Befitting its subject, The Longest War is a very long book, a comprehensive examination of the struggle that began slowly and surreptitiously in the early 1990s and continued—at least until Osama bin Laden’s killing on May 2. His death may not bring the demise of terrorism, but it has given President Barack Obama a justification for winding down the “war on terror” that President George W. Bush began in 2001.

Peter Bergen scrutinizes the events, people, arguments, rumors, and justifications that have come to dominate front pages since 2001 and explains why so much seems to have gone so wrong in the decade since 9/11, when bin Laden’s war with America broke into the open.

A TV analyst and producer for CNN, Bergen had a front-row seat for many of the scenes he describes, including Peter Arnett’s little-noted 1997 interview in which Osama bin Laden declared holy war on the United States. A news producer’s writing and editing responsibilities have given Bergen access to the complex and interconnected sequence of events that frames the story of the United States, bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and the “war on terror.” To his own extensive sources, Bergen adds the work of others: books focused on specific events, official commissions, foreign observers, and the memoirs of some of the principal actors. Over two hundred interviews provide the opinions of a wide range of major and minor (but key) players in the United States, as well as in the war zones. The notes and bibliography alone are worth the price of the book.

The conflict’s evolution over two decades has made Bergen attentive not only to events but to justifications, arguments, and the “factual” backfilling that has followed mistakes by both the United States and Al Qaeda. His chapter on the siege of Tora Bora is as thorough a description as we are likely to have of a mistaken decision in the otherwise successful 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. He makes short shrift of Bush administration excuses for failing to capture Al Qaeda’s leader and his senior commanders. At the time (December 2001), the fog of war allowed the administration to feign ignorance of bin Laden’s whereabouts and then to blame his escape on the reluctance of allied Afghan warlords to pursue him into the mountains and the failure of the Pakistani military to close off his escape on the other side of the border.

In fact, the CIA knew within a few thousand meters where bin Laden was and reported as much to Washington. CIA agents and special forces had a bead on bin Laden’s redoubt, which was heavily bombed several times. Because U.S. forces within striking distance were too few for a direct attack, the CIA chief in Kabul requested a battalion of Rangers (eight hundred soldiers) trained for the harsh mountain conditions. General Tommy Franks and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld refused. Strict adherence to their “light footprint” strategy barred sending troops to capture bin Laden, a false economy if ever there was one. Even at that late date, one has to wonder if Washington yet took bin Laden seriously.

Americans have justifiably focused on the mistakes and deceits of the Bush administration: missing the signals for the 9/11 attack; failing to secure the peace in Afghanistan; allowing lies and disinformation to justify an invasion of Iraq and then mismanaging the “victory,” allowing another jihadist front to emerge in Iraq. Even those many errors are surpassed, in Bergen’s opinion, by those made by bin Laden and Al Qaeda. “Each side has made a set of symbiotic strategic errors that has helped the other. Luckily, those of the United States have not been as profound as Al Qaeda’s.”

Though many would disagree, Bergen argues that 9/11 was a major strategic error by bin Laden because the attack brought about “the destruction of Al Qaeda’s safe haven in Afghanistan.” After the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, bin Laden anticipated U.S. missile strikes of the kind President Bill Clinton ordered in 1998. The Al Qaeda leader closed his training camps, dispersed his followers, and went into hiding fully expecting to return. The invasion of Afghanistan and the overthrow of his Taliban hosts and co-conspirators came as a surprise. Nor did he expect to be on the run, or that the materials in the training camps would be rich pickings for U.S. intelligence. Subsequent Al Qaeda–sponsored violence—beheadings and direct attacks on Muslim civilians—has also alienated vast majorities of his coreligionists. “Though it survives intact and dangerous,” Bergen writes, “Al Qaeda is hemmed in, weakened, and limited in its operations.” And now a decade later it is without its charismatic leader and his resources.

Will bin Laden’s death make a difference? After his escape from Tora Bora, his elusive but real presence on the Internet served as an inspiration for many actual and would-be jihadists, spinning off Al Qaeda franchises around the world. Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, had this right: “[Al Qaeda’s mission] is accomplished: worldwide instigation and inspiration.” As a result, stringent antiterrorist measures remain in place. The United States and its allies are armed to the teeth and ready to do battle with an elusive foe. Osama bin Laden is gone and the United States has staved off further terrorist attacks. But, as The Longest War shows, Al Qaeda will not be defeated simply by the military might deployed by the United States and its allies, above all in Islamic countries, whose citizens have paradoxically become the chief victims of bin Laden’s terrorist ideology.

Published in the 2011-07-15 issue: 

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages.

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