(Peter Bergen is a Schwartz Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation).
I 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.
This week long terrorism salon will continue to be hosted by The Washington Note and UN Dispatch.