of civilians for missions around the country, and the diplomatic heavyweight of his generation, Richard Holbrooke, has been given license to pull together talent and resources from across the government to barnstorm the region. And our new, young, and energetic president is fully engaged.
On the negative side is everything else. The warlords -- so power-mad and destructive during the civil war of the 1990s that even the Taliban were a better alternative -- have taken over the asylum. Their ascendancy and association with the government, along with the narco-mafia, once again has the Afghans looking for alternatives. The insurgency grows in brutality and reach every year. For eight years the Afghan government and their international partners have stood up repeatedly at lavish international conferences pledging security, good governance, accountability, and economic development for Afghanistan. Over $65 billion has been pledged for Afghanistan since 2001. Yet, most Afghans -- especially those in the south and east, where the insurgency has most affected the country -- have not seen the fruits of promises.
The biggest difference of all, though, may be time. Eight years ago, the Afghan people, the American people, and the rest of our partners the international community believed that our goals were both just and achievable. Now there is a crisis of confidence that even with the best of intentions we can achieve our goal of disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.
For those of us who witnessed Afghanistan in its darkest days before 2001, we still hope it can get better, and know it can get far worse. There are also larger issues at stake, for the U.S., for NATO, and the region. What we need now, as in 2001, is renewed leadership from both the Afghans and the U.S. and NATO to forge a just and reasonable path, bringing the vast majority of Afghans, Europeans, and Americans, who still want peace in Afghanistan, together to rebuild the coalition and improve our combined performance. As President Obama said in France in April 2009, "This is a mission that tests whether nations can come together in common purpose on behalf of our common security."
J Alexander Thier is the Director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the US Institute of Peace. He is co-author and editor of "The Future of Afghanistan" (USIP, 2009). He lived in Afghanistan for about 7 of the last 16 years, and travels there frequently.
DAVID FURST/AFP/Getty Images
John Nagl made the wise point earlier this week here on the AfPak blog that Afghanistan needs more Afghan troops -- it is point of agreement shared across the political and policy spectrum all the way from the Stay the Course crowd to the Get Out Now crowd. The problem, however, in Nagl's argument is that he fails to connect the dots between the lack of current Afghan government support for U.S. and ISAF military operations and the continued prosecution of a U.S.-led counterinsurgency effort. If the United States does not have host country support to conduct counterinsurgency operations then why does Nagl believe we should continue engaging in an operational approach that is missing this vital ingredient?
John Nagl of course has written the book on counterinsurgency -- and I mean that literally. His argument for a larger Afghan army of 250,000 soldiers is at pace with the arguments made in his own book and in FM 3-24, the Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual. But what is less clear in Nagl's argument is how long it will take to get from where we are today to a fully trained and capable force of a quarter million soldiers and 150,000 police. As Nagl knows, this is not simply a question of slapping a uniform on a soldier and police officer and saying "do your job." It takes time to develop such a force.
In Iraq, it took roughly five years to create a somewhat functional security apparatus and that was in a country with a tradition of a professional army and a reasonably well-educated population -- Afghanistan has neither. How long will it take to train 400,000 police and military in Afghanistan? One can imagine years or even decades. And how exactly will this be paid for and sustained? Today, the current budgets of both the police and military exceed the Afghan government's revenues. Increasing the force at the levels Nagl is recommending could actually exceed the country's GDP. This hardly seems sustainable or even desirable, not only from a fiscal standpoint, but also from a geo-political standpoint. One can only imagine the trepidation of neighboring countries at the prospects of an Afghan army -- trained by American advisors -- of 250,000 troops. Training a viable Afghan army is important, but at the levels Nagl is recommending it may not be realistic or wise.(Read on)
By Anatol Lieven
Let me say at the beginning that I do not think that the existing mess in Afghanistan at present is the fault of the Obama administration. The president inherited it from George Bush, and simply did not have time between taking power in January and the Afghan elections of this month to carry out a radical change of course. If, however, the administration fails to change course after the (predictable) debacle that these elections have become, then the responsibility for subsequent disasters will indeed rest with President Obama and his team.
The Afghan election has lessons that go far beyond Afghanistan. It illustrates the folly of relying on democracy and elections to provide solutions to complex issues of state-building, absent a whole set of other preconditions. One of these is for Washington to have a clear idea of what election results it wants, what election results are possible and what if anything it can do to influence those results.
Instead, both the Bush and Obama administrations drifted along with the Afghan electoral process, the results of which were always going to be a choice between the very bad and the absolutely disastrous; and were then going to have to explain to the American public and the publics of key U.S. allies (notably Britain) why bringing about this awful choice was worth the lives of dozens of U.S. and allies troops. It now seems likely that more British soldiers have died in Helmand province over the past four years than Afghan citizens voted there in the first round of these elections. How do you explain that to those soldiers' parents, wives and children?
Anatol Lieven, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor in the War Studies Department of King's College London and a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation. This piece was originally published at the National Interest online.