By David A. Andelman
Peter Bergen is unequivocal about many issues surrounding the world and especially America’s place in it. Above all, he’s pretty clear about what he thinks of Joe Biden’s Afghanistan policy.
He minced no words when he spoke before the Silurians monthly zoom-luncheon on December 15: “It has turned into a total fiasco.”
He elaborated: America should never have left, he said, and certainly not in the fashion that it did. Bergen observed that “President Biden, and his approval ratings, never recovered from the poorly executed withdrawal from Afghanistan.” But the fallout has turned out to be even worse and more far-reaching. It “seemed to undercut any kind of narrative about competence in the administration.”
Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst, is vice president of the New America think tank and author, most recently of The Rise and Fall of Osama Bin Laden, published in August.
He said the withdrawal from Afghanistan was not simply poorly executed, it was a very poor policy decision on a number of levels. And he believes it could even lead to the possibility of a return to Afghanistan at some point. “First of all, the Taliban could engage in ethnic cleansing which they certainly have done in the past.” The fear of genocide was the trigger for Barack Obama’s decision to send more American troops into Iraq. “It wasn’t the murder of Jim Foley [the American journalist]. All that was important, that precipitated Obama’s change of mind. [But] it was the threat of genocide against the Yazidis. Jim Foley’s murder amplified that decision but didn’t precipitate the decision.”
As for what is happening now and what is likely to take place going forward in Afghanistan, Bergen observed that he had spent some time in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. His conclusion was that they “really had no plans for governance in a real sense. They believe that if you make society pure, that everything else will follow and everything else would get taken care of. Well, that’s not a program for turning on the electricity, or putting water in the pipes. And it’s certainly a program that is probably going to lead to the humanitarian catastrophe that we see unfolding in Afghanistan. Ninety-seven percent of the population may be below the poverty line and millions of people may starve.”
As for Osama bin Laden, a major focus of Bergen’s writing and research in the region, he believes that Pakistani officials were not actually protecting Bin Laden in the months and years before his final assassination in a compound less than a mile from Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point. “Many people naturally supposed that somehow he was being protected by the Pakistanis, but there’s no evidence for that in any documents that were released.” He pointed to the research of Nellie Lee, a colleague of his at New America “who’s read all the documents in Arabic as well,” for a new book that will be coming out shortly. “She and I come to the same conclusion, which is of course, it’s hard to prove negatives, but there was no Pakistani officer protecting Bin Laden.”
Bergen is especially concerned by the prevalence of leaders of the Haqqani network, perhaps Afghanistan’s most notorious terrorists, in the top ranks of the Taliban leadership, including one of the top Haqqani leaders who is serving as Minister of the Interior “with the role of head of DHS and head of the FBI combined,” with 14 of the 33 members of the Taliban cabinet sanctioned by the United Nations as terrorists.
Finally, Bergen was asked what he might have done differently had he been in charge before the Taliban finally seized power. “We were at a politically sustainable place with 2,500 troops on the ground,” Bergen said. “It was a relatively small number [but] it was sustainable and it was in the interest of the United States and also in the interests of the Afghans” that they remained. “And now we have a situation where the Taliban on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 is now back in control. They’re in a much stronger position than they were before 9/11.”
Still, Bergen remains encouraged by the quantity and quality of reporting that is emerging from Afghanistan, even under Taliban control. “I think we are getting a reasonably good picture of what’s happening.”