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The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict between America and Al-Qaeda Hardcover – January 11, 2011
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, January 2011: At nearly a decade and counting, and with tens of thousands of American troops still at war in Afghanistan and Iraq--and with Osama bin Laden still at large--we remain well within the post-9/11 era, almost to the point where we take its conditions for granted. Many of the aspects of the ongoing, often indirect battles between America and al-Qaeda have been well covered, but there hasn't until now been a full overview of the conflict, and few are more qualified to write it than Peter Bergen, the print and television journalist who, as a CNN producer, arranged bin Laden's first interview with the Western press in 1997. He has been on the story ever since, as the author of Holy War, Inc., and The Osama bin Laden I Know, but in The Longest War he synthesizes his knowledge for the first time into an insightful portrait of both sides in this asymmetrical struggle between superpower and shadowy scourge. Readers of reporters like Lawrence Wright, Thomas Ricks, and Bob Woodward will be familiar with much of the story, especially on the American side, but Bergen's rare understanding of bin Laden's world--often based on personal interviews with present and former jihadists--along with his sharp assessments of each side's successes and failures (he considers the 9/11 attacks to have been more of a failure than a success for their perpetrators), make it necessary reading for anyone wanting to understand our times. --Tom Nissley
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Bergen (The Osama bin Laden I Know), CNN's national security analyst, revisits the personality and career of the al-Qaeda leader and his immediate circle, while delving into the conflict between al-Qaeda and associates and the U.S. and its coalition. Much of the narrative conforms in outline to other recent books on the conflict, but Bergen adds much detail and contour to his analyses. He finds serious miscalculations on the part of the terrorist organization, and sees the "surge" in Iraq signaling a larger decline in al-Qaeda's potency. At the same time, he argues that the widespread backlash in the Middle East against the September 11 attacks confirms it is mainstream Islam that poses the greatest "ideological threat" to al-Qaeda. The U.S., meanwhile, has let incompetence and a misguided obsession with Iraq undermine its efforts to extinguish al-Qaeda and the enduring influence of bin Laden, who, Bergen argues, is still alive. Drawing on vast firsthand knowledge of the region and mining a huge stock of primary and secondary material, including his own interviews with combatants, the book's depth of detail and breadth of insight make it one of the more useful analyses of the ongoing conflict. (Jan.)
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The main problem with this book is that Bergen really has it in for Bush, but this is what you would expect from a CNN analyst. While constantly criticizing Bush, he glosses over important Bush accomplishments such as the capture of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the killing of al Qaeda in Iraq leader Zarqawi in 2006. Needless to say, when later describing Obama's accomplishments in the war on terror, he has no criticisms.
But the Bush record has become news again with Trump's statement that Bush must share some of the blame for 9/11, and this why I read this book, to review all the details. The problem with the Bush administration was that it had a Cold War mindset and saw the main threats to America still coming from states such as Iraq. This of course was true of the whole country with only a few exceptions. What now seems evident in hindsight was not that evident in foresight.
As expected, Bergen criticizes Bush for the Iraqi War. What people fail to realize is that Iraq was the most dangerous state in the Middle East and the US did not know what would happen next after 9/11. Saddam Hussein came to power in a bloody power grab in 1979, invaded Iran in 1980, started a nuclear program which the Israelis destroyed in 1981, used chemical weapons of mass destruction on Iraqi Kurds and others in the 1980s, invaded Kuwait in 1990, used terrorists to try to assassinate the elder Bush in 2003, implied he still had nuclear weapons, and defied UN resolutions until the US invasion of 2003. What the critics basically mean is that Bush was supposed to ignore all this because in hindsight we now know Iraq's nuclear program never recovered. Bush took the dangerous situation around 9/11 as an opportunity to invade Iraq and should be commended for his actions.
But Bush mishandled the Iraqi War and this is really what the criticism is all about. People love a winner and not a loser. First, Bush invaded Iraq with 150,000 troops when his father had used 500,000 to drive Hussein out of Kuwait, a much easier task. Nevertheless, the invasion was successful while the occupation became a disaster. It would have gone much better if there had been 500,000 troops in Iraq. But Bush followed Rumsfeld's theory that US technology was so great that it could control Iraq with a relatively small force. This was Bush's biggest mistake. Then there were disastrous decisions such as firing all the Iraqi government employees and all the military, which left hundreds of thousands Iraqis unemployed, many with weapons and military training.
But whether we are talking about Clinton, Bush, or Obama, they all take the same approach that Iraq must be treated as a nation like the United States. Iraq is basically a forced coalition of three separate groups who cannot live with each other: Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. The Turkish Ottoman Empire controlled what is now Iraq for centuries and had a much better approach. They divided what is now Iraq into three provinces representing the three groups. I have believed this is the best solution from the beginning when we first learned about the make up of Iraq.
Mr Bergen's story starts in a logical place, describing how Osama bin-Laden became the Osama bin-Laden, then describing 9/11 - how it happened, why it happened, and what the initial US response was. All this in just the first four chapters - so the pace moves right along. The Iraq and Afghan Wars take up more than half of this work, but attention is given to several other important subjects such as global terror threats (chapter 8), extraordinary rendition (chapter 7), Al-Qaeda and WMDs (chapter 13), and the worldwide Muslim dialogue over Jihadism (chapter 17).
It is worth drawing attention to the section on Muslim dialogue over Jihadism (chapter 17), which is a topic you will not find well treated in many other places, and many Americans assume does not happen at all - for the simple fact that they do not hear it. That is because it mostly occurs in other countries and in other languages, and the fact that it is included here is a significant and valuable contribution.
At just under 500 pages, this book appears longer than it is - because only 51% of the book is actual text. The rest of the book is notes, sources, and an Index. It isn't clear why the author decided to include such a complete accounting of his sources for an introductory text rather than simply including a "selected bibliography," as is generally done. He may have been worried that the book would be controversial, but a book this short covering so much ground is somewhat hard to make contentious as simply reporting information consumes your space. A lighter, less intimidating book may have helped the book reach more readers.
Though some on the right may find the obligatory Bush-bashing in the earlier sections of book frustrating, Bush is given due credit for the surge, and it is duly noted that Barrack Obama vigorously opposed the surge which did ultimately save Iraq. (For those on the left, simply reverse the order: though some may be frustrated at the criticism of Obama over the surge, there is plenty of Bush bashing...)
Like many books of this type, the reader is sometimes left to wonder if the author remembers what it was like when the events described happened. For instance, so caught up in the analysis and the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that there was real, widespread concern that Iraq would arm terrorists with WMDs which everyone thought they had (according to post-war debriefings this includes Saddam's own generals up until right before the war). That fear, justified or not, was real, as was the real fear of further serious attacks. Writers often do the same thing when writing about the days of détente and the Soviet Union. Instead of acknowledging the very real role the fog of war plays, political actors are often ascribed evil motives, rather than simply criticized for being wrong.
In all, though, this is a careful, concise history of the War on Terror, Afghanistan, and Iraq that is fully up-to-date. 4.5 stars out of 5.
EDIT: 2/19/11 -- I just saw the book for the first time in print; I had read it on my kindle. While 49% of the text is notes/etc, not main text, it is all in small print -- so that it represents perhaps 1/10 of the total pages in the print bound book. Still, I can't raise it up to a full 5 stars for the other reasons mentioned.