INTERVIEW

CNN's Peter Bergen on the "dotted line" from Osama bin Laden to Donald Trump

Longtime CNN correspondent says we're not done with Afghanistan, and that Osama brought America "back into history"

By Chauncey DeVega
Published September 13, 2021 5:50AM (EDT)
Osama bin Laden and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/)
Osama bin Laden and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/)

There is America before 9/11 and America after 9/11. That's as much an observation based on emotion, psychology, feelings and metaphysics as an empirical one. In all, we are a changed people.

The trauma of that day resulted in a 20-year war in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq based on the lies about "weapons of mass destruction" and false claims Saddam Hussein was somehow involved with al Qaeda and the 9-11 attacks. As part of the War on Terror and "forever wars," the U.S. military took action in numerous countries all over the world.

Thousands of American service people were killed and injured. Many thousands more suffered lifelong physical and emotional injuries. It is estimated that 30,000 American active-duty service members or veterans have committed suicide because of PTSD caused by the forever wars and the War on Terror.

Hundreds of thousands of people in Afghanistan, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East have also died because of the the events spawned by 9/11 and America's and its allies' response to that horrible day.   

These wars have almost certainly cost the American people trillions of dollars. The final amount will not be known until decades in the future. They have also changed American culture, making the surveillance society ever more normalized and omnipresent. America's police were further militarized as the tactics (as well as equipment and personnel) from the forever wars were moved from the battlefields abroad and used to brutalize Black and brown communities in the homeland. 

Any remaining claim that America is an exceptional nation and a beacon of democracy and human rights was gutted by the torture and other crimes that occurred at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay and various other prisons and "black sites" . 

Gangster capitalists and other plutocrats have used the economic costs associated with the forever wars to further gut the social safety net and America's infrastructure as a way of enriching themselves. It is not coincidental that the post-9/11 era also birthed a new American neofascism that further radicalized an already extreme Republican Party, which led to the election of Donald Trump, the Jan. 6 insurgency and an ongoing coup against America's multiracial democracy.

Ultimately, on 9/11 Osama bin Laden imposed his will on history. We are now living in the world he helped to create. Peter Bergen has been following this story for many years as CNN's national security analyst. He is also a vice president at the New America think tank. His new book is "The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden."

In this conversation, Bergen shares his concerns about America's withdrawal from Afghanistan and how it may leave the U.S. and its allies less safe given the Taliban's past behavior. Bergen also recounts meeting Osama bin Laden and discusses how he became a force of history that changed the trajectory of America's (and the world's) future. Finally, Bergen explains how the tragedy of 9/11 is connected, however indirectly, to the rise of Donald Trump.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

When you hear language such as the "forever wars" or the "War on Terror" what does that mean to you? How do you make sense of it?

When 9/11 happened, we did not have the language to describe the event. As a result, if one does not have the language then it is difficult to think about something in a coherent fashion. It is also difficult to develop policies — for example, we ended up with policies that did not make a great deal of sense. In terms of Guantánamo, the main 9/11 plotters have still not gone to trial because we tied ourselves in so many knots about whether they were combatants or not, and whether they should be tried under a military justice system.

The conceptual confusions were caused by the facts. Not because we were confused, but the facts themselves were confusing. On 9/11 the United States was attacked by a small terrorist group, but the attack was on a scale or level of war. Considering Afghanistan, I believe that framing it as a forever war did not really do us any particular favors.

The Afghanistan Papers showed that the war was a lost cause, and defeat appeared to be a fait accompli. Withdrawal from Afghanistan is also very popular among the American people, both Democrats and Republicans. What other options would you have suggested for Joe Biden?

President Biden has presented this as either we needed to get out entirely or we need to reinvade the country. When he gave his recent speech on Afghanistan, he talked about tens of thousands of additional soldiers that needed to be deployed there. That's not true. President Obama faced the same choice at the end of his second term. He really wanted to go to zero troops. In the end, he left 8,400 in Afghanistan. The difference between 3,500 and 8,400, when you have 1.3 million active-duty American military, and 2 million if you throw in the reserves, is not significant.

Biden obviously chose a different path. He's the commander in chief. He is entitled to make that decision. There are three circumstances under which he might change his mind. One is ethnic cleansing by the Taliban against the Hazara Shia, which they've done in the past. That's what changed Obama's mind on Iraq — when the Yazidis were facing death from ISIS. Another is Americans being killed. That's what changed Obama's mind even more, when Jim Foley was beheaded by ISIS. If there's a terrorist attack in the Afghan-Pakistan region that's against American interests or against our NATO allies, that may change the calculus as well.

Facts can change. This is not forever. I believe that the Taliban are likely to behave as they did before 9/11. To me, that suggests that the Taliban are going to make mistakes. They're going to again do things that are abhorrent. Samantha Power is a member of President Biden's cabinet. If the Taliban engage in ethnic cleansing — which they did when they were in power before — she will surely be a voice to say, "Look, we should intervene in some shape or form."

Is Afghanistan going to be some type of lingering presence in American politics?

I believe so. The Soviets invaded when Jimmy Carter was president. He began America's involvement in Afghanistan. Then Reagan comes in. He massively amps up the war in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is one of the huge nails in the coffin of the Soviets during the Cold War. They fall. The civil war happens. The Taliban and al Qaeda become a presence. Bill Clinton has to respond to the embassy attacks in Africa that kill 212 people, mostly Africans and a dozen Americans. And then 9/11 happens. George W. Bush has to respond. Obama calls Afghanistan the "good war." He surges a massive number of troops into Afghanistan. He also announced a third withdrawal date. President Trump constantly talked about withdrawing. Biden is finally withdrawing from Afghanistan. Every American president since Jimmy Carter has had Afghanistan be an important part of their presidential story. Joe Biden is no different.

There are dueling narratives about Afghanistan. On the left there are claims that the defeat in Afghanistan represents another example of a dying American empire. On the right, there is a narrative that the withdrawal from Afghanistan is an international embarrassment that will empower America's enemies and rivals, such as China, Russia and Iran.  How do you reconcile these claims?

America was formed as an anti-empire project, and therefore Americans have a hard time involving themselves in quasi-empire-like activities. This is true even if the country is a world superpower. The United States is still in South Korea with 25,000 or more troops, more than three-quarters of a century after the armistice ended the Korean War. In my opinion, the idea that we need to focus on other issues is nonsense.

The United States has a $750 billion defense budget. The country's military can do more than one thing at a time. A relatively small presence in Afghanistan doesn't preclude America's ability to deal with China or Russia. And by the way, nothing gives China or Russia greater joy than seeing the United States abandon Bagram Air Base, a giant base that at one point had up to 50,000 American troops. The Chinese are delighted we're gone. I can almost guarantee you that the Chinese and the Russians will be among the first governments to recognize the Taliban.

If 9/11 had been treated as a law enforcement problem, would the United States have found itself embroiled in a 20-year-war in Afghanistan? Where would we be now if Afghanistan hadn't been invaded in response to 9/11?

It clearly was not merely a law enforcement problem when 3,000 people are killed in the morning of 9/11, the Pentagon is taken out, the Trade Center collapses, and the intent was to also crash Flight 93 into the Capitol, killing thousands more people and taking out the seat of American government. This is not conventional criminal activity. Yet at the same time, this was not a traditional nation that that attacked us. If the Taliban had just handed over bin Laden, we would not be having this conversation. The Taliban chose not to do so.

On the anniversary of 9/11 I always reflect on how the United States has not been the same since that day. The country feels very different and fundamentally changed. There is the before 9/11 and then the after 9/11.

In a sense, it brought the United States and the American people back into history. History is often tragic. The 1990s was a time of great prosperity. We'd won the Cold War. It all looked pretty good. But history intervened in our affairs again, with 9/11 being the most serious attack on the continental United States since the War of 1812.

You can't draw a direct line from President Trump to 9/11, but you certainly can draw a dotted line. Per the polls, Donald Trump was seen as stronger on terrorism than Hillary Clinton. Trump won by a very narrow margin. 9/11 had unexpected downstream consequences in many different ways. I believe that 9/11 changed us as a country.

What was it like to meet Osama bin Laden in 1997? Did you have a sense that this was someone who was going to change history?

No, I didn't. But if you'd met Hitler in a beer hall in Munich in the 1920s, he would have seemed like a deranged crank, shouting about the Jews and being stabbed in the back in World War I.

In many ways, charisma exists in the eye of the beholder. But Osama bin Laden did not strike me as particularly charismatic. However, the people around him were hanging on his every word.

They called him "Sheik," which is a term of respect. They saw him as a really significant figure. People who met him who were part of al Qaeda or who were trying to get into al Qaeda described meeting him as being like a seismic moment in their lives that changed everything. Clearly Osama bin Laden also had millions of people around the world who responded positively to him.

He gave up a life of luxury to go and fight the Soviets. In Hollywood terms, bin Laden has a very interesting backstory. There are something like 6,000 Saudi princes, and not one of them went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets personally. But bin Laden did. He wasn't personally a coward, at least in terms of his fight against the Russians. I may not have felt his charisma, but bin Laden clearly had it.

Is Osama bin Laden one of those rare figures who through force of will changes history? is he a necessary figure in terms of 9/11 and al Qaeda? If not him would another person have filled that void and done the same things?

I completely believe that it was him. Why were the French at the gates of Moscow in 1812? You can only explain it by Napoleon. Obviously, he needed the French Revolution and the revolutionary army to implement that attack, but it was only the ego and ambition of Napoleon that took the French to the gates of Moscow in 1812.

You can't explain the Holocaust without Hitler. Of course, the Holocaust was implemented by the whole machinery of the SS and others, but without Hitler, it's hard to imagine that it would have gotten to that point.

The same is true with bin Laden. It is clear that he didn't have the same impact on history that Napoleon did or Hitler did, but he did change America, specifically foreign policy, for the first two decades of the 21st century. 9/11 was bin Laden's big idea. It was his strategy. He implemented it, even though there was internal opposition in al Qaeda. In the end, bin Laden did change history. It didn't change in the way he thought it would, but he did in fact change history.

What was Osama bin Laden's personal narrative about himself?

In his mind, he was fulfilling God's will. He really believed that. Bin Laden believed that he was an instrument of God's will. He believed that if he didn't do the things he did, that God would punish him. Bin Laden also believed that anybody who got in the way was collateral damage. This included Muslims as well. In terms of his own worldview, he was the heroic defender of Muslims and was doing God's will.

Did Osama bin Laden win in the end?

His goal was for the United States to withdraw from the Middle East. That was his strategy. Instead, the United States got more involved in the Middle East. Eventually bin Laden died a unheroic death, surrounded by his wives and kids in a squalid suburban compound in Pakistan.

He wasn't fighting the fight, engaging in jihad on the field of battle. Bin Laden did have a major impact on American history and that of much of the Muslim world. But If you look at polling data about bin Laden, his appeal fades over time in the Middle East. That is closely tied to declining support for suicide attacks, which was one of al Qaeda's primary tactics. Ultimately bin Laden did not achieve his goals.

We more or less decimated al Qaeda after 9/11, and the people who best understood that were people inside that organization. One of bin Laden's old associates wrote that of the 1,900 Arabs who were in Afghanistan at the time of 9/11, 1,600 were captured or killed.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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