With The Longest War , journalist Peter Bergen (author of Holy War, Inc. and The Osama bin Laden I Know ; Director of the Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative at the New America Foundation) offers the most complete survey of the war on terrorism to date. Included is every major development from the attacks of September 11, 2001, to today’s ongoing drone campaign in Pakistan. The book is a strategic retrospective that emphasizes folly.
Both warring parties have made mistakes, according to Bergen. After 9/11, the Bush administration wrongly framed Al Qaeda as an existential threat—a rhetorical overreach that colors counterterrorism debates to this day. It invented a case for war with Iraq despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And finally, Bergen dismantles the claim that “enhanced interrogation techniques” improved American security. By the author’s measure, Guantanamo Bay robbed the United States of moral authority in a conflict characterized by both sides as a righteous struggle.
Al Qaeda is no different, writes Bergen, as it is equally guilty of tactical errors and strategic miscalculations. In ten short years, bin Laden’s outfit has lost much of its appeal and destructive power. This is partially due to the American-led war effort that followed September 11; it is also a result of Al Qaeda’s mistakes. The sheer brutality of Al Qaeda in Iraq—which killed thousands of Iraqis and initiated a civil war—turned off many who sympathized with the movement’s grievances. Al Qaeda’s 2003 campaign in Saudi Arabia was also a costly blunder. Once Al Qaeda struck the kingdom, American and Saudi security interests converged like never before. Greater cooperation followed, intelligence sharing accelerated, and Saudi Arabia began the long process of delegitimizing Al Qaeda and dismantling its support networks.
Flawed assumptions consume much of the narrative too. Bergen raises two ideological preoccupations that handicapped the Bush administration’s decision making. First, the Bush White House assumed only states could perpetrate acts of spectacular violence and that state-sponsored terrorism presented the greatest danger to the United States, even though 9/11 proved otherwise. This conclusion naturally led to outsized fears about states like Iraq transferring weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to terrorist groups. In truth, this was not an urgent threat. Second, the Bush administration avoided “nation building” to a degree that nearly guaranteed failure. Only when the blood in the streets was ankle-deep did the White House concede nation building was necessary since it offered both stability and a way forward.
Al Qaeda’s miscalculations proved worse by far: it expected the U.S. to withdraw from the broader Middle East after 9/11, just as it had done in Lebanon and Somalia. Instead, the attacks drew Washington and autocratic Middle Eastern regimes even closer because Al Qaeda threatened both. Al Qaeda’s goals also included the dissolution of regional governments and their replacement with puritanical Islamist regimes. It has since achieved absolutely none of these stated objectives because it underestimated American resolve, overstated its own power, and assumed more Muslims would join the cause.
The Longest War is both a useful history and a call to action for American policymakers. Bergen methodically documents the errors of the past decade while implicitly suggesting the United States can and should do better in the future. Al Qaeda is weak today, certainly, and never was an existential threat, but it remains grave enough to demand our very best effort. The Longest War offers much-needed perspective as Americans prepare to observe the ten-year anniversary of the day that started an epoch.
About the Book : Bergen, Peter L. The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict between America and Al Qaeda (New York: Free Press, 2011). $28.00 USD; 496 pages.
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Editor’s Note: The author currently interns at the New American Foundation.