Journalist Peter Bergen

National security analyst and The Longest War author discusses the lack of fallout following the announcement that the U.S. will remain in Afghanistan through 2014.

Journalist Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst and director of the New America Foundation's National Security Studies Program. He's also a fellow at NYU's Center on Law and Security and a contributing editor at The New Republic. Bergen produced Osama bin Laden's first TV interview (in '97) and has reported on counterterrorism for a wide range of international newspapers and magazines. He's the author of Holy War, Inc. and The Osama bin Laden I Know—both of which were the basis for Emmy-nominated documentaries—and The Longest War.


Tavis: Peter Bergen is the director of the national security studies program at the New America Foundation and a national security analyst for CNN. He’s also a best-selling author whose latest text is called “The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict between America and Al Qaeda.” He joins us tonight from Washington. Peter, good to have you on the program, sir.
Peter Bergen: Thank you for the invitation, Tavis.
Tavis: Before I get into the book, I want to start with something that really became a news story after your book was published, and then we’ll dig deeper into the text itself.
So we know now that the Obama administration has told us that we’re going to be into Afghanistan until the year 2014. There are many of us who believe that it’s going to be longer than that.
But they are admitting now on the record that we’re going to be there at least until the year 2014. So it’s not just a matter of your book’s title, “The Longest War,” it’s the longest war getting longer.
Why has this story not been reported on more, and what do you make of the fact that this may very well be the most underreported story of this year, that we’re going to be there until 2014?
Bergen: Yes, Tavis. It’s certainly been reported, but it hasn’t really been processed, I think, by the American public because it doesn’t fit comfortably with the narrative of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president, the supposedly weak on national security Democratic Party.
This is a much bigger shift than the debate which you’ll recall, which I detail in my book, in the fall of ’09, when the National Security Council met with President Obama 10 times to talk about the scope and scale of the surge of 30,000 troops into Afghanistan.
Imagine, do the thought experiment where a Republican president said, “Look, we’re going to be Afghanistan until December 2014, we’re going to be there in large numbers.”
I think the liberal side of the Democratic Party would be up in arms. Instead, this has sort of been – it’s almost not being commented on in any great detail by many of the people you’d expect to be concerned about this.
Tavis: So to your point about people who ought to be concerned about it, there are at least two groups of folk that ought to be concerned about it – certainly more than two, but certainly, I think, the American people ought to be concerned about that, the media ought to be raising questions about that.
So what do you make of the fact, then, that this announcement pretty much came and went – again, it got reported on, but there’s been no drill-down on it, there’s been no demand by the American people, no outcry in Congress, no push from the media. What do you make of that?
Bergen: Well, I think partly it’s most Americans have turned the Afghanistan story off. We have 100,000 men and women in uniform there fighting a fairly tricky war, and yet the American public – it’s just not front and center. The economy is so important for so many people; the war is not going as badly as Iraq. It’s going somewhat okay.
So it’s just not a subject of political contention right now in the same way that if you go back to ’06, the Iraq war was just the absolute center of every debate that you could have.
Tavis: To your point, people are concerned, and I understand it; perhaps even more concerned about the economy, about jobs. Americans care most about pocketbook issues. But here’s the rub: These two things are inextricably linked, are they not?
Bergen: Well, they are and they aren’t. The Afghan war is expensive, $100 billion a year.
Tavis: Exactly.
Bergen: However, that’s about 1 percent of GDP. The American economy is a very large one. During the Vietnam War we were spending 10 percent of GDP on the Vietnam War. So by historical standards, this is a relatively small Defense expenditure, and of course we were attacked from Afghanistan on 9/11 and we do have an obligation to sort of try and get things more or less right there and not to turn it into Switzerland, but at least to leave relatively stable government, both because we owe that to the Afghan people, where we overthrew their government, and because we owe that to ourselves, so that Afghanistan doesn’t revert into a safe haven for the Taliban, al Qaeda and every other Islamic terrorist group in the world, as it was before 9/11.
Tavis: I want to go deeper into the text here in just a second, but I’m wondering if you, Peter, can disabuse me of this notion. If you are right about the fact and I am right about the fact that this story has not gotten the kind of attention it deserves, there’s not been the kind of outcry in Congress or amongst the American people that there ought to be about the fact that we’re now told we’re going to be there until 2014, disabuse me of the notion that the only way this story will become front and center and as important as it ought to be is when more American bodies start stacking up.
What else would have to happen other than more bodies than we can tolerate coming back from Afghanistan to put this story where it ought to be, this longest war?
Bergen: Well, there’s some pretty good academic research that suggest that what Americans don’t like is losing. There is actually a much higher tolerance for casualties amongst the American public than perhaps is understood. So the Iraq war started receiving a lot of attention from the American public because we appear to be losing in Iraq, and once that was no longer the case, attitudes changed.
So I think the story will get back on the front page not only if there are casualties in higher numbers but also if things appear to be going badly in Afghanistan. Right now I think the jury is out for most Americans. A lot of them have turned against the war. But it won’t be really clear until the spring of next year how the war is really going.
Right now we’re in the winter fighting period, where casualties go down, there is much less violence, because Afghanistan is a mountainous country largely with very severe weather. So basically, the thing is in sort of deep freeze right now.
Tavis: Back to the book now, the subtitle, “The Enduring Conflict between America and Al Qaeda.” You make the point pretty aggressively in the book that if we’re going to talk about the war on terror, the story has got to be looked at from both sides – the American side and the al Qaeda side. Why should the American people care about the al Qaeda back story?
Bergen: Well, why should Americans care about the Nazi back story in World War II? If you don’t have the Nazi back story in World War II, World War II is simply not comprehensible. If you don’t understand what al Qaeda was trying to do on 9/11, if you don’t have a sense of who Osama bin Laden is as a person, if you don’t have a sense of what al Qaeda, the organization, was on 9/11, 9/11 appears to be more or less inexplicable.
So in any conflict, if you don’t – we’ve had a lot of stories, histories of the last decade or so told largely from our perspective, and I try to inject the al Qaeda perspective into this narrative, not to suggest moral equivalence but just so that we actually understand what happened.
Tavis: There are there presidents who you dissect their administrations, what they did or did not do, as it were, with regard to this American-al Qaeda fight. Let me take them one at a time and ask you to top-line these presidents in order. Bill Clinton.
Bergen: Yeah, Bill Clinton, I think, had a reasonably good grasp on the al Qaeda threat, responded to it somewhat ineffectually, didn’t respond to the attack on the USS Cole, which was in the last waning months of his administration, and I would think – I think that he and his national security group, generally speaking, had a fairly good sense that al Qaeda was a big problem.
Now going to the Bush administration, George W. Bush, they come out of this history not looking at all good, particularly in the preamble to 9/11. They were preoccupied by Iraq, by antiballistic missile defense, which of course does nothing to stop terrorists.
They received a lot of warning about al Qaeda as a threat. President George W. Bush took the longest presidential vacation in three decades during the summer of ’01, despite all this information in the system that something was going to happen. Condoleezza Rice claimed that the administration was at battle stations during this period, but there’s almost nothing to substantiate that.
They were enormously surprised on 9/11. They overreacted in many ways. Some of the more egregious overreactions were corrected over time, whether it was the coercive interrogation of detainees. The biggest overreaction, of course, was the invasion of Iraq, which would deserve a whole other discussion because it’s such a large issue.
Then finally, President Obama, I think, has – there’s a great deal of continuity between the second Bush term and President Obama’s term in office, whether it’s not closing Guantanamo two years after saying that it would be closed within a year, amping up dramatically our presence in Afghanistan, amping up very dramatically the U.S. CIA drone program directed at militants in Pakistan.
So there’s certainly been a rhetorical shift between the Obama administration and the George W. Bush second term. But in practice, the George W. Bush second term was a lot different from the first term, and it’s much closer to the Obama term than I think anybody would have believed when Obama was first elected.
Tavis: Maybe it’s the smooth accent that allows words to come out of your mouth so evenly and so nice to the ear that we really miss the point sometimes. I think I just heard you say that Barack Obama, this Nobel Peace Prize winner, has amped up in a number of significant ways our war presence beyond even George W. Bush.
Bergen: Sure. Look, President Obama has authorized 100,000 soldiers in Afghanistan. When George W. Bush left office there were about 30,000 soldiers there. He’s more than quadrupled the number of drone strikes into Pakistan compared to the number that George W. Bush authorized in his eight terms in office. He’s also authorized a somewhat aggressive campaign in Yemen to go after al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
So there are – of course, he’s taken coercive interrogations off the table, he has tried to reduce the number of prisoners and detainees at Guantanamo, but he certainly hasn’t closed the place. It shows that some of these issues are – there’s quite a lot of continuity between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party on key issues of national security that will always be matters for debate, but President Obama has – I think a number of the people who would have voted for him would be surprised by these developments.
Tavis: So finally here, given this longest war that you write about in this text, have any of our objectors, any of the initial objectives been met vis-à-vis this longest war?
Bergen: Oh, I think so. Al Qaeda means “the base” in Arabic, and they lost their base in Afghanistan as a result of the George W. Bush invasion of the country. There were mistakes made, certainly in the early years of the occupation of Afghanistan, doing it on the cheap, doing it light, not having enough boots on the ground because of an ideological opposition to nation-building.
The invasion of Iraq gave bin Laden a sort of second lease of life. Al Qaeda in Iraq, which didn’t exist there under Saddam Hussein, inflicted a tremendous amount of damage on Iraq but then itself suffered a strategic defeat there.
But overall, we haven’t been attacked again in any serious manner since 9/11. Al Qaeda has taken a lot of hits, and al Qaeda and its allies, more importantly, are also losing the war of ideas in the Muslim world. Most Muslims around the world recognize that these groups, which position themselves as defenders of true Islam, in fact kill a lot of Muslim civilians.
They don’t really offer them anything positive, and most Muslims don’t want to live in some Taliban-style utopia, which is what bin Laden and allied groups are offering.
Tavis: In a quick 30 seconds, Peter, since you mentioned his name, does it matter, does it mean anything all these years later as this longest war continues, that bin Laden still runs free? What should the American people make of that?
Bergen: We’ve spent half a trillion dollars in our intelligence since 9/11. Bin Laden’s going to celebrate his 54th birthday on February 15th. The fact that he is free I think is a victory for al Qaeda every day that he remains free, and I think if we somehow took him off the battlefield it would be a real blow to al Qaeda and the wider global jihadi movement that has bin Laden as its leader.
Tavis: “New York Times” best seller Peter Bergen has a new on out. It’s called “The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict between America and Al Qaeda.” Peter Bergen, thanks for the text and thanks for the opportunity to talk to you about it, sir.
Bergen: Thank you, sir.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm