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The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict between America and Al-Qaeda [Paperback]

Peter L. Bergen
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

June 28 2011
TEN YEARS HAVE PASSED since the shocking attacks on the World Trade Center, and after seven years of conflict, the last U.S. combat troops left Iraq—only to move into Afghanistan, where the ten-year-old fight continues: the war on terror rages with no clear end in sight. In The Longest War Peter Bergen offers a comprehensive history of this war and its evolution, from the strategies devised in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to the fighting in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and beyond. Unlike any other book on this subject, here Bergen tells the story of this shifting war’s failures and successes from the perspectives of both the United States and al-Qaeda and its allies. He goes into the homes of al-Qaeda members, rooting into the source of their devotion to terrorist causes, and spends time in the offices of the major players shaping the U.S. strategic efforts in the region. At a time when many are frustrated or fatigued with what has become an enduring multigenerational conflict, this book will provide an illuminating narrative that not only traces the arc of the fight but projects its likely future.

Weaving together internal documents from al-Qaeda and the U.S. offices of counterterrorism, first-person interviews with top-level jihadists and senior Washington officials, along with his own experiences on the ground in the Middle East, Bergen balances the accounts of each side, revealing how al-Qaeda has evolved since 9/11 and the specific ways the U.S. government has responded in the ongoing fight.

Bergen also uncovers the strategic errors committed on both sides—the way that al-Qaeda’s bold attack on the United States on 9/11 actually undermined its objective and caused the collapse of the Taliban and the destruction of the organization’s safe haven in Afghanistan, and how al-Qaeda is actually losing the war of ideas in the Muslim world. The book also shows how the United States undermined its moral position in this war with its actions at Guantánamo and coercive interrogations—including the extraordinary rendition of Abu Omar, who was kidnapped by the CIA in Milan in 2003 and was tortured for four years in Egyptian prisons; his case represents the first and only time that CIA officials have been charged and convicted of the crime of kidnapping.

In examining other strategic blunders the United States has committed, Bergen offers a scathing critique of the Clinton and Bush administrations’ inability to accurately assess and counter the al-Qaeda threat, Bush’s deeply misguided reasons for invading Iraq—including the story of how the invasion was launched based, in part, on the views of an obscure academic who put forth theories about Iraq’s involvement with al-Qaeda—and the Obama administration’s efforts in Afghanistan.

At a critical moment in world history The Longest War provides the definitive account of the ongoing battle against terror.

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From Publishers Weekly

Before Arnold, Jack and Tiger, there was Bobby. After winning the Grand Slam of golf in 1930, Jones stood like a colossus over the American sporting scene. He is the only individual to have been recognized with two ticker tape parades down Broadway's Canyon of Heroes. Frost (The Greatest Game Ever Played) has written a swift, surefooted account of Jones's remarkable life and career. From Jones's precocious early days on the Atlanta links to his sudden retreat from the media spotlight, Frost covers every detail. The self-taught Jones began playing serious tournaments at 14 and quickly moved into the ranks of the world's best players. In 1930, he won the four major tournaments of the time: the British Amateur, the British Open, the U.S. Open and the U.S. Amateur, which sportswriters dubbed the Grand Slam. Following this success, Jones promptly retired. Later diagnosed with a rare nerve illness, he lived out his life as golf's elder statesman. While Frost's eager prose has an engaging, "you are there" quality, for nongolfers the question is whether they actually do want to be there. Frost strains to place Jones's achievement in the broader context of American history. As bedside reading for the literate duffer, this is a hole in one. For the average reader, it's a bogey. 15 b&w photos.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

In 2002, Frost retold the story of amateur golfer Francis Quimet's 1913 victory in the U.S. Open (The Greatest Game Ever Played).Now he re-creates another classic episode in golf history: the Grand Slam won by Bobby Jones in 1930, the only time the U.S. Open, U.S. Amateur, British Open, and British Amateur tournaments were ever won by the same person in the same year. As in the Quimet book, Frost builds to the climactic event with plenty of fascinating backstory, both about Jones' young life as a golf phenom and about the sports-crazy 1920s. He also delves into Jones' delicate psyche, revealing the building pressures that led to Jones' retirement from competitive golf after his unparalleled triumph. Because the story of the Grand Slam requires nearly shot-by-shot recounting of multiple golf tournaments, this book loses some of the tension and high drama that Frost was able to build in his earlier work, which climaxed more dramatically. Still, this is an excellent book of golf history, albeit not quite The Greatest Game Ever Played. Bill Ott
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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3.0 out of 5 stars Not the Greatest Aug. 26 2011
Format:Paperback
This book is about the West's War on Terror and its failings. I don't agree with all the author's opinions and what he says, but it is well-researched and he does have the credentials (meeting bin Laden, traveling around the Middle East, etc.) to say what he says. I'd say a con on the book is that it at times drags on needlessly and is very boring at times, especially when discussing the American debates about Iraq. I'd recommend to read Steve Coll's Ghost Wars before reading this one.
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Amazon.com: 3.3 out of 5 stars  50 reviews
97 of 119 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Background - Jan. 14 2011
By Loyd E. Eskildson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Nearly a decade after 9/11 we're still fighting in Afghanistan, and have yet to withdraw from Iraq (hopefully this year). While we haven't had another major terrorist attack since, we have spent over $1 trillion, thousands have died, and evidence indicates that we've also inspired a surge in Islamist opposition. Currently, many reports indicate things are not going well in Afghanistan. Peter Bergen's (one of the very few Westerners to interview Osama Bin Laden) summary in "The Longest War" is interesting and credible, though suffers from a obvious errors and only superficial treatment of Afghanistan.

The first error occurs at the very beginning when Bergen asserts that 9/11 represented a miscalculation by Bin Laden, causing the collapse of the Taliban regime and the destruction of Al-Qaeda's safe have in Afghanistan. However, given the Taliban's subsequent resurgence, Al-Qaeda's successful relocation to Pakistan etc., and its continued ability to roil and financially bleed foes around the world with various bombings and even attempted bombings, Bin Laden is undoubtedly quite pleased with the trade-off.

Bergen continues with important background - how Bin Laden had concluded that the U.S. was weak, based on our pullout from Vietnam in the 1970s, Reagan's fleeing Beirut after the Marine barracks bombing, Clinton's withdrawal of forces in Somalia after the 'Black Hawk Down' incident a decade later, and our failure to respond to the U.S.S. Cole bombing just prior to Bush II becoming president. As for Al-Qaeda's contribution to the Soviet departure from Afghanistan, Bergen believes it is much overrated - the number of Afghans fighting totaled about 175,000, vs. no more than several hundred outside Arabs at any one time.

After the spectacular successes or our initial Afghanistan bombing campaign, major U.S. blunders eventually undid most of those successes. The biggest was General Franks' refusal to provide more troops at Tora Bora when Bin Laden was fleeing the country, and the Pentagon's ignoring a Special Forces request to be dropped on Pakistan's side of Tora Bora to trap Bin Laden from behind. Instead, Bergen points out, the U.S. relied on 2,000 Afghans under commanders that disliked each other more than Al-Qaeda, and also happy to take bribes from Arabs trying to escape the U.S. bombing assault.

Per Bergen, U.S. commanders at the time were overly concerned over potential casualties and offending Afghan warlords. Some also excused our inaction by claiming insufficient evidence that Bin Laden was at Tora Bora; however, Bergen also reports that V.P. Cheney stated at the time that "Bin Laden was probably there." Pakistan's military, meanwhile, was distracted at the time by a mobilization on its border with India in response to an earlier Pakistani terrorist attack on India's Parliament.

The Bush administration was terrified of another terrorist attack, and thus authorized outsourcing torture to other nations, and pushed terrorist trials by military commissions where it is not required that defendants see all evidence, and coerced testimony and hearsay evidence are admissible. Bergen, however, also goes to some length to establish that the U.S. gained more useful information via humane treatment than otherwise. Most, if not all, information touted as gained from more aggressive techniques turned out to be false alarms or dated information.

The 'War of Error' (Iraq) was meant to prevent a next attack. However, again, early military successes were nearly undone by subsequent mistakes - specifically Bremer's orders removing Baath party officials from all positions and dissolving Iraq's military, the U.S. military's refusal to negotiate with Sunni leaders until years later, failure to even attempt to secure Iraqi weapons caches estimated to total 1 million tons, humiliating home searches that widely antagonized the populace, and the Abu Ghraib scandal. As for preventing a supposed link-up between Hussein's Iraq and Al-Qaeda, Bergen reports that in 2006 the CIA estimated there were only 1,300 foreign fighters in Iraq - albeit almost all Al-Qaeda and the source of most of the suicide attackers. IEDs were the leading cause of American combat deaths by the latter half of 2005 - yet only about 10% of military transport trucks were armored, and the military delayed procurement of more - another major mistake.

Returning to Afghanistan, Bush II blocked nation-building there, we deployed only 6,000 soldiers initially, and blocked the use of non-U.S. troops outside Kabul for the first two years. Bergen believes that Pakistan's haven was the key to the Taliban's resurgence in Afghanistan. Between 2001-06, no senior Taliban leader was arrested or killed in Pakistan, despite the fact that most of them lived there. Heroin growth provided much better income to Afghan farmers than other crops, and even many urban occupations - about $12/day, per Bergen, a month's pay for most. Since about 10% of the population grew poppies, this put the U.S. in a quandary - alienate Afghans, or allow the drug to fuel social problems at home. By the time President Bush II left office, the Taliban had a presence in 72% of Afghanistan.

The 2005 London subway bombings cost about $14,000, including airfares to/from Pakistan and chemicals, and Bergen reports Bin Laden bragged in 2004 that Al-Qaeda's $500,000 'investment' in 9/11 created a $500 billion loss for the U.S. (Undoubtedly an underestimate, given our subsequent expenditures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for Homeland Security.) Here Bergen commits his second major error - claiming that Al-Qaeda naively believed they could bleed the West dry. Between China and the War on Terror, our finances are obviously suffering.

Many fear Internet-spawned terrorism acts. Bergen, however, claims no evidence of a successful terrorist attacked operationalized mainly via the Internet. Further, while the 2003 Madrid train bombings were the product of a 'leaderless jihad' financed via local drug dealings, the most effective terrorists were usually organized training camp graduates. As for 'the bomb' - Bergen sees little likelihood Al-Qaeda will succeed because Pakistan's weapons (the most likely source) utilize electronic locks and probably are stored disassembled, and the total amount of stolen highly enriched uranium is only one-third that required to create a bomb. (Also, making a bomb requires considerable skill and precision.)

Positive U.S. moves include General Petreus' requiring troops to live among Iraqi citizens ("we can't commute to this war"), negotiating (belatedly) with local tribal leaders, creating the equivalent of gated communities, 'the surge,' increased use of drones, chain analysis of captured cell phones, and targeting IED makers. Bergen lists Malaki's initiating operations against former ally Al-Sadr and Shia forces in Basra and ending the Shia bias within its military and police forces as positive Iraqi moves.

What did we accomplish in Iraq? None of the stated goals, says Bergen. No WMDs were found or in production, no alliance between Saddam and Al-Qaeda was found, no democratic domino effect occurred in the region, peace did not come to Israel, and the war was not paid for via increased oil revenues to Iraq.

The 'good news,' per Bergen, is that Al-Qaeda is creating growing problems for itself via Muslim civilian deaths, failing to provide either a positive vision of where it is going or social services such as schools and welfare assistance, and alienating one government after another - including Iran. Surveys, however, show a positive view of the Taliban in Afghanistan; moreover, there are those discouraging reports from non-military personnel on the scene. I fear Bergen is over-optimistic.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Afghanistan Jan. 29 2011
By 05/11A - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
PAKITA,KHOST & GHAZNI PROVINCES/2003;IRAQ/2005

Very good book...the author provides insight into al qaida (hereinafter al Q" in order to understand the initial organizational structure, the intent, the history and the current status of Al Q.."the base".

The book moves through Iraq with the al Q with emphasis on the invasion of Iraq, the disbandment of the military and civilian infrastructure and the onset of the insurgency. The book provides a deep introspective review based on current information and direct quotes from those who were in the decision matrix who were involved in what was initially a "war of choice"...Iraq. But, moreover, the disbandment of the Iraqi military in total and the entire civilian infrastructure was in fact the causation of the nearly 4300 US KIA and some 30,000 severely wounded...aside from the nearly 1 trillion in costs to the US taxpayer. These critical components of the Iraq war decision by the Bush people empowered al Q which sought to divide the Sunni against the Shi....this division of religious ideology continues to plague Iraq..and will do so for many years to come.

The book provides unique insights into the invasion of Afghanistan...and the horrific decision to basically abandon Afghanistan with the war in Iraq. For readers who have read previous books...or who served in Afghanistan post Tora Bora or Operation Anaconda (March of 2002) know that all efforts at post war reconciliation or stability was overshadowed by the war in Iraq.

From a personal standpoint, I witnessed the significant decrease programs designed to stabilize Afghanistan due directly to the war in Iraq. In short, we lost the momentum..and as such have and will pay a continuing price both in personnel losses, an ever evolving military strategy..and the increase in Taliban influence and empowerment throughout Afghanistan.

Bergen has an excellent introspective review of "what happened" based on quoted prove sources from those people involved in the planning and execution of the war(s) both in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In closing, we made many, many mistake.....the war in Iraq was a war of choice. Historically, the evidence of many of the assumptions of the Bush era people and the acts carried out have proven to horrific in error, against the law...and (in the case of Iraq) against the recommendations of the military leadership.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Complete History of the US v of Al-Qaeda Jan. 29 2011
By Daniel Hurley - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The magazine 'The Economist', in its review, noted that Bergen offers nothing new in his new book on the US and it's war against Al-Qaeda, 'The Longest War'. I have to agree on that point; however, what Bergen offers is a complete history of the association between Al-Qaeda and America that as you read it is almost painfully familiar. Bergen provides a history of Al-Qaeda's beginnings, bin Laden of course, the bombing of the Cole, 9-11, bombing or our embassy in Africa, the war in Afghanistan, the Bush team's desire to go into Iraq, Guantanamo, water boarding, the on going war in Afghanistan, individual terrorists & sects and their various attempts/plans, and of course the endless search for Al-Qaeda/bin Laden. He also covers the actions of, although not in great deal, George H. W Bush, Clinton, W and Obama. This book provides quite a lot of detail in only 350 pages of narrative. The downside is only the last chapter or two address the most recent searches for Bin Laden and tries to pin point where he is and his present state of affairs. I do wish that Bergen had included some of his insights that he shared recently during his interview with Bill Maher where he spoke with genuine optimism that the U.S. can succeed in Afghanistan. In his book, he does note that bin Laden had the support of 63% of the Pakistan in 2004 but it's down to 18% today, certainly a good sign. If you want a very good overall history of the war against Al-Qaeda, this is a good book to read.
17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Staggering incompetence, staggering costs Jan. 22 2011
By Charles A. Krohn - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This isn't something for faint-hearted or zealous partisan readers. But readers who care about national security and follow war events closely will applaud the quality research behind this remarkably objective publication. Anyway, that's my take.

The Vulcans organized our response to 9/11, generally with public support here and abroad. But the picture quickly darkened as it became apparent we were in over our head with no credible grand strategy. Maybe the Vulcans should have spent more time at the forge than sniffing each other's musk. This might have caused us to recalibrate some our efforts sooner, instead of waiting until after the 2008 election.

Almost anyone who has served in the White House, Pentagon or war theater understands the importance of positive metrics to reinforce the wisdom of those in charge. Analysts who are less optimistic simply disappear, and their charts shredded. In fact, honest doubters should be brought into the fold immediately, instead of being dismissed for disloyalty. Although unstated, this is certainly a supportable inference from The Longest War.

From 2003 to 2006 there was nothing but good news from the Green Zone, until even party loyalists could not paper over distressing reports of the ethnic turmoil in Iraq that was destroying the nation's social fabric from within. What saved the day, temporarily at least, was the Surge that helped put the exiled Sunnis back in the game from which they were ousted by Ambassador Bremer in 2003. We don't know yet how the Kurds, Sunnis and Shia will resolve their differences, but we're reasonably confident that Al Qaeda doesn't have the power it once did to create mayhem. Like him or not, the Surge would not have happened without the support of President Bush.

In a similar vein, President Obama inherited a mess in Afghanistan but he's behaving more aggressively than his predecessor who showed far more interest from the git-go in liberating Baghdad than Kabul. This is a bit of a surprise, considering the rhetoric of the Obama campaign.

My favorite quote is from Colonel Patrick Lang, talking about human intelligence (HUMINT) in the final chapter about why we haven't yet found bin Laden.

"Everyone talks about effective HUMINT, but nothing is happening. The people who do this kind of work are gifted eccentrics, who the bureaucrats don't like, or they are the criminal types, who the lawyers don't like."

I think the book would have been a little stronger if Bergen focused more on our failure to have a strategy for what we want to accomplish in the long run, rather than short-term objectives, attainable or not in the near term. It will be interesting to read how former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld treats some of these issues in his upcoming book.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Most Up-to-Date, Concise History of the Entire War on Terror Currently Available Jan. 29 2011
By Nathan B - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Though I speak Arabic and have lived in the Middle East, I am not an expert - but I do like to read on the subject and when I saw that the well respected Peter Bergen was coming out with a new book, I immediately decided to buy it as soon as it came out. This book is now my go-to book for friends/family who ask for a recommendation of one book to read on the subject: if you want to find an up-to-date, concise one volume history of the War on Terror/Iraq/Afghanistan, this is the one. Most people do not have time to read widely on the subject, but we should all know about it - so I believe this book fulfills an important role.

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.
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