The U.S. isn’t going to disappear in a year or two
On the one year anniversary of the mission that killed Osama bin Laden, two experts on counter-terrorism appeared on Amanpour – to consider the rise and fall of Al Qaeda and the man who will forever be its enigmatic face.
As if to punctuate the occasion, President Obama had just arrived unannounced at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, on his way to meet with President Karzai.
Peter Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst and author of Manhunt, the Ten Year Search for Bin Laden, said President Obama’s surprise visit should be viewed “in the context of the NATO summit to be held in Chicago on May 20th. “ At that time, Bergen said, the heads of state of NATO will affirm an agreement that will assure a U.S. presence “in some form” in Afghanistan for ten more years.
“A good thing in my view,” said Bergen. “Afghans were worried we’d turn out the lights in 2014; this reassures the Afghans and also helps the hedging strategies of Pakistan and other countries.”
Richard Clarke, former Senior Advisor On Counter Terrorism to Presidents Clinton and Bush, said President Obama’s visit also sends a public message to the Taliban and their supporters “that the U.S. isn’t going to disappear in a year or two.”
Clarke added, “This agreement says U.S. combat forces may go but special forces, intelligence apparatus, and air forces are likely to stay on as long as they are needed.”
It was a bit surreal
Clarke then looked back to September 11, 2001, when Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were seared into the world’s consciousness.
“It was a bit surreal,” said Clarke, “since the White House was evacuated except for a few of us. And so you were operating in a largely empty building.”
Clarke added, “It probably hadn’t happened in two hundred years, since the British attacked the White House.”
Often perceived as a lone voice, warning of the threat posed by Al Qaeda, Clarke said, “What went through my head was that this was Al Qaeda, this was the big attack that we have been saying was going to come. I didn’t have a lot of time for recriminations. We were in the middle of crisis management. We had to do a lot of things and do them quickly, like land two thousand aircraft.”
The brand had been damaged
Bergen then turned to another dramatic moment – when Osama bin Laden, the architect of 9-ll, was taken out and an invaluable stash of documents and other data were found within his residence in Abbotabad.
The only journalist to visit bin Laden’s compound before it was destroyed, Bergen was just one of two journalists to have access to that mother lode of documents. In so doing, he found evidence that bin Laden and Al Qaeda were desperate to attack America again.
“The documents paint a picture of an organization under considerable pressure,” said Bergen. “They were worried about drones. Bin Laden was advising one of his sons to move to Qatar, one of the most peaceful places in the Middle East. Advocating holy war on one hand but for his family a whole other sort of direction.”
Bergen added, “He was contemplating changing the name of Al Qaeda…The brand had been damaged, he knew that.”
“They understood they were doing badly,” said Bergen. “Bin Laden continued to want to plot to kill President Obama and David Petraeus. He said it’s not worth killing Vice President Biden or Gates. He had a list of people it wasn’t worth attacking. The point is that all these things were blue sky things. There was no way they could pull it off.”
Clarke would not concede that bin Laden’s death is also the death knell for Al Qaeda. “We’re not out of the woods,” he said. “There is still an Al Qaeda in the world.” In particular, he pointed to Yemen, home to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Penninsula.
“They appear to have the desire to attack the U.S.,” he said. As an example, Clarke pointed to the bomb maker who conspired with the so-called Underwear Bomber.
“That bomb maker is still alive and well,” said Clarke, “and apparently still in Yemen, trying to figure out a way to make bombs that will go off on American airplanes or somewhere in the U.S.”
Memo to Al Qaeda: Grow Trees
Bergen described bin Laden as an “inveterate micromanager.” He kept sending notices to Al Qaeda in Yemen, telling them to stop making the same mistakes that had been made in Iraq – like killing civilians.
Bin Laden went further “into the weeds,” said Bergen. He wanted Al Qaeda operatives to “make sure people take a rest stop before they get on the road so they don’t have to stop at a restaurant or a gas station because they’re infested by government spies.”
He even told one Al Qaeda affiliate “to grow trees so that in the future they could use them for cover for military operations.”
You can kill people forever
When asked if the documents he’s sifted through reveal a conspiracy at the highest levels of the Pakistani government to hide and protect bin Laden, Bergen said: “It’s hard to prove negatives but we have six thousand documents from the compound. Our relations with the Pakistanis are not so great that we wouldn’t have gone out and said there’s a smoking gun. There is no smoking gun.”
On the question of whether or not the U.S. has the legal and ethical right to assassinate what it perceives to be its enemies – whether it be targeting bin Laden or the use of drones - Clarke said: “I think it is legal, ethical and effective. But it’s not sufficient. In addition to killing people which we have to do unfortunately when they try to kill us, we also have to counter the violent extremism philosophy.”
“You can kill people forever,” said Clarke, “Until you counter the philosophy at the root level in the countries where people are turning to violence, there will continue to be terrorists.”