Peter Bergen

I have, perhaps, an old-fashioned view of history and just as it is hard to explain why the French were in Moscow in 1812 without Napoleon, and the rise of the Nazi party is inextricably linked to the views and personality of Hitler, its just not possible to understand al Qaeda, what it is and what it has done, without understanding bin Laden. Without him al Qaeda simply would not exist (look at the minutes of the founding meetings of al Qaeda in 1988, for instance). Without him 9/11 would have been one of many harebrained schemes in the head of Khalid Sheik Mohammed (KSM.) The Al Qaeda organization and bin Laden the man are largely co-terminus, after all it’s a rather small organization today and has always been so. The Al Qaeda movement is another matter, though that too takes its strategic cues from OBL.

Peter Bergen

Some of the issues in the final discussion I tried to address in a story for TIME earlier this month, so rather than rewriting that story I’m pasting it in below:

Does Osama bin Laden matter anymore? You could be forgiven for thinking he doesn’t. In recent months, an impressive cast of terrorism experts and counterterrorism officials around the world has coalesced around the notion that al-Qaeda’s leader is no longer an active threat to the West. They point out that he has not been able to strike on U.S. soil since 9/11 or in Europe since the London bombings three summers ago. In Iraq, his most successful franchise operation is on the ropes. Across the Muslim world, opinion polls suggest his popularity has faded, and many of his early supporters — including prominent jihadi ideologues — have denounced him. Even his messages on the Internet scarcely merit headlines in the mainstream media. Did you know he posted two audio messages on the Web in May? I didn’t think so.
The jihad, some experts contend, has moved beyond bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Dr. Marc Sageman, a former CIA case officer, lays out the view in his new book, Leaderless Jihad, arguing that “the present threat has evolved from a structured group of al-Qaeda masterminds controlling vast resources and issuing commands to a multitude of info rmal groups trying to emulate their predecessors by conceiving and executing operations from the bottom up. These ‘homegrown’ wannabes form a scattered global network, a leaderless jihad.” According to this assessment, two decades since its founding in Peshawar, Pakistan, al-Qaeda remains a source of inspiration for certain extremists around the world. But it’s far from clear that bin Laden commands them.

This view was shared by several European officials I met at a conference of terrorism experts in Florence in May, a few days after bin Laden’s most recent Internet postings. The officials told me they’ve found no evidence of al-Qaeda operations in their countries. If bin Laden has any role in the jihad, say the Europeans, it is merely as an icon. Alain Grignard, Belgium’s top terrorism investigator, says bin Laden is now a “Robin Hood figure; 100 people are inspired by him, but very few respond to do what he wants.”

If that’s true, why do so many political leaders continue to warn about the threat — or even the likelihood — of another major terrorist attack? Why did the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate say al-Qaeda “has protected or regenerated key elements of homeland attack capability”? Why would the head of Britain’s domestic intelligence service, MI5, say there were 2,000 citizens and other U.K. residents who posed a serious threat to security, a number of whom took direction from al-Qaeda? The struggle against al Qaeda — and to a lesser extent, the quest to capture bin Laden — has20dominated U.S. foreign policy since 9/11.

But as the U.S. prepares to elect a new President, should that remain the case? The answers to these questions don’t lend themselves to easy policy prescriptions. But the best available evidence suggests that the threat posed by bin Laden’s acolytes hasn’t been extinguished– and his own influence over them is greater than many analysts acknowledge. In his old stomping grounds, the jihad is stronger than at any time since he fled from the Tora Bora mountains in the winter of 2001. The Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan, and in Pakistan militant groups have grown so aggressive that in late June they even threatened to take over a major city — Peshawar, once bin Laden’s home and the birthplace of al-Qaeda. Farther away, extremists in Europe and North Africa continue to covet bin Laden’s blessing and the al-Qaeda brand name.

As has always been true in shadowy, borderless wars, measuring the strength of the enemy isn’t an exact science. It’s true that many of the “leaderless jihadis” have set up operations independently of al-Qaeda, but when they turn to bin Laden’s organization, it’s not just for inspiration but also for training, assistance and direction — in short, for leadership. Many are able and willing to do bin Laden’s bidding; they pay very careful attention to his Internet postings and follow his instructions. And although their targets have generally been close to home, their association with al-Qaeda has tended to take their ambitions beyond their borders.

What’s more, many of these homegrown wannabes live in the West. It was al-Qaeda’s direct involvement that helped a leaderless group of British jihadis mount the multiple London bombings on July 7, 2005, that killed 52 commuters. Two of the bombers had traveled to Pakistan, met with al-Qaeda commanders and made martyrdom tapes with al-Qaeda’s video- production arm there. A year later, British investigators uncovered a plot by another cell of British Pakistanis to bring down seven American and Canadian passenger jets. According to Lieut. General Michael Maples, head of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, the plotters received direction from al-Qaeda in Pakistan.

Bin Laden’s interest in British jihadis didn’t end there. Jonathan Evans, head of MI5, said last year that “over the past five years, much of the command, control and inspiration for attack-planning in the U.K. has derived from al-Qaeda’s remaining core leadership in the tribal areas of Pakistan.” U.S. officials, too, worry that a new generation of jihadis is making the trek to Pakistan, seeking al-Qaeda’s assistance. Sixteen U.S. intelligence agencies signed off on a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that concluded that al-Qaeda has made a strong comeback in Afghanistan and Pakistan because it has found “a safe haven in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas [FATA] in Pakistan” for its operational lieutenants and top leadership. In February, Michael McConnell, director of National Intelligence, said in congressional testimony that there had bee n an “influx of new Western recruits into the tribal areas since mid-2006.” Philip Mudd, the former No. 2 in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, who is now working at the FBI to help improve its intelligence capabilities, told me, “There is a very clear, almost mathematical increase in lethality as soon as plotters touch the FATA.”

If jihadis seek material assistance from al-Qaeda in the FATA, they can get guidance from bin Laden almost anywhere there’s an Internet connection. He has issued more than two dozen video- and audiotaped messages since 9/11, and some of his exhortations have been acted upon. For instance, in December 2004, bin Laden called for attacks on Saudi oil facilities; in February 2006, al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia attacked the Abqaiq facility, perhaps the most important oil-production facility in the world. (Luckily, that attack was a failure.) More recently, bin Laden has called for attacks on the Pakistani state — there were more than 50 suicide bombings there in 2007, and there have been at least 19 thus far this year.

There’s some comfort to be drawn from the fact that bin Laden has not been able to strike on U.S. soil since 9/11. There is scant evidence of al-Qaeda sleeper cells in the U.S. Thanks to more effective intelligence-gathering, immigration control and the heightened vigilance of ordinary Americans, it is very hard for terrorists to slip into the country. It’s always possible that homegrown wannabes will mount some sort of attack, but in contrast to the situation in Europe, al-Qaeda’s virulent ideology has found few takers in the American Muslim community.

Yet bin Laden remains determined to kill large numbers of Westerners and disrupt the global economy. Since 9/11, al-Qaeda and its affiliates have bombed Western-owned hotels around the Muslim world, attacked a number of Jewish targets and conducted suicide operations against oil facilities in the Middle East; we can expect more of the same in the future. Al-Qaeda has also used new tactics and weapons — like the surface-to-air missile that nearly brought down an Israeli airliner in Kenya in 2002. And it retains a long-standing desire to acquire a radiological bomb. But al-Qaeda’s most dangerous weapon has always been unpredictability. That’s why it is dangerous to dismiss bin Laden as a spent force. While he remains at large, the jihad will never be leaderless.

Peter Bergen

The question about more boots on the ground is a relatively easy one to answer.

None, or few, of those new boots will come from NATO allies and if they do come they will come so freighted with national caveats and domestic political considerations that will make them largely ineffective. So they will have to come from the U.S.

Why are more needed? Well do the math: Afghanistan is a country ideally suited to guerilla warfare with its high mountain ranges and it is a third larger than Iraq and its population is some 6 million or so greater, yet the numbers of soldiers and policemen in Iraq are more than three times larger than in Afghanistan.

Iraq has more than 600,000 Iraqi members of the security services and some 150,000 American soldiers in addition, while Afghanistan has 150,000 local soldiers and police and some 60,000 US and NATO troops. You can’t bring security to the country with those low numbers of soldiers and police. And without security you can’t have reconstruction. And so what Afghanistan desperately needs is more American Special Forces and other advisors to build up the size of the Afghan army and police which right now are way too small to secure the country.

The New York Police Department numbers some 40,000 cops. Afghanistan right now has 70,000 cops for the whole country, which is wracked by a violent insurgency in all of its eastern and southern provinces and increasingly in its central provinces and is, to boot, the center of the world’s heroin trade. So more American soldiers on the ground–the right kind of soldiers–and a far better strategy are required. I can’t get into that strategy as that is a much a longer answer unsuitable for a post, but part of it, of course, is securing the population, which can’t be done right now with the “economy of force” as Admiral Mullen so aptly puts it that is now in place in Afghanistan.

By the way, what Greg describes as Afghanistan’s historic aversion to interlopers has, indeed, a long history, but there is one incredibly important caveat: that is relevant to this discussion.

An ABC News/BBC poll released in December 2006 shows that despite the disappointments that Afghans have felt about inadequate reconstruction and declining security on a wide range of key issues, they maintain positive attitudes. It is classic counterinsurgency doctrine that the center of gravity in a conflict is the people. And the Afghan people, unlike the Iraqis, have positive feelings about the U.S.-led occupation, their own government and their lives. The conclusions of the ABC/BBC poll are worth quoting in some detail:

“Big majorities continue to call the U.S.-led invasion a good thing for their country (88 percent), to express a favorable opinion of the United States (74 percent) and to prefer the current Afghan government to Taliban rule (88 percent). Indeed eight in 10 Afghans support the presence of U.S., British and other international forces on their soil; that compares with five percent support for Taliban fighters…Fifty-five percent of Afghans still say the country’s going in the right direction, but that’s down sharply from 77 percent last year. Whatever the problems, 74 percent say their living conditions today are better now than they were under the Taliban. That rating, however, is 11 points lower now than it was a year ago.”

These poll results, which are very similar to another poll taken in December 2006 by the Program=2 0on International Policy Attitude’s World Public, demonstrate that there remains strong support for the Afghan central government and U.S./NATO efforts in Afghanistan.

All of these positive poll numbers are continuing to slide downwards but the fact is that the “historic aversion” to outsiders was simply not the case in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. So if we start delivering tanglible security and reconstruction Afghans will actually welcome our presence.

Peter Bergen

I also wanted to respond to the idea that somehow we are making the same mistake in Afghanistan that the Soviets did. This is a real misreading of history. The Soviets killed at least 1.5 million Afghans and they turned a third of the population into refugees; some 6 million fled to Iran and Pakistan.

Our policies in Afghanistan are failing and require a complete rethink but no matter how many problems we have encountered there (and in Pakistan) it is not because we are repeating the same mistakes as the Soviets who imposed a brutal, totalitarian war on a population who, in the main, loathed them with a passionate intensity.
We are not repeating history in Afghanistan. We are making our own mistakes, which may be rectifiable.

Regarding the question of military strategy and al Qaeda: Al Qaeda believes it is at war with the United States and her allies and on 9/11 al Qaeda killed thousands of American civilians and attempted to decapitate the government; acts of war by any standard.

We are not, therefore, as some of our European friends would have it, engaged in some sort of global police action against violent jihadists. We are, in fact, in a war with them, but as in all wars, all instruments of state power- diplomacy, intelligence, propaganda etc.– are needed to defeat al Qaeda.

Having established that we are indeed at war with al Qaeda, the real question, as Clausewitz would suggest, is what kind of war are we engaged in? And t hat is where the Bush administration has made a number of errors, the deepest of which is to argue that the war against al Qaeda is similar to the wars against communism and fascism.

This is nonsense, of course, as the al Qaeda threat is orders of magnitude smaller than Mutually Assured Destruction or the triumph of Nazism in Europe. (For the Bush administration painting the conflict in such existential terms had the side benefit of casting Bush as Churchill and anyone who had the temerity to question him as the reincarnation of Neville Chamberlain.)

The second mistake the Bush administration made was to conflate all sorts of organizations and movements from Hezbollah, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda into a global enemy thereby falling into bin Laden’s rhetorical trap that there really is a global jihadist movement arraigned against us rather than disparate groups of Islamists, some violent, others not, with their own local agendas who often despise each other intensely.

The third mistake was to say that you are “either with us or against us.” A much smarter approach would have been to say is that “if you are not with them you are with us.” This is the approach we finally adopted in Iraq after vast amounts of blood and treasure had been spilled over the course of the first four years of the war. On Uncle Sam’s payroll now are tens of thousands of militant Sunni Iraqis who two years ago were shooting at Americans.

It is self-evident that “winning” the GWOT–by which I mean turning terrorism into a second-order threat–will take every instrument of state power, including the military one, but that is not sufficient. We have to consider what kind of war are we in and what kind of strategy will it take to prevail.

Belatedly the Bush administration is adopting some of the policies that make sense to defeat al Qaeda and lower the temperature in the Muslim world–restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, engaging with Iran, coopting Sunni militants in Iraq. Historians are likely to conclude that these measures came too late to salvage the reputations of Bush or Rice. And there the next administration has an opening: to set a course that is based not on an ideological interpretation of the threat but approaches it with the kind of realism that the Bush administration has finally begun to adopt.

Peter Bergen

No leaders of al Qaeda have been killed or captured in urban areas since 2004. Before that many were-Khalid Sheik Mohammed, al Shibh, Abu Zubayda, etc. Since then Al Qaeda leaders who have been killed or narrowly avoided being killed have been on the receiving end of Hellfire missiles in the tribal areas.

Peter Bergen

Any serious study of the facts has found that the more relatively educated people are the more likely they are to engage in terrorism, and the more money people have, relative to their peers, the more likely they are to engage in terrorism, defined as violence against civilians by non-state actors.

And so, projects to increase levels of education and income around the world are likely, on average, to create more terrorists, which is not an argument against education or poverty alleviation, but simply one of the rare cases where social “science” can make something of an accurate prediction about future outcomes.