TERRORISM SALON: Peter Bergen on What “Winning” the War Means


(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.
–Peter Bergen
This week long terrorism salon will continue to be hosted by The Washington Note and UN Dispatch.


11 comments on “TERRORISM SALON: Peter Bergen on What “Winning” the War Means

  1. Kathleen says:

    Imperial Hubris says that Bin Laden was being treated in a US Military Medical facility in Dubai or Bahrain, can’t remember which right at this moment., in July of 2001. so if we want to “find Bin Laden’ why don’t we look in our own military hospitals?
    I think our best policy for terrorism is Yankee Go home, and stay there.


  2. Kathleen says:

    Mr. Murder… you’re killing me with those facts….


  3. JohnH says:

    Sensible commentary from someone who was not invited, naturally, to participate in the discussion on “Challenges of International Terrorism.”
    Beyond counter-intelligence: It “will require a commitment to diplomacy for resolving conflicts and an investment in economic development that creates OPORTUNITIES FOR THE MARGINALIZED POPULATIONS. It will also mean ending the military occupation of Iraq, closing down Guantanamo Bay, and ending the odious practice of torture.”
    Pretty obvious conclusions, but not acceptable for public discussion within the narrowly constricted bounds of “debate” within the beltway.


  4. Bartolo says:

    Mr Bergen begins: “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.”
    Sounds like a matter of degree. As in “she’s a little bit pregnant”, can a country be a little bit invaded and occupied?


  5. alan says:

    Given the Soviets disastrous handling of their war in Afghanistan and Peter Bergen’s feeding off his meeting with OBL I fail to see how we can win in Afghanistan. Under Karzai and with NATO forces in country the Afghans have managed to restore poppy production back to its previous high. The Kabul government’s writ barely touches most parts of the country. NATO’s troops are just holding on. Questions: have we no idea of that country’s history? Do we really believe we can install a government that can survive the departure of NATO forces? Whom are we kidding? And how many soldiers have to die to prove the futility of this exercise?


  6. Mr.Murder says:

    Churchill was big in BP, and lost a war in Iraq.
    He was convinced that anyone trying to develop Western government in that culture was a fool after that time.
    Richard Halliburton was so convinced of the British cause in Iraq that he flew an RAF plane there to allow King Faisal I to see surface topograhpy that likely contained oil beneath it.
    The Halliburton’s neighbors were the family of our first director of Iraqi communications for the provisional gov’t, that lady went on to be the NYSE’s vice president.
    Her family owns the patent for slant drilling heads and another of them is on Cheney’s OVP Senate staff.
    The Charge of the Light Bridgade…


  7. karenk says:

    The next president better put the heat on these tribal areas to destroy any training camps there, and capture/kill key al Qaeda leaders, like, howbout bin laden? The president will have to shed the WWII mentality of “taking cities” by force and start interrupting their communication/internet activities, because this is a war of information.
    I think it is not a good sign that, 6 1/2 years after we were attacked, Ayman al Zawahiri was able to field questions on the internet. In December I read that he posted on some jihadi site in December saying he would answer questions and in April posted his answers. Unbelievable!! I also read that jihadis are sending their recruitment messages out via mass podcasts to cellphones. OMG!
    I think this is not something to be brushed aside lightly. I dont think the over 40 crowd (which, demographically we are) can really appreciate how adept the under 20 crowd(which demographically they are) is with this technology. Anyone who knows a teen knows they send texts at lightning speed and voluminously–easily hundreds a day. Multiply that by many young jihadis, more texts and info can be sent at such speed than can ever reasonably be monitored.
    So the next pres.has to figure out how to counter that…and I wish him luck.


  8. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Gads, give Bergen an official Message Force Multiplier badge. What an unmittigated crock of shit.


  9. NoMoreWars says:

    I didn’t trust Peter ‘I interviewed Bin Laden” Bergen before the
    invasion of Iraq, and I sure don’t trust him now.
    Any sane person would question the official narrative of the
    September 11 attacks. A man in a cave in Afghanistan, a former
    CIA operative, on dialysis, manages to orchestrate attacks by the
    most incompetent bunch of recently “trained” pilots who yet
    manage to pull off expert flight manuevers.
    This while all sorts of other “coincidences” happen on the same
    day, like the standing down of NORAD and the collapse of WTC
    7, which held all sorts of sensitive government information.
    “Coincidentally” owned by one of Bibi Netanyahu’s best buddies,
    Larry Silverstein.
    And this after the neo-cons at the Project for the New American
    Century eerily predicted ONE YEAR ALMOST TO THE DAY BEFORE
    the 9/11 attacks that it would take an attack on the scale of
    Pearl Harbor to rally the American people around their agenda,
    which included attacking Iraq.
    Look who was on the 9/11 Commission? Philip Zelikow, Rice’s
    buddy and co-author. Look who was supposed to be in charge
    of it after months of foot dragging by the Bush administration to
    even have a commission — old war criminal himself, Henry
    Zelikow infamously said in a speech at the University of Virginia
    in 2002 that the coming invasion of Iraq would be for Israel.
    Which country benefited from the 9/11 attacks? Afghanistan?
    Iraq? NO.
    Read “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm”
    written in 1996 by Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, David and
    Meyrav Wurmser and other neo-cons. They wrote it for Israeli
    Prime Minister Bibi (Benjamin) Netanyahu the aforementioned
    friend of World Trade Center “owner” Larry Silverstein.
    9/11 “happens” and VOILA Israel gets everything it wants. Using
    OUR blood and OUR treasure.
    Bergen’s a fraud, a closet neo-con. I think that Steve is a very
    nice guy but honestly sometimes I think that he’s too nice and
    gets taken-in by shysters.


  10. Zathras says:

    Zbigniew Brzezinski can speak for himself, but I’m not sure he meant to draw a direct comparison between the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the NATO mission there now.
    Soviet involvement in Afghanistan long predated the 1979 invasion, and followed the pattern of postwar Soviet foreign policy: encouraging sympathetic local political movements, providing them with ideological backbone and weapons, and thereafter acting as if the instability created thereby benefited the Soviet Union in some way. In other words it was, from the standpoint of Soviet interests, pointless — Afghanistan was far too primitive to sustain anything resembling the Communism of Soviet theory, and efforts by Afghans enjoying Soviet support to transform their country along Marxist lines engaged the Soviet Union deeper and deeper in a struggle that could not be won and would not have benefitted the Soviets even if it could.
    Our objectives in Afghanistan are far more limited. The one thing America and NATO really need is for Afghanistan not to be what it was before 9/11. If it can be more than “not a terrorist sanctuary,” great; the question is how we attain even our minimum objectives without a Western army there in perpetuity.
    I have some of the same concern that Greg Djerejian suggested in another post here. Leaving aside what the Americans and NATO are doing right or wrong militarily, and granting that the Iraq commitment has left Afghanistan underresourced from the American point of view, doubtless costing us many opportunities, the question is what besides the allied military is holding Afghanistan together. The appearance is that Afghanistan’s government has a mild-mannered, articulate (in English yet) and stylishly dressed President, slowly developing security services, and a number of agencies efficient at collecting bribes and very little else. Were the West to take a hands-off posture toward this government the whole thing would collapse as soon as the allied army left. Yet deeper and deeper Western involvement — to fight corruption, limit the damage of the drug trade, and generally “stand up” a functioning Afghan government across the board — is a path toward an uncertain destination.
    The Soviets ended up wrecking Afghanistan and draining themselves of men and money, but they didn’t set out to do that. I’m all for boosting NATO combat power to meet the immediate security need there now, and hope this step will meet with success. But then what? Do we end up getting deeper and deeper into the business of remaking Afghan society, like the Soviets albeit to a different end? Do we limit Western supervision of an Afghan government that left to itself may well encourage sympathy for its enemies in Pakistan? Or do we simply try to tread water, hoping that something will turn up?
    I’m not prepared to suggest answers to these questions, but I think it’s time we started asking them.


  11. JohnH says:

    “If you are not with them you are with us” would appear to be a major step forward. Instead of being totally oblivious to local context, it shows some willingness to understand what is motivating local populations to take up arms. It does nothing, however, to address the basic domination mindset that results in the humiliation of local people and cannot be considered a permanent, long term solution. The colonial powers learned this the hard way 60 years ago.
    Just because NATO has not engaged in the same level of atrocities as the Soviets did does not necessarily mean that hatred of NATO is any less. It does not take a huge number of bombing of wedding parties and similar humiliations to turn a people adamantly against their occupier, particularly one that has been sensitized by a series of colonial adventures taken during the last hundred years.


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