Peter Bergen interview
The author discusses the aftermath of the Osama Bin Laden killing.
With the tenth anniversary of September 11 around the corner, and the death of Osama bin Laden still in the rearview mirror, we chat with CNN correspondent Peter Bergen, author of The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict between America and Al-Qaeda (Free Press, $16).
What was bin Laden like when you met him in 1997?
I was expecting a table-thumping revolutionary, but he turned out to be very low-key, quite thoughtful and intelligent. He had been a religious zealot since the age of 13. His idea of fun as a teenager was to get a group of buddies together and chant religious songs about Palestine. Even by the standards of 1970s Saudi Arabia, he stood out as somebody who was very observant. And once that kind of religious zealotry fused with the military experience he had in fighting the Soviets, it became a pretty combustible mix.
What was your reaction when you heard bin Laden had been killed?
I was surprised, because I had heard from multiple people in the U.S. government that the trail had gone cold. Although typically people do get caught eventually. The only way to not get caught is to go into total isolation—bin Laden could have remained free, but he also would have become completely irrelevant. But in my mind it could have gone on for another ten years.
In your book, you say the war against Al Qaeda finally began to wind down in 2011—
There are some people who say that the war on terrorism isn’t over: Of course terrorism’s not going to go away as a tactic, and there will always be somebody somewhere in the world that is attracted to these ideas. But the ability to do a 9/11-style attack on the United States is very constrained. These groups are going to continue to be something of a threat, but will they be an existential or even a big problem? I’m pretty skeptical.
What do you feel about the war in Afghanistan?
Having been a frequent visitor to Afghanistan since the mid-’90s, I feel that we actually have a plan in place, we’re making quite a lot more progress than is understood, and in fact Afghanistan is a lot less violent than people assume. The Afghans are quite concerned about us heading for the exit. There is almost no constituency for the Taliban coming back in any shape or form.
Contrary to our view of this place as the graveyard of empires which always regards occupiers as a sort of pathogen that must be expelled, Afghans are actually pretty aware of the fact that if you compare the last 30 years of their history—that involves the Soviet occupation that killed millions of them, a civil war that killed hundreds of thousands more and then the Taliban who imposed security at a tremendous cost—what is happening now is just night and day.
There were 1 million kids in school in 2001, there are 8 million today, 37 percent of them are girls, one in three Afghans has a cell phone—in a country that didn’t have a phone system, the GDP growth rate was 23 percent in 2009. I think we’re hopefully going to leave Afghanistan in a somewhat more stable, more prosperous situation than when we arrived.
How has the Arab Spring affected the cause of Al Qaeda?
It has illustrated the fact that bin Laden and Al Qaeda had lost the war of ideas in the Muslim world, and not because the United States or Britain or any other Western country won them, but because here was a group that was positioning itself as the defender of Islam and in fact was killing mostly Muslims. This point was widely recognized in the Muslim world, and Al Qaeda’s ideas, foot soldiers and leaders have been totally absent from the Arab Spring. I haven’t seen a single picture of Osama bin Laden in any of the protests in the Middle East. The one thing people aren’t asking for in Egypt, or Libya, is a Taliban-style theocracy, which was bin Laden’s preferred end state.