Peter Bergen:

"Manhunt - The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden" (2012)

(Copyright © 2009 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
Peter Bergen, one of the world's greatest experts on Osama (see "The Osama bin Laden I Know" (2006)), published this book without enough preparation: this much is obvious from the many gaps in the narrative. It came out too soon, when too much is still classified as top secret and when too many of the eyewitnesses are either in maximum security jails or at large in Islamic countries. Twenty years from now Bergen might write a new edition of this book (for a generation that might or might not know who Osama was) and that edition will be wildly different from the first edition.

What we have now is a book that adds little to the official story, and adds little to the many analyses of the events. Bergen speculates on what Osama was doing during the years spent at the Pakistani compound, details how he was found and talks about Pakistan. If you haven't read any of this in your local newspaper, you might want to pay the price of this book.

The bigger issues, that would make for a really interesting book, are touched only marginally and superficially. The mother of all issues in the hunt for Osama was torture: is a country entitled to torture its prisoners to obtain information that will lead to success and possibly save a lot of lives? It sounds like torture did work: tortured prisoners revealed enough details about Osama's life that eventually, with a bit of luck, led to his whereabouts. At the same time, it was vital to focus on communications: Osama could not just hide and shut up, he wanted to communicate all the time. These days a wanted man who uses communication technology is likely to be tracked down, sooner or later, by communication technology.

From a military viewpoint, the operation was spectacular and probably with no precedents. Those two helicopters flew deep into Pakistan's territory without being detected. Compared with the fiasco of the hostages in Iran: in 1980 president Carter authorized a similar operaton to rescue hostages imprisoned by Iran, and the result was that everything went wrong. It wasn't just luck that helped Obama: the technology of 2012 is infinitely more powerful than the technology of 1980. More importantly, the special operations troops that have been created after 2001 have become extremely efficient killing machines. The combination of information technology and superhuman troops made the difference.

There are several traumas in the collective psyche of the USA that have been difficult to eradicate. The biggest one, of course, is the Vietnam war. Since then the USA has been reluctant to send soldiers to fight real wars. Clinton fought the war in Kosovo from the air. Bush fought two real wars (with "boots on the ground") only after the USA was attacked on its own soil. However, Obama was probably elected in large part to do sooner than later what Nixon eventually did in 1975: pull out. Note that Obama is the first president of the USA that does not have any connection to Vietnam. Vietnam was an issue for both Clinton and George W Bush (who found undignified ways not to serve) and for two presidential candidates who were defeated, both Vietnam veterans (John Kerry John McCain). Obama's election might have signaled that the trauma is over. Obama, despite the Nobel Peace Prize that he was awarded even before he did anything to deserve it, is one of the most aggressive presidents on record, but not the way that previous presidents were: he is a cold and calculating war strategist. He has expanded the range of intervention to Yemen and Somalia (blatantly violating the sovereignity of those states) but has done so with the most sophisticated tools around. His quiet war has killed scores of innocents, but has also crippled the enemy (Al Qaeda) in a way that his more trigger-happy predecessor (George W Bush) failed to do.

Another national trauma was the 1980 fiasco. Bergen shows how divided the government was on the operation that led to the murder of Osama bin Laden: those who had been around during the 1980 fiasco (notably defense secretary Robert Gates) opposed the operation. Obama is too young to remember and to care. He simply calculated the odds that the operation would succeed. When he (or, better, Panetta) felt confident that the men would succeed, he did not hesitate to strike. Note that the evidence was purely circumstantial: nobody had seen Osama. They thought he was there the same way that Bush's cronies thought that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. In fact, Panetta told Obama that the evidence for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was stronger than the evidence for Osama bin Laden being in that compound. Nonetheless, Obama decided to strike after a cold calculation of pros and cons (and of the costs of inaction).

The relationships between Pakistan and the USA deserve a book of their own. The USA has done more than Pakistan itself to defend Pakistan from being overrun by Islamic extremists. Pakistan has indeed collaborated to Bush's "war on terror" by arresting hundreds of Islamic extremists (the vast majority of the total) and its previous president was almost murdered by Al Qaeda. However, neither the military (that has close links to the military of the USA) nor the secret services welcomed the operaton that killed Osama bin Laden, just like the USA would not welcome it if Mexico invaded Texas to kidnap and kill wanted criminals.

The fate of Al Qaeda is easy to predict: it failed to achieve its goals (originally it wanted to push the USA out of the Middle East and instead it attracted hundreds of thousands of soldiers from the USA), it killed more Muslims than non-Muslims (especially Al Qaeda in Iraq) and it was made obsolete by the Arab Spring. However, it would be historically wrong to conclude that Al Qaeda did not matter, and even wrong to claim that it hurt the cause it was promoting (Islam). In over a century nothing like the terrorist attacks of September 2001 has prompted interest in the history, culture and religion of Islam. Millions of Westerners have become interested in Islam, have purchased and read the Quran, have engaged in discussions over how to coexist peacefully with Islam. How many of them have purchased the Vedas or the Confucian classics? How many tv shows, round tables, conferences and so forth on Hinduism or Confucianism have you seen in the last ten years? Now compare with how many times you turned on your tv set and saw people discussing Islam. Museums are devoting rooms to Islamic Art in an unprecedented numbers. Osama bin Laden made Islam very popular. It used to be an exotic feature of some remote countries that few Westerners toured; and, if they did, Islam would be the last thing on their mind. Now Islam is a powerful tourist and cultural attraction. Like it or not, nobody like Osama bin Laden has helped promote Islam among the Western public.