The 9/11 attacks and the U.S. reaction to them have profoundly changed the nation. How we got to where we are today is worth pondering. The Global War on Terror—a term not used by the current administration—is evolving.
These perspectives were examined and discussed at an event hosted Sept. 7 in Washington by the New America Foundation.
America is involved in five or six wars—Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan, Yemen, and perhaps Somalia, noted Peter Bergen, director of the National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation and author of “Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden.”
Bergen was in a conversation Wednesday with Steve Coll, author of “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001,” a 2005 Pulitzer Prize winner for general nonfiction, and Susan Glasser, editor-in-chief of the Foreign Policy magazine.
Few would have predicted that in the decade after 9/11 only 17 Americans would die from ideologically driven terrorist attacks in the homeland, Bergen said.
“It would have been unpredictable that after 10 years we would still be in Iraq and, to 2014, in Afghanistan. It would have been unpredictable that it took 10 years to get bin Laden,” he said.
“Why did the U.S. believe the cost of invading Iraq would be so low?” asked Coll. Perhaps we were blinded by the ease with which we dealt with Serbia-Kosovo, the success of British intervention in Sierra Leone, and the relative painlessness of routing the Taliban in 2001. We should have taken a lesson from Vietnam and realized the “limits of conventional military superiority,” said Coll.
In December 2001, at the beginning of our involvement in Afghanistan, U.S. forces were closing in on bin Laden in the caves of Tora Bora, in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border, but he slipped away. Coll blames the thinking at the time of wanting to leave a “light footprint” in Afghanistan. When the Soviet Union had first occupied the country and tried to impose its rule, widespread revolt immediately arose.
American commanders drew the wrong lesson from that Soviet experience, said Coll.
This decision to not deploy more forces at Tora Bora was a major mistake, according to Coll and Bergen, both of whom are experts on al-Qaeda and bin Laden.
Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Tommy Franks, commander in chief of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, made the call. “Rumsfeld said at the time that he was concerned that too many U.S. troops in Afghanistan would create an anti-American backlash and fuel a widespread insurgency,” stated the Report to U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations dated Nov. 30, 2009.
“Even when his own commanders and senior intelligence officials in Afghanistan and Washington argued for dispatching more U.S. troops, Franks refused to deviate from the plan. There were enough U.S. troops in or near Afghanistan to execute the classic sweep-and-block maneuver required to attack bin Laden and try to prevent his escape,” said the Senate report, signed by Sen. John Kerry.
Misperceptions of Pakistan
The U.S. strategy on terror necessarily involves a key partner, Pakistan. The senior leadership of every major insurgent group in Afghanistan, as well as al-Qaeda, is located on the Pakistan side of the border, according to Dr. Seth Jones, senior political scientist with the Rand Corporation.
The killing of bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, by U.S. Special Forces on May 1 further strained relations with Pakistan.
“The Pakistan army had a view of its own interest in its neighborhood that was different than the one the United States wished it to have,” said Coll. “Because that was inconvenient, the U.S. looked past that problem and then over invested in the personality of [former President Pervez] Musharraf. … [It should not have been hard to see] there was a duality the way the Pakistan army managed its relations with the United States.”
The problem is our inability to see the obvious, said Coll. Pakistan has lost or drawn three and a half wars with India. “It is ridiculous to believe they would see their real strategic interests our way and change policy,” Coll said.
Bergen said that 9/11 was the “climax” of al-Qaeda’s activities, not the beginning. “Al-Qaeda is becoming irrelevant,” he stated.
Calling for a Global War on Terror following the 9/11 attacks was inflating the threat, said Bergen. Obama instead refers to the threat as al-Qaeda, its affiliates and adherents.
Calling it a “war” is too expansive, said Coll, but treating it as “law enforcement” is too small of a framework.
Coll predicted that there may be another terrorist attack in the next 10 or 20 years, although it’s less likely to be on the scale of 9/11. Unfortunately, America will probably “overreact,” he said.
On its website, NewAmerica.net, the New America Foundation describes itself as a “nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy institute that invests in new thinkers and new ideas.”