Good news: We're beating bin Laden

A billboard with Osama bin Laden wearing an 'I love Guantanamo' t-shirt is on display at Farragut North Metro Station in Washington D.C. in September 2009.The billboard is an advertisement from Avaaz.org, an organization that launched a metro billboard campaign to remind policymakers that torture is a top recruiting tool for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his network.</p>

A billboard with Osama bin Laden wearing an 'I love Guantanamo' t-shirt is on display at Farragut North Metro Station in Washington D.C. in September 2009.The billboard is an advertisement from Avaaz.org, an organization that launched a metro billboard campaign to remind policymakers that torture is a top recruiting tool for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his network.

Amid all the grim developments in the world these days, it’s hard to imagine counting on Osama bin Laden to brighten your day.

But here’s some good news coming from that zone: the United States has largely been successful in its global war on terror. That’s what Al Qaeda expert and CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen told GlobalPost in a recent interview (click here for audio).

"Since 9/11, only 17 people have been killed in the United States by jihadist terrorist attacks,” points out Bergen, author of “The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al Qaeda.”

“More people die in their own baths every year than have died at the hands of jihadist terrorists in the domestic United States [since 9/11]. If Al Qaeda's principal goal is a successful attack on the U.S. — that hasn't happened,” Bergen said.

Of course, Al Qaeda is still trying to land an attack on American soil. Lately, these have not been successful. The 2009 Christmas day bomber might have scared many Americans, but the only real-world damage that he inflicted was to his own nether regions. As for last year’s attempt to down cargo planes, intelligence sleuthing foiled it before it transpired.

By the law of averages, Bergen says, Al Qaeda might very well succeed in killing Americans. Given the level of vigilance now at work, the group’s next terror attack “won’t be a 9/11 or anything close to it. It might kill a few dozen people, and our response should not be one of panic. It should be more, well, the government has done a lot to defend us, and over time they will get lucky.”

Bergen says the U.S. success is multifaceted, and can be measured in more ways than just this body count.

“If you ask, is Al Qaeda winning the war of ideas in Muslim world? The answer is no way,” he said.

“Support for bin Laden, Al Qaeda and suicide bombing has been cratering in Muslim country after Muslim country, from Indonesia to Jordan to Morocco,” Bergen said. Bin Laden’s followers “have killed a lot of Muslim civilians, which is not impressive for a group that claims to defend Muslims. It's well understood in the Muslim world that Al Qaeda and its allies have done more damage to the Muslim cause. The robin hood image that bin Laden once enjoyed has pretty much evaporated.”

The Arab Spring is yet more evidence that bin Laden has been sidelined. “The events in the Middle East underline Al Qaeda's irrelevance to what's really going on [in the Muslim world], because they're not offering a program to get work for the 100 million young men who are unemployed in the Middle East.”

“What's interesting is that not a single one of the protestors that we've seen is holding a picture of bin Laden. They're not spouting Al Qaeda's venomous anti-Western critiques. There have been no American flag burnings, which is pro-forma in that part of the world. There haven't been any Israeli flag burnings. This has nothing to do with al Qaeda's ideas. The outcomes are not going to satisfy Al Qaeda, because no one — or very few people, at least — are clamoring in Morocco or Egypt for a Taliban-style theocracy.”

Regarding Egypt's Mulsim Brotherhood, and the fears that they could co-opt the country's revolution and in favor of an Iranian-style theocracy, Bergen is skeptical.

"By and large they are the middle class, doctors, lawyers, relatively well-educated people. I've met with a number of their leaders. They just don't seem to be the kind of people who are intent on creating some sort of revolutionary regime in an Iranian style."

Bergen, who has reported extensively in Afghanistan, and who is one of the few Western journalists to have interviewed bin Laden, is encouraged by the Obama administration’s prosecution of the war against the Taliban as well.

“I'm a firm believer in what the U.S. is doing in Afghanistan for multiple reasons. First of all, if we overthrow a government we have a moral obligation to leave a government in place that is somewhat functional. We've already run two experiments in Afghanistan where American interventions have created a much greater problem. In 1989, we closed our embassy following the most successful CIA covert program ever, which was arming the Afghans against the Soviets. Into the ensuing vacuum, the Taliban and then Al Qaeda established themselves in the mid- and late-1990s.”

“Then in 2001, we repeated this experiment, because of the Bush administration's ideological opposition to nation building.” After toppling the Taliban, the Afghan reconstruction was executed “on the cheap,” he says, with less money than any such U.S. effort since World War II. “We spent far more per capita in Bosnia and Kosovo. We had very few boots on the ground [in Afghanistan]. And we got what we paid for, which was the Taliban beginning to come back.” 

Bergen said the high profile tensions that erupt every time Western bombs claim civilian casualties should not be regarded as a sign that the population doesn’t support the war.

“Afghans continue to blame the U.S. and NATO for any civilian casualties, because they hold us responsible — to some degree correctly — for the security environment that exists. When the Taliban goes into a bank in Jalalabad and kills 37 civilians, that doesn't get nearly the attention in Afghanistan [as when] NATO or the U.S. kill Afghan civilians.”

Security, he argued, is not nearly as bad as it seems.

“The total number of Afghan civilians being killed is quite relatively low for this type of conflict. You're more likely to be killed in Washington DC: the murder rate in Washington DC is 22 per 100,000 people. The death rate from the war in Afghanistan is 9 per 100,000. You're six times more likely to be murdered in New Orleans than you are to be killed in the war in Afghanistan right now.

“There is a war going on, but by Afghan historical standards, it doesn't even count as a war. If you think about the Soviets who killed more than a million Afghans, or if you think about the civil war that followed, in which hundreds of thousands of Afghans died, this is a relatively small conflict.”

Bergen concurred with General David Patraeus, that the Taliban has recently been “turfed out of key districts in Kandahar and Helmand, which is essentially their home base.” He cites a December 2010 BBC poll that found that 67 percent in Helmand province rated their security from crime and violence as “good,” a significant increase from the previous year.

Moreover, he pointed out that Afghans largely support the campaign against the Taliban. “In poll after poll, Afghans see their country as going in the right direction. A majority have a favorable view of international forces, including the U.S. Their big concern is that we would actually pull out in July 2011. For most Afghans that was a very worrisome idea. Luckily now the president has put December 2014 on the clock, which I think allows the Afghan National Army to build up, it allows Afghan political forces to challenge the Karzai mafia that dominates Afghan politics, and it also reassures the Afghans that we're not just going to head for the exit.”

That’s not to say that the intelligence effort against Al Qaeda, or the trillion dollar Afghan war are an unqualified success. Obviously, bin Laden is still at large, and Bergen argued that it remains imperative that he be captured or killed, given that his leadership in the movement remains powerful.

“We've spent half a trillion dollars on foreign intelligence since 9/11 and haven't found bin Laden. I think if this was a private corporation we would have fired the directors and found new ones. There are some capable people who are looking for him, but he's not making the sort of mistakes that get you caught. He's not talking on satellite phones, and he's not surrounded by the type of people who [would inform authorities] to pick up a cash reward.”

Follow David Case on Twitter: @DavidCaseReport

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