Bergen Correctly Predicted Bin Laden's Location

14 years ago, Peter Bergen interviewed Osama bin Laden on a rocky plateau near the caves of Tora Bora in Afghanistan. Recently, he theorized that the world's most wanted terrorist was hiding not in a remote cave but in a comfortable house in Pakistan. On Sunday, his hunch proved correct.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

If you read analysis after the death of Osama bin Laden, you can be forgiven if you're a little confused. Some commentators maintain that bin Laden's hideout in plain sight proves the United States cannot trust the Pakistani government. Others argued that we have no choice but to trust them. Others said the al-Qaida leader's death provides the basis to wind down the war in Afghanistan. Some insist just as confidently the U.S. must stay the course. Some claim that al-Qaida's fangs have been drawn. Others insist it's more dangerous than ever.

So what does the death of Osama bin Laden mean for U.S. policy? 800-989-8255. Email, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

The most recent of CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen's three books on Osama bin Laden and the war on terrors is called "The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and al-Qaida." He joins us here in Studio 3A.

Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. PETER BERGEN (CNN): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And when you were last here with us a few months ago to talk about that book, you said capturing or killing bin Laden would be quite useful. So has it been useful?

Mr. BERGEN: I think it has. I mean, it would be hard to think of two better bookends to the war on terror - the final bookends, the Arab spring and the death of bin Laden. I mean, if it's not the death of bin Laden and the Arab spring, what else could it possibly be?

You know, it's hard to think of anything that's more seismic in terms of undercutting al-Qaida's ideology in the case of Arab spring and undercutting al-Qaida the organization in the case of the death of bin Laden.

CONAN: Some say, of course, his longtime number two, Mr. Zawahiri, is still there, and the organization still continues to exist, that bin Laden is dead, al-Qaida is not.

Mr. BERGEN: Right. You know, when you join al-Qaida, you don't pledge an oath of allegiance to al-Qaida. You pledge an oath of personal religious fealty to bin Laden. Similar to when you joined the Nazi party, you didn't pledge an oath of allegiance to Nazism. You pledged a personal oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler. When Adolf Hitler died, Nazism essentially died with him. I'm not claiming that bin Ladenism will die with the death of bin Laden, but it's certainly a giant nail in the coffin of a set of ideas that Muslims are already rejecting wholesale.

You know, one of the themes of "The Longest War," my book, which came out before the Arab spring happened, was how al-Qaida and bin Laden was losing the war of ideas in the Muslim world, not because the United States was winning them, but because al-Qaida was simply losing them.

CONAN: And yet, you still see people say: Wait, a minute. There are tremendous opportunities for al-Qaida in places like Yemen, in places like Somalia and that indeed, yes, there has been an Arab spring but not in Bahrain and not in Saudi Arabia.

Mr. BERGEN: Sure. Although the Arab spring, you know, may be catching even in Saudi Arabia, and, you know, yes, al-Qaida will opportunistically try to insert itself into Yemen and perhaps to Libya if it can get a foothold which it doesn't seem to have right now.

But let's not look several gift horses in the face. I mean, the Arab spring is an enormous gift to the Arab world and to the world writ large, and the death of bin Laden falls in a similar category. And we can sort of say, well, you know, caveat with a million different caveats, but I just think that that isn't that helpful in terms of looking at the big picture.

CONAN: And on the question of Afghanistan, some say, well, this is an opportunity, if the president wants it, to wind down the war, to make that withdrawal of forces in July a significant withdrawal, to say we've accomplished much of what we set out to do and the rest can be accomplished by Afghan forces.

Mr. BERGEN: There will certainly be that argument made, and certainly in Congress, there's a real concern about the money that Afghanistan is costing. The American people have largely turned against the war.

Personally, Neal, I think that the more fully resourced approach to the Afghan war for longer than just, you know, this summer makes a great deal of sense. That's the - by the way, that's the decision the administration arrived at after considerable thought and many meetings and thinking about it very hard.

You know, we've already run the videotape a couple of times in Afghanistan, where we've just washed our hands of the place, or done, done it on the cheap. And we got, in one case, the Taliban coming to power in the '90s. And in the next case the Taliban resurging in the - towards the end of the second Bush term.

So given that history, I don't think any president who's being prudent, whether Republican or Democrat, is going to say, hey, we should just kind of head for the exits here.

CONAN: Let's see if we get some callers in on the conversation. Peter Bergen is our guest. The national security analyst for CNN, the author of "The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict between America and Al Qaeda."

Let's see if we can go first to Robert, Robert with us from Cincinnati.

ROBERT (Caller): How do you know we're not repeating what we did with Osama bin Laden in the '90s when we supported the Mujahideen and the same thing in Libya? I was - there's some radicals in Libya. I was reading today's paper that suggests that Osama bin Laden was a has-been and basically al-Qaida is alive and strong in places like Libya, and he's a radical that is part of that Arab Spring.

CONAN: The percentage - in terms of percentage of the place that sent the most suicide bombers to Iraq was eastern Libya, the basis of the rebel stronghold in Libya.

Mr. BERGEN: Sure. Adjusted for population, Libya, a rather small country, sent, you know, hundreds of suicide bombers to Iraq in the Iraq War. And so there, you know, a jihadist population, but it's relatively small. We're looking at several hundred people. The Benghazi revolution is being conducted by tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of people.

You know, as a factual matter, we didn't support Osama bin Laden in the 1980s, which is - I can give you the evidence for that, but it's quite time-consuming. We did, however, support somebody like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who received the largest share of American aide. Now, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is now leading a sort of pro-Taliban militia in northeastern Afghanistan. So, you know, the larger point the caller is making about we need to be careful about who we're supporting because it can come back and bite us, is a reasonable one. But I think in the case of Libya, I think that worry is overdrawn. In the case of Osama bin Laden, the history isn't there to demonstrate that point.

ROBERT: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Robert. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Bob, Bob with us from Cleveland.

BOB (Caller): Yeah. I see the death of Osama bin Laden as kind of like - if they had killed Adolf Hitler during the Second World War, it would have given the Nazis kind of a fresh start and made them more effective. And I really worry that Osama bin Laden, somebody who's going to be much more effective against fighting the West, is going to take up his mantra, take up his name, as a rallying cry and, you know, take revenge on us.

CONAN: Will he be a martyr?

Mr. BERGEN: Well, yeah, he'll be a martyr. The point - the caller makes an interesting point, because if on July 20, 1944, Adolf Hitler had been killed with a bomb that was placed under the conference room table by von Stauffenberg, World War II probably would have ended in a different way. The people who after all tried to kill Hitler were not - they weren't necessarily Nazis, but they were certainly very conservative members of the military, and they would not have gone for a total - you know, they would have tried and negotiate some way for Germany to retain some of its power. So that was one of history's great what ifs.

Now, what happened with bin Laden's death. Will somebody more militant replace him? Yeah, maybe. I just don't think that anybody in the wings that we know of has the quote-unquote stature that bin Laden does, who's, you know, a war hero against the Soviets, who gave up a life of luxury to go and live in the mountains and all these other things that kind of contribute...

CONAN: And then to go live a life of luxury.

Mr. BERGEN: And then to go live a life of luxury back in Abbottabad. I don't think it was luxurious. By the way, you know, one of the things about this story, which I think is worth underlining, you know, there's a great deal of concern what do the Pakistanis know, what did they didn't - what didn't they know. The thing that's very puzzling to somebody who's been in Pakistan repeatedly since 1983 is lots of people live in compounds with high walls in Pakistan. I mean, that's so completely routine. In fact, you know, it would be un-routine to have the reverse.

And so, you know, the idea that, you know, bin Laden was sort of living there openly and people should have known, that doesn't make any sense. So you know, the U.S. government had eyes on the place for several months and never actually saw bin Laden or his family. It was really putting together a lot of circumstantial evidence. So you know, the criticism of Pakistan is coming fast and furious, but I think, you know, in fairness to them, there are extenuating circumstances.

CONAN: Bob, thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we can go to - we are learning some more things about the raid, by the way. One - among them, that Osama bin Laden was not armed when he was shot and apparently did not use his wife as a human shield. The woman who was killed was the wife of one of those couriers who was also killed in the raid. And Osama bin Laden's - one of his wives was injured in the raid but not killed, and shot in the calf, as I understand it. So some details about the operation are coming out.

Have you heard anything today that changes significantly what we heard yesterday?

Mr. BERGEN: Well, I think it's actually quite interesting that Osama bin Laden didn't have his weapon to hand, because I mean it's extraordinarily rare in my research into bin Laden that I've ever seen him in pictures without a weapon. And generally speaking, he always had one to hand. Maybe, you know, several years of living in a Pakistani city meant that he was complacent. But typically, in Afghanistan certainly, he was always armed.

CONAN: Here's an email from Johann(ph) in Hamilton, Ontario: I've seen a lot of celebration in the wake of bin Laden's death. I'm happy he's no longer with us. I certainly don't have sympathy for him. Osama bin Laden has, however, been portrayed as a larger-than-life monster over the past 10 years. Could Mr. Bergen please speak to whether or not he saw any sympathetic qualities in bin Laden when he interviewed him? That is, could he give us a bit more of a nuanced picture of who he was as a person?

Mr. BERGEN: Well, this is not based on my interview with bin Laden - I was only with him for an hour and a half - but based on interviewing many, many of his friends, acquaintances, former colleagues, companions in arms, even people who turned against him, I mean the kind of consistent picture you have on the favorable side is this guy is modest, he's retiring. He doesn't sort of raise his voice. He listens, generally speaking. He's kind of - he's humble. Those are the good things. Of course, you know, attack - killing about 3,000 American civilians on a Tuesday morning isn't the act of a humble, modest kind of guy.

The other aspects that come through pretty clearly, he's a religious zealot - I mean praying seven times a day, twice more than is required, fasting twice a week. Even as a kid he'd be, you know, his idea of entertainment was to get a bunch of his buddies around and chant religious songs about the liberation of Palestine - not your typical teenager.

So a kind of priggish religious, you know, in some ways admirable person, but in many ways not. I mean, one of the reasons, of course, that he's been so effective is precisely because some of his admirable qualities, which in a different person might have generated a whole different trajectory for his life, that people are drawn to him. He's, you know, people describe their feelings for him, you know, with feelings of love.

Often his followers, you know, say they really find him to be extraordinary. And obviously I don't feel that, but those were some of the positives. But, you know, people said thing about Adolf Hitler. And I don't want to compare them in the sense that Adolf Hitler's crimes are, you know, orders of magnitude bigger, but merely because somebody is nice to his friends and humble and people love him doesn't mean that they're necessarily - somebody is actually going to do humanity much good.

CONAN: CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen, with us here in Studio 3A. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to Brian, Brian with us from Portland.

BRIAN (Caller): Hi. I have worked in Pakistan two brief times, one in 1987 with the Mujahideen, and then again in 1999. I've been to all four corners of Pakistan. And the question, you know, question about do we trust the Pakistanis, I think is much more complex than that. It's really an issue, I think, of who in the government can we really trust. Then how do we deal with the ISI, which is a separate issue. And then it's, you know, our relationship and our trust with the people of Pakistan, which varies considerably, whether you're talking about the Punjab or the potential rebellion in Baluchistan.

CONAN: ISI, of course, the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency of the Pakistani Intelligence Service that has created some of the organizations which became terrorist groups that operated in Kashmir and in India and in Afghanistan, and did considerable work in supporting some elements of the Taliban. Peter Bergen?

Mr. BERGEN: Yeah. I mean, look, I think the caller is completely correct. Pakistan is a country of 200, almost 200 million people. It's going to be the fifth largest country in the world in 2015. It's got a civilian government that is very, you know, doesn't control its own foreign policy, which is really controlled by the military, so you have really two parallel governments.

The United States has, you know, kind of ebbed back and forth about whether it wants to support a civilian government or a military government. Those are kind of - sometimes in Washington, D.C., where we're sitting right now, there's a feeling that dealing with a military government may be smarter and easier and less messy. I think that idea is actually (unintelligible) has had its day because even though the civilian government can be messy and it's usually coalition governments, you know, one of Pakistan's problem has been the reversion to military dictatorships four times over the last six and a half decades.

And so, you know, I think the caller is absolutely right to say this is a really - it's a complex country, you know, it - there are lot of things that really may work well for it. It's got a very vibrant independent press, a lot of which is anti-American, but a lot of it is very anti the Taliban. It has a somewhat independent judiciary. It has a tradition of secular politics. The religious parties tend to not do very well at the polls, even though they're very vocal on the streets.

And, you know, it's just one of those countries, the more you know about it, the more complex your reaction becomes to it. And I think to sort of say the Pakistanis should have known or did know about bin Laden is - certainly latter assertion, you know, let's wait for the evidence to come out for that before we start asserting that as a fact.

CONAN: Well, some say it's either they were complicit or incompetent. There aren't a lot of choices.

Mr. BERGEN: In life incompetency explains almost everything, and that's not just true in Pakistan. You know, it's not the conspiracy, it's the screw up that makes more sense. And you know, Pakistan is a state that doesn't entirely control good chunks of its territory. It has a, you know, fairly substantial, very impoverished population.

They have a lot of things going on, by the way, between, you know, historic floods, a war in Baluchistan, a war in the Northwest Frontier Province. You know, three and a half wars they fought with India, you know, criminality being rampant in the largest city, Karachi. The list goes on and on, and so for them, you know, al-Qaida is certainly, you know, not unimportant but it's not the thing that's front and center as far as they're concerned in terms of their national survival.

CONAN: Is just have 30 seconds left - but is the regime there, is the civilian government there so weak as to be vulnerable to extremist takeover?

Mr. BERGEN: No, I think that's impossible, Neal. I think, you know, the Taliban has lost a lot of its appeal. If you look at the polling data, you know, it's more vulnerable to a military dictator than it is an extremist takeover. But the military looks like they don't want to come out of the barracks. Pakistan's, you know, got so many problems, they don't want to take any ownership with them directly.

CONAN: Peter Bergen, thanks, as always, for your time. We appreciate it.

Peter Bergen is the national security analyst for CNN. His most recent book, "The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al-Qaida."

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