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The other possibility was that the nineteen hijackers were the equivalent of a pickup basketball tea

Amy Davidson talks to Seymour M. Hersh, Jon Lee Anderson, and George Packer about Iraq, Afghanistan, the war on terror, and whether America is stronger now.

The World After 9/11
Amy Davidson talks to Seymour M. Hersh, Jon Lee Anderson, and George Packer about Iraq, Afghanistan, the war on terror, and whether America is stronger now.
Issue of 2006-09-11
Posted 2006-09-04

Amy Davidson talks to Seymour M. Hersh, Jon Lee Anderson, and George Packer about Iraq, Afghanistan, the war on terror, and whether America is stronger now.

AMY DAVIDSON: Sy, in your first article after 9/11—just a few weeks after—you quoted a senior C.I.A. official who, you wrote, “confirmed that the intelligence community had not yet developed a significant amount of solid information about the terrorists’ organization, financing, and planning.” He said, “One day, we’ll know, but at the moment we don’t know.” Has that day arrived?

SEYMOUR M. HERSH: No, not in my view. He also said at the time that there was a debate about whether the attacks were a long-planned, deep-cell operation, and we were going to be looking at cell operations like this throughout the country—major embedded groups of Al Qaeda, what you will. The other possibility was that the nineteen hijackers were the equivalent of a pickup basketball team that made it to the Final Four. His guess was the latter. I think that’s true. I think the nineteen guys, however skilled, were more lucky than anything else, because of our lack of preparation. But we really know very little about how that operation worked, even now.

DAVIDSON: Why is that?

HERSH: Because the nineteen guys are dead. Despite all the arrests we’ve made—of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others—I’m very skeptical of the information we’ve got from interrogations, basically because, once people get into the interrogation process, even today, the torture is such that they invent stories to make us happy. So we’ve got an awful lot of bad information, along with some good. But certainly a lot of bad stuff. So we don’t have a good picture of what happened.

DAVIDSON: Let me ask all three of you: how good was Al Qaeda five years ago? Were the hijackers a pickup basketball team? And how good is Al Qaeda now—has it got better since 9/11, or is it much weaker?

GEORGE PACKER: I think that it’s been franchised since 9/11, and now we’ve got small groups in many parts of the world claiming varying degrees of association with Al Qaeda but, essentially, acting operationally on their own—pursuing their own regional and local goals but aligning themselves with the more global ambitions of Al Qaeda. If you consider Al Qaeda just in terms of its main base of operations, which were formerly in Afghanistan, that Al Qaeda, as far as I know, is not achieving very much in the way of operations. But what it’s become is an enormous public-relations boon to any group that wants to wear its colors and go off into its own Final Four tournament, and act essentially on its own. What our colleague Lawrence Wright’s book “The Looming Tower” suggests is that Al Qaeda is mainly the unbelievably ambitious and persistent vision of one man, and he has outlasted all kinds of other people in his willingness to stick with it, certainly through the nineties.

DAVIDSON: Osama bin Laden.


JON LEE ANDERSON: I agree with what George says and what Sy says. I think that Al Qaeda achieved in the attacks of 9/11 a blow so dramatic that it seemed to the Islamists to strip away the defenses and the perceived invincibility of the world’s greatest superpower, and it became possible, in a psychological and even tactical way, for others to try to emulate it. So whether or not Al Qaeda is operationally as potent as it was around 9/11 doesn’t matter. The mere fact that the United States absorbed that blow, unaware, sent a huge message around the world, and not only to non-state actors, like jihadis who follow Osama bin Laden or Zarqawi or others, but also to regimes that were held in check, prior to 9/11, by the sense of our overwhelming military capabilities. They no longer feel so threatened. And I think the Iraq war has done a lot to enhance that view—in other words, our inability to make headway against insurgents in a place like Iraq has stripped away the aura of American invincibility and might.

DAVIDSON: Let’s talk about Iraq, and let’s start with the question of whether we should be talking about Iraq when we’re looking back at the legacy of 9/11. What does Iraq have to do with 9/11?

PACKER: Iraq has turned out to be an enormous wrong turn in the five years since 9/11. The war was justified by the Administration, at some moments directly, by connections between Saddam and Al Qaeda, which were grossly overstated if not absolutely false, and at times indirectly, by a suggestion that if we eliminated this gross dictatorship in the middle of the Arab world we would begin to drain the swamps that were breeding terrorists. That was a more abstract, theoretical strategy that became the justification when the weapons of mass destruction didn’t show up. So now, even as we speak, the President, the Vice-President, and the Secretary of Defense are all trying to rally the country back to the war in Iraq by associating it with Islamic extremism. At this point, I think that argument has largely run out of juice, because there have been too many deceptions and too many rosy scenarios that failed to materialize in Iraq, and because the connection is simply too tenuous or too cosmic for Americans to accept it. The Administration cried wolf, and I don’t think this time around the electorate is going to buy that success in the war on terror and success in Iraq are one and the same thing.

DAVIDSON: Jon Lee, can you talk about that? You’ve spent a lot of time in Iraq.

ANDERSON: I agree with George’s appraisal of how the war came about, and the deceit that was involved, and the notion that, of course, Iraq and Saddam had nothing, or very little, to do with Al Qaeda—certainly there’s no evidence that Saddam had anything at all to do with 9/11. But build it and they will come. Iraq has become a central theatre in the war on terror because the Administration continues to say it is. And, therefore, having staked America’s reputation, prestige, military prowess, and all of that on the war in Iraq, the Administration—certainly this Administration, and, I suspect, future Administrations—will find it extremely difficult to extricate itself gracefully from Iraq without some electorally acceptable semblance of victory or, at least, a job accomplished. And therein lies the great disaster that is Iraq, because it didn’t have to be a disaster, but it has become so. You now have General George Casey, the top commander in Iraq, saying that American forces hope to be able to withdraw to superbases within a year to eighteen months. Read the subtext here: the country is, by any measure, in a state of civil war, and the conclusion is that the Administration intends to let the civil war fight itself out, probably by ultimately choosing a side and then withdrawing to these bases. By then, there will be a new spin operation, which is already in motion, to explain away the fact that America’s arrival in Iraq opened this Pandora’s box. The onus will be left on the Iraqis. It’s a very messy scenario, but I do think that even if it wasn’t initially part of the larger war on terror it is so now, and will remain so for some time in the future.

DAVIDSON: Sy, what do you think about that?

HERSH: In the fall of 2001, I was learning a lot about a great debate inside the Administration about what to do in Afghanistan. There were a lot of people who argued very bitterly against the air war—I’m talking about people on the inside, tough guys—arguing against what we all assumed to be the one just aspect of this whole post-9/11 process, which was the invasion and bombing of Afghanistan and the Special Forces operation. That was the beginning of the whole torture issue with Guantánamo, and the buying of prisoners. All of that stuff was debated before late October, when the President authorized the bombing. There was a huge debate about even whom to support in Afghanistan—whether or not we should do more real counterinsurgency, and take up the Taliban and consider them more seriously as people you could actually talk to, and the decision was that we ought to go with the warlords. Like a lot of people, I accepted the premise of the Afghan war; I accepted the premise that it wasn’t that irrational, that we had to do something. I didn’t accept it the second time, in Iraq. If the Administration wants a role model for how to respond to grave abuses in terms of international terrorism, look at the Indian government and Mumbai, the train bombing there. The government treated it like a criminal activity. By going to war, instead of criminalizing what Osama bin Laden and his minions did—there’s no question that, in terms of military operations, this is the worst government in the history of America.

DAVIDSON: George, this is something you’ve written about. Do you think that we’ve learned something since 9/11 about the limits of what military action can accomplish?

PACKER: Some of us have, including some people in the government and in the military, but they’re not in the key positions. Sy’s most recent article, on the Lebanon war, suggests that the people who are in the key positions continue to learn the wrong lessons, which is that air power can destroy deeply entrenched groups that are as much political as they are military. Which is very worrying, because it shows that what one hears—that no unwelcome information reaches the President, that it is generally stopped at his door by people from the Vice-President’s office or by his immediate staff—is true. It’s something I hear over and over again. So I don’t think anyone in a position to make decisions has learned. I think what those people have done is protected themselves from learning by counterpunching every time anyone lands a blow and turning what should be very difficult strategic policy questions into, essentially, part of a permanent campaign at home to win a political argument. I think they’ve taken that more seriously, they’ve given it more energy, and they consider it more important, in a way, than they do the actual conflict outside of our borders. But I also want to say, there’s a huge ideological battle that is not of our making, but which is now the world we live in. That’s where I think the real key questions are. I think Sy’s absolutely right that war is far too blunt an instrument, that crime and intelligence work are where we—and the Brits, and other countries—have had our few successes. But, beyond that, there is this ideological problem, which anyone who travels in that part of the world gets a heavy dose of. And we don’t know what to do about it. And that is a failure of leadership.

ANDERSON: I’d like to leap in here and add something that has become dear to my heart in the course of observing on the ground the conflicts engendered since 9/11: first Afghanistan, then Iraq, and, most recently, Lebanon. I’ll begin with an anecdote. Immediately following the ceasefire, after four weeks of bombing, Hezbollah announced that it would pay for the reconstruction of homes for the tens of thousands of people whose homes had been destroyed in the Israeli bombardment—for the homes, a year’s worth of rent, and new furniture—and would itself rebuild, with funds from Iran, no doubt. Hezbollah effectively captured people’s loyalties and took away that role of the state from the Lebanese government, and, for that matter, from the larger actors in the conflict—including America. This was just the latest example; it goes back to Iraq and it goes back to Afghanistan. Following the American police action in Afghanistan, to chase the Taliban into the hills, almost nothing was done to rebuild the country. It took—I forget, exactly—a year and a half or two years before the first efforts were made to pave the Kabul-Kandahar road, which was passable for about a year but no longer is today, because the Taliban have returned and are likely to attack if you are a Westerner. Very little was done in the political arena. This problem of Islamic extremism, which George was referring to and which is very real, is a problem of perception. America is seen to act with all of its might and resources when it comes to military adventurism or military involvement. In Iraq, the amount of money expended there on nothing very visible, for the sake of pursuing the war, is astronomical. But what have we done to rebuild? I believe this sort of military action has to go hand in hand with a radical political decision to actually reform these countries. For Afghanistan, that could have meant a kind of mini-Marshall plan, which could have shown both the Afghans and the Muslim world that we had no vested interest in controlling that country but bore some responsibility for what had happened there. It would have been a very cost-effective investment. Once again, we do not truly compete for hearts and minds, because we’re not willing to pony up to invest, to show that America isn’t only about war, or being crusading Christians, or whatever it is.

DAVIDSON: One thing that we have built since 9/11 is a detention center at Guantánamo, which is as much a legacy of 9/11 as Iraq, and is the sort of blunt instrument that you mentioned, George. What has America gained from Guantánamo, and what has it lost?

HERSH: The evidence is, we’ve gained much less than people think we have, or at least than the Administration tells us, in terms of actionable intelligence. George made a point about how we have to change and deal seriously with people who want to fly airplanes into our buildings, and we really have to improve our ability to learn who they are and how to track them. I do think there’s been maybe the beginning of some idea that simple force doesn’t work. We’ll see. There is some new thinking going on. Even in Iraq, some of the military units seem to be operating more sensibly in terms of dealing with the population, but it’s far too late. The whole world was on our side after 9/11—most of the Muslim world, too, was shocked by the crazy activity—and, essentially, we’ve lost the moral authority, the moral edge we had. It’s the same thing Jon Lee was saying about the inability to really do reconstruction, in as serious a way as we do deconstruction. I grew up thinking that in America we always wore the white hat. It’s no longer so. Although I will still say that the average Muslim, if he got into business and made a pretty good living and got to the middle class, his ambition would be to send his kid to Yale. That still exists. But we’re not capitalizing on it.

DAVIDSON: George, you wrote a little about that this week—the question of moderate Islam.

PACKER: One thing we lose sight of, because we’re focussed, rightly, on the use of American power, is the battle within Muslim countries, which is acute and getting hotter all the time. It’s been going on for half a century now. What we’re experiencing is the sharp end of a battle that has been rising within Muslim countries since independence, and that’s a battle over modernity and what kind of society Muslims want to live in. For the article in this week’s issue, I went looking for some sign of intellectual moderation in places like Sudan and Morocco. I can’t say I was enormously encouraged, but there are things that are going on that we miss with the headlines coming from the Middle East. A Sudanese scholar told me, “I expect nothing good from the Arab world”—by which I think he meant the Middle East—“for a long time.” The place where there’s hope is the periphery, the Muslim periphery, from Senegal to Indonesia, countries that aren’t often in the headlines but where this internal battle to define their own societies is less explosive—and is less caught up with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Iraq war, American military power, and so on. It is being waged in the way it can be when people aren’t being held at gunpoint, which is through ideas, through political parties, and even through democratic politics in some of these countries. So it isn’t entirely about war and destruction; it’s also about ideas and about the direction these societies are going in. What I heard over and over, though, is that the pictures on Al Jazeera coming from the Middle East make it very difficult for reformers in these peripheral Muslim countries to gain an audience, because they’re increasingly seen as being apologists for the West. The more this is defined as Islam versus the West, the worse it is for us and, I would argue, for Muslims themselves. The more it can become a battle of ideas within Muslim countries over modernity rather than the West, then the more hope there is, because I think most people don’t want to live in a totalitarian society in which seventh-century customs are imposed on them by force. I think most people want to live normal, modern lives.

DAVIDSON: I want to go back five years, to the moment right after 9/11 when we talked a lot about justice, about bringing the perpetrators to justice, and to the question of whether there has been justice for 9/11. Sy, you mentioned Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is described as the mastermind behind 9/11. He’s actually in U.S. custody. Why hasn’t he been brought to trial?

HERSH: Because the Administration has chosen not to do so. I think that one of the reasons is that at trial he would talk about how he was treated. If somebody would come into a courtroom describing the kind of treatment he’s reportedly had at the hands of the United States, a conviction might be very hard to get. We simply decided very early on that it was acceptable for us to be goons, and we’ve been goons. It still goes on. It is beyond stupidity.

DAVIDSON: We’ve talked about Afghanistan as the first place where we went to “get the bad guys.” Jon Lee, you were in Afghanistan when the bombing began, in October, 2001; you also went back there last year. Did you get a sense, when you were there, that somehow justice had been done, for the victims of 9/11—or, for that matter, for the Afghans?

ANDERSON: There’s no question that the American action—the coalition action—in Afghanistan achieved one thing: removing Al Qaeda from the almost aboveground role it had, pretty much steering the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. This isn’t political rhetoric—it had a preëminent role in the country, it funded the Taliban regime, and it provided an open base of operations for terrorists seeking to do harm to any number of regimes, including the United States. That was achieved, but it was not a total victory. The Taliban fled into the hills; Osama bin Laden escaped. And then, really, I think, the West—the United States and its coalition partners—sat on their hands. The Afghans were putty, so to speak. They had no expectations—other than every expectation of the West. We were the dreamland. We were that shimmering United States of the Kennedy era, still, in their imaginations. We were capable of doing anything for them. They were in our thrall. We could have done so much in Afghanistan to send an important message around the world; we could have done the right thing in that country. But we didn’t. We had our Special Forces guys doing what they needed to do, which was mop up and try to pursue the remnants of Al Qaeda and some of the Taliban. But what did the Afghans see on the ground? There was no effort to engage them truly in the battle of ideas, other than the amiable Western-handpicked figure of Hamid Karzai, who was soon seen as a puppet President; there was no visible or muscular empowerment of his government or, for that matter, of the international aid agencies in transforming a country that had been destroyed through three decades of war.

DAVIDSON: Sy, you’ve written a lot about the intelligence failures that led to 9/11. Again, right after 9/11 there was a lot of talk about how the way that the intelligence community dealt with and found information had to change. Has it changed? If so, is it for the better or for the worse?

HERSH: I actually think things are much worse, in that a lot of very capable people have got disgusted and discouraged and have left, and I think that the new system set up by the 9/11 Commission is going to be a disaster, too. So I’m skeptical. As I said earlier, in the field there are some people trying to be more progressive and use networking and more sophisticated means of going after the real hard-core jihadis’ terrorist cells, and we’ve done well that way, but it was such a blunderbuss approach in the beginning. Look, the bottom line is, you have a White House that, as George said early in this conversation, doesn’t want any information that it doesn’t want. There’s nothing new about it, and nothing has changed. We’re still in, I think, very dire shape.

DAVIDSON: The White House would say we have to give up some expectations about, say, the privacy of telephone calls, to make sure that 9/11 doesn’t happen again.

HERSH: There are ways to deal with that within the confines of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and this Administration chose not to do that, for whatever reason—for security, or because it didn’t want people to know what was going on. They’ve demonstrated a contempt for the Constitution. We really have a constitutional crisis. We’ve got a crisis in terms of what’s going on in Iraq: as Jon Lee said, a civil war is going on there; we just don’t want to use those words.

DAVIDSON: Is America stronger now than it was five years ago?

HERSH: Oh, my God—nobody would argue that. Nobody would say that. You’ve just heard thirty minutes of conversation about how we are perceived. We haven’t done the right thing in terms of reconstruction; we haven’t done the right thing in Iraq. There’s no conceivable way we’re in better shape. Why there hasn’t been an attack in the United States—I don’t have an answer for that, but I don’t believe that’s going to be a political vehicle for George W. Bush. We’re not stronger, in any sense, because we’re not nearly as respected, and the invincibility shield is gone.

DAVIDSON: Jon Lee, going back to September 10, 2001—you were about to leave for Sri Lanka. That trip got put off, and you never ended up going. Do you think that there are parts of the world that America has neglected since 9/11?

ANDERSON: Absolutely. Just as it had, in fact, before 9/11. What I was doing then for The New Yorker was going around to parts of the world that I felt had been neglected since the Cold War, and that particularly interested me. In fact, Afghanistan was one of my target countries, but I didn’t get to it until after 9/11. Sri Lanka was a more obscure one—because there wasn’t a direct American angle there. As an American who’s lived much of my life abroad, I have often felt the disjointedness between our perceptions at home and people’s perceptions of us abroad. As an American, the perpetual stranger in the strange land, I’ve often taken it on the nose as the representative of my country. I was very keenly, acutely, and poignantly aware, in the late nineties and very early two-thousands, of a sense of abandonment of past responsibility, of a huge and, in some cases, quite destructive legacy that we had left during our many years of efforts to combat the Soviet expansion in Third World countries. We had left a huge hole; we had ceased to be the good Americans there. People were still waiting for us. The Clinton years have to be looked back on as almost golden years, despite the many mistakes in foreign policy Clinton made. The United States had somehow achieved, once again, this sense of promise in the world. Maybe it was the afterglow of the collapse of the Soviet Union. But it all changed, as Sy and George were pointing out, as a result of the language chosen and the political decisions taken, about how America would respond to the new threat against it. We’ve had many opportunities since then to right the course, to alter those perceptions which have deepened and deepened—perceptions of bitterness and enmity toward America for not shouldering its true responsibilities.

DAVIDSON: But, even if we’re not loved, are we stronger?

ANDERSON: No. No. Because we have lost the respect of our enemies. Why was it that in Iraq there was an interregnum between the time Baghdad fell and the time the so-called insurgents began attacking us? Because they finally saw us on the ground. First, it was an air war, and a sort of blitzkrieg infantry campaign to the capital. Then our troops began fanning out and becoming custodians of law and order. It was then that the defeated enemy—or, rather, an enemy that had vanished or melted away but had not felt itself defeated—waiting and watching in the shadows, decided to strike, decided that we were killable. Why were we killable? Because they were able to observe us at close hand and see that we operated without the logic of a superpower that knew what it wanted to do. We did not have mastery of the terrain, the language, the culture; there was an open debate about what we wanted. We were attackable. And so our enemies lost their respect for all of our billions of dollars’ worth of hardware. And we now have one of the most vicious insurgencies in the world there. A year ago, we were also under the illusion, the rosy illusion, that Afghanistan had largely been resolved, that the Taliban were in the hills, Karzai’s government was getting stronger, we were building a great new American Embassy—but no other building in Kabul—and now the Taliban have come back. They no longer fear us, either. We are not stronger, because our enemies do not believe we are strong, and until the United States understands this and figures out how to reconfigure its position in the world and make people respect it for itself as well as for its military might, properly applied, we are fighting an uphill battle

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