To write a history of the present is an inherently difficult task. The documentary and anecdotal records are fragmentary as best, contradictory at worst. The author’s memory of recent events is fresh but often raw. Detached analysis of the relative significance of these events is almost impossible when their consequences are not yet fully apparent. The recent past has not even begun to recede toward that vanishing point where “events” end and “history” begins.
So it is with the two books under review here, dealing with wars whose origins are now almost a decade old yet whose outcomes remain fodder for speculation. Bergen’s Longest War is the more ambitious undertaking and the more rewarding read. As much a short history of the Al Qaeda terrorist network of Osama bin Laden as an analytical narrative of the war the United States wages with it, the book will be a useful source both on American foreign policy and on the nature of modern jihad for years to come. Few journalists are as qualified as Bergen to explain to the uninitiated the origins of bin Laden’s jihad and the strange spell his pious charisma casts over its recruits. As CNN’s national security analyst, Bergen first interviewed bin Laden in 1997, long before his name became a household word, and he has produced two other books dealing with the man, Holy War Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden (2002) and The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of Al Qaeda’s Leader (2006).
Central to bin Laden’s personality was a soft-spoken shyness combined with white-hot fanaticism. As is typical of most fanatics, bin Laden permitted his hatred for the United States to degenerate into contempt. That contempt, Bergen explains, was fed by the U.S. withdrawal from Lebanon following the attack on a Marines barracks there in 1983 as well as by the retreat from Somalia in the wake of the “Black Hawk Down” incident of 1993. It led bin Laden to the conclusion that the United States was weak and that an attack on the American homeland would not trigger a counterattack in the Middle East and Central Asia, as more sober militants warned it would. As a consequence, the attacks of 9/11 were a disaster for the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, leading to its expulsion from the country just as its control over it was all but complete. But the attacks were also a major strategic error for Al Qaeda over which bin Laden would have plenty of time to brood in his mountain cave at Tora Bora.
Yet, blinded as bin Laden was by hatred, the Bush administration was itself blinded by a reckless confidence in its own judgements of what constituted imminent security threats to the United States prior to 9/11. For while it is true that threat assessment in both the Clinton and Bush administrations had been impeded by a larded and bureaucratic national security establishment (a structural vulnerability, incidentally, that has not since been remedied), both were warned of Al Qaeda’s reach and possible ambitions. Nothing testifies more powerfully to the failure of the bureaucracy than the fact that on the morning of the attacks the CIA and its sister agencies were glutted with data they had failed to turn into knowledge of an imminent peril. Only hours after the destruction of the World Trade Center they could release detailed information on the Al Qaeda operatives inside the United States – information hitherto squirrelled away on hard drives all over Virginia and the District of Columbia.