Review: How We Missed the Story–Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban and the Hijacking of Afghanistan

4 Star, Diplomacy, Information Operations, Stabilization & Reconstruction, United Nations & NGOs

Missed StoryImportant Contribution with Some Errors and Omissions, April 27, 2008

Roy Gutman

I cannot second-guess the author’s findings based on his extraordinary direct research, but I do question some of what he was told (Madeline Albright, for example, misled this author), and I also have some issues with how the book’s findings over-state, under-state, and ignore other credible sources I have reviewed here at Amazon.

Up front, seven excellent insights from this book:

1. The U.S. in the 1990’s had no idea that Information Operations (IO) was going to be important, and that the dissemination of deadly knowledge (e.g. from the Afghanistan wars, on how to create Improvised Explosive Devices, etcetera) was going to become a global threat. Tracking “dangerous knowledge” has now become one of my top “indicator & warning” elements. See my review of Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography

2. Small wars cannot be ignored, power vacuums cannot be allowed or they will be filled negatively. Non-state actors can hijack a state and we need to notice when they do. It is at this point I begin to feel the author is over-stating Bin Laden’s reach, especially when compared to criminal states around the world. See my review of Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers, and Copycats are Hijacking the Global Economy.

3. Successive administrations, from Bush Senior to Clinton to Bush Jr, had no clue about the importance of the “cultural roots” that Bin Laden was spreading with his financing of madrasses across Afghanistan (it is at this point I grow concerned that the author is ignoring the Saudi government’s financing of both Bin Laden and the madrasses all over the world and especially in Indonesia). I have scheduled a book on CULTURAL INTELLIGENCE: Beliefs, Faiths, Ideologies, and the Five Minds for 2009. This is clearly an area where the US Intelligence Community and the foreign policy/national communities know nothing.

4. If journalists are not on the scene in every clime and place, then it is easier for the US Government to ignore problems that will inevitably ignore borders and come home to America. See A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility–Report of the Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change. The author ignores the fact that with the exception of The Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker, and the Boston Globe, virtually every newspaper and journal is a paid huckster for their corporate owners.

5. IMPORTANT: Administration must not only HAVE a grand strategy, but within that strategy must craft BOTH a domestic message for the US public and an inter-agency foreign policy campaign plan for achieving OUTCOMES, not just “messages.” This was the book’s strongest point.

6. American indifference reinforces instability enablers and formentors. I know for a fact that Madeline Albright repressed INR reporting on terrorism becoming a real problem. She chose to accept Iran’s attack on Khobar Towers and the Al Qaeda attacks on two embassies and the USS Cole as “acceptable losses.” That alone disqualifies her from advising Hillary Clinton on anything.

7. UN and UN negotiated for the Soviet pull-out but not for a stable follow-on regime. Deja vu in Iraq. Over-all the author does an excellent job of depicting a generally blase, sometimes naive, and often inattentive US foreign policy establishment across all three administrations. See my review of Running The World: the Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power for a sense of the clowns our Presidents tend to appoint for lack of a stronger TRANSPARTISAN bench.

Without regard to how the author may have been led by those telling their story as they would have it come out, there are a number of “dots” that I found worthy of note:

+ Bin Laden is reported to have forecast Iraq’s attack on Kuwait and eventually on Saudi Arabia.

+ Over-emphasis on Bin Laden’s anti-Americanism and I have noted, “a hit job of Clarke and Scheuer.” It was the US keeping bases in Saudi Arabia that set Bin Laden off, together with the Saudi refusal to allow him to attack Hussein directly.

+ US reliance on Pakistan and failing to deal direct with the Afghan regimes and principal tribes was a fatal error

+ Author avoids any mention of the fact that it was the Saudi regime that funded Bin Laden and global spread of virulent Wahabbism from 1988 onwards.

+ Although Cheney appears in the Index several times, the book and the author, rather astonishingly, fail to to report:

– Cheney was given the mandate for terrorism from day one under Bush Junior, and it was Cheney who first, failed to take terrorism seriously, and then allowed it happen in order to justify an invasion of Iraq. See, among MANY other books, 9/11 Synthetic Terror: Made in USA, Fourth Edition among many other works.

– Both the Clinton and Bush Junior Administrations were actively negotiating with the Taliban over oil and natural gas pipelines. See Crossing the Rubicon, The Long Emergency, and many other works along these lines.

+ Senator Jesse Helms not only destroyed the US Information Agency, the only US agency with a clue on foreign cultures and belief systems, but he also castrated the Agency for International Development (AID) at precisely the time it was most needed.

+ Karzai flagged the Taliban as a group worthy of supporting.

+ US Intelligence had astronomical sums for “getting” Bin Laden but almost nothing for fostering stabilization and reconstruction in Afghanistan, including support to nationalists like Moussaud.

+ In 1999 Pakistan and Iran cut a deal–THAT IS THE SECOND STORY WE MISSED. [We know have a great deal of reporting in the open on Iranian funding of Pakistani nuclear program, and in my view, likelihood that the quid pro quo was an Islamic nuclear warhead for the Russian Sunburn missiles (carrier killers, 3.0 mach straight, 2.2 mach zig-zag).

+ The author is naive or poorly informed or duplicitous in his stating that Bin Laden was outraged at the illegitimate Arab rules, stating it in such as way as to question Bin Laden’s sanity. Michael Scheur and I are agreed on this point: Bin Laden has had good cause to condemn US presence in the Middle East. See my review of Breaking the Real Axis of Evil: How to Oust the World’s Last Dictators by 2025 as well as Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror.

+ He reminds us that Ambassador Bill Richardson accomplished nothing in his mission to Afghanistan.

+ He reminds us that Khalizad, the darling of Bush Juniors regime, was part of the problem within the Clinton Administration.

+ He tells a very good story over-all of how conflicted the Department of State was in on the one hand, considering the Taliban not bad over all (what does not come out is the oil and gas deals in the background) and their record on human rights, which included mass murders and atrocities against women and children.

+ The THIRD BIG STORY WE MISSED was the Arabization of the Taliban, to include their changing to the Arabic calendar, the Arabization of libraries (which is to say the burning of most books), and the destruction of Hindu and other religious antiquities, something Pakistan tried to stop. This is new to me, I have not seen reference to it before, and I consider Bin Laden’s influence over the Taliban to be seriously over-stated, but I accept this as useful perspective and certainly a good example of how the US simply does not “do” cultural intelligence.

The book ends with a focused chronology (focused instead of incomplete–the author did not set out to do a global review on this missed story, one is still needed) and a generally good index.

I put this book down thinking once again how desperately we need a private sector or public ABLE DANGER able to connect all the dots across all the books. I have tried for years to get Jeff Bezos to realize he can monetize micro-text for micro-cash and also sense-making across literatures, but he is in denial on World Brain possibilities, at least for now.

This is a solid four-star book, certainly worthy of buying and reading if you are responsible for South Asia, Central Asia, terrorism, or understanding why US foreign and national security policy continue to be managed by cronies with little deep knowledge of the real world and no holistic strategic model for addressing threats, policies, and state and non-state partners in a coherent sustainable manner.

My final three links:
Preparing America’s Foreign Policy for the 21st Century
Security Studies for the 21st Century
The Search for Security: A U.S. Grand Strategy for the Twenty-First Century