'Stay the Course': CNN's Bergen Urges Firmness in Afghanistan
Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal's advice to President Obama should be heeded, says CNN's chief terrorism analyst and expert on Afghanistan.
Peter Bergen was the Ruth Pauley speaker earlier this month at the annual Sam Ragan lecture. At dinner with the Ruth Pauley Lecture Series board beforehand, Bergen elaborated upon his understanding of the situation on the ground there. He'd returned from the country only two days before.
"The election was sort of a disaster," Bergen said. "It was a disaster that is going to keep on giving. You can't really have a run-off election in the middle of a war, because half the population can't make it to the ballot box."
Right now, in his estimation, the likelihood of an al-Qaeda attack in the U.S., coordinated from al-Qaeda central (command) on the Afghan border, is close to zero.
"This is not a national security problem," he said. "Timothy McVey is about the ceiling of what you can do here. American Muslims rejected al-Qaeda -- not entirely, but the great majority -- and I don't see a second 9/11. It is difficult to get in, and hard to do an attack here. It is different in Britain. An attack there eventually is foreseeable.
Bergen was born in Minneapolis but grew up in London after the family moved to England when he was 5 years old. He isn't particularly concerned about the young Somali kids from there who recently returned to Somalia to fight with a hard-line Islamic group.
"The Somali kids (in Minneapolis) are living in ghettoes," he said. "It is much more like the European Muslims than American Muslim communities. They get radicalized, then go to Somalia. Al-Qaeda doesn't really recruit people. They tend to self-select. We don't need to worry about these Somali kids (from the Midwest) coming back here. They are on every no-fly list in the world. They are never going to get back in the States. That's the good news."
The term "terrorist" tends to be used differently in different situations in America, he said -- it is more apt to be applied to a foreigner or to a native American of recent foreign descent than others.
"The people who bomb abortion clinics are not usually described as terrorists," Bergen said, adding Oklahoma bomber McVey to the same category.
Bergen said America has a moral duty to Afghanistan.
"In Afghanistan, we have a moral objective to get it right, because we overthrew their government," he said. "You could add eradicating the previous policy. Personal security is the first public service everybody wants.
"After we helped the Mujahadeen throw the Russians out of Afghanistan by getting them surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), we just washed our hands of the place. The Russian army was a conscripted army that faced a countrywide insurrection. We are not in the same situation. The Soviets were hated, and with good reason. Afghanistan is a very poor country and has gone through three decades of war."
One essential goal in Afghanistan needs to be preventing Taliban returning to give al-Qaeda a safe haven, Bergen said. It is wrong to believe that the Taliban came from Pakistan, he said, noting that al-Qaeda was founded there in 1958 and the Taliban began as Afghans who grew up in Pakistan in refugee camps. It was Benazir Bhutto who put the Taliban into power.
"There is overwhelming evidence Osama bin Ladin is alive," he said. "I believe that, in history, certain people do make a difference. Hitler certainly made a difference. He (bin Ladin) is one of those people."
Al-Qaeda, he said, is weakening for a number of reasons.
"For one thing, they are killing so many Muslim civilians," Bergen said. "Jordan, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia have rejected them. This is a huge Achilles' heel. For another thing, al-Qaeda has no positive vision of the future. Also, they are continually adding to their list of enemies. It would be very hard for al-Qaeda to turn itself into a political movement like Hezbollah. Al-Qaeda is going out of business sooner rather than later."
Bergen sees a ramp-up as the only strategy with any chance of success, provided it is tied to sufficient civilian resources.
"We have three choices," he said. "Pull out now. Do less than we are now; do it on the cheap. We spent 12 times as much money in Bosnia. Now, we have a plan (McChrystal's plan) with some chance of success."
The first two strategies are what brought us the Afghan-istan problem to begin with, according to Bergen.
"When we did nothing, we got the Taliban," he said. "When we tried to do it on the cheap, we got the Taliban again. Our efforts there are 99.999 percent military, because that is the way the U.S. is set up. We have 10,000 Marines and only a handful of civilians. Afghan-istan is larger than Iraq, but its army and police are only a quarter of what the Iraqis have. Their army faces a blizzard of suicide attacks daily."
Americans may find it hard to believe, Bergen said, but -- even in the midst of war -- Afghanistan is far safer than generally thought.
"You are much more likely to be murdered in the United States than in Afghanistan today," he said. "Its northern and western areas are pretty safe. Two million boys and girls are in school."
The strategy of trying to eradicate Afghan poppy fields is backfiring, because it destroys crops the poorest farmers subsist on, Bergen said. "They can't afford to pay bribes to have their fields spared," he said. "So they become easy recruits to the Taliban."
Money invested in support for alternative crops would be more helpful than counting the number of poppy fields destroyed. Increasing American aid could also cut away at the high Afghan unemployment rate. Money spent on reconstruction could pay off twice: in jobs and in increased security.
Find bin Ladin
He sees making the Kabul-Kandahar road safe for travel as one essential step. Another is limiting areas at risk of Taliban control. One problem is the "Iraqization" of the Taliban, which once banned television and now uses it. Afghanistan now faces an "Iraqified" war, said Bergen, who sees as the best hope a plan to put another 60,000 to 80,000 American troops in country there by the year's end. There are only some 20,000 Taliban troops in all; it is no threat, not a large group.
"Most Taliban are Pashtun," he said. "You can't really rule Afghanistan if you are not Pashtun. There are many differences between the two wars. In Anbar Province, al-Qaeda was foreigners led by foreigners. In Afghanistan, the Taliban fighters are guys you grew up with. Right now, the U.S. is killing more civilians than Taliban."
The American strategy of going in with limited ground troops has meant heavy U.S. reliance on air strikes, and they kill many civilians.
"We need to end these coalition air strikes for that reason," Bergen said. "Our objectives, once we add troop strength, should be making the main roads safe, denying Taliban safe havens, and building up the native Afghan army and police."
In all Afghanistan there are but some 70,000 police. New York City alone has half that number. In the meantime, Bergen said, America should support a buildup of tribal militias, then use its Special Forces to train a much, much bigger Afghan army.
And one more thing: bin Ladin.
"Yes," he said. "It is important to find him."
Contact John Chappell at 783-5841 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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