Small Wars Journal

Book Review: Bin Laden's Legacy by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross

Fri, 08/12/2011 - 6:13am

On Christmas Eve 1979, the Soviet Union embarked upon an ill-fated gamble: Seizing upon growing unrest in Afghanistan, the Soviet 40th Army swept through Kabul, removing Afghanistan's Prime Minister Hafizullah Amir and installing a puppet president, Babrak Kamal. 

The plan, of course, backfired.  Though the operation was only expected to last a few weeks, the Soviets soon found themselves mired by a vicious insurgency, funded by the United States and waged by foreign militants—including a young Osama bin Laden.  After nine years and 14,000 dead, the Soviet Union withdrew in disgrace and dissolved shortly thereafter, its economy in shambles.

As Daveed Gartenstein-Ross asserts in his new book, “Bin Laden’s Legacy:  Why We’re Still Losing the War on Terror”, this narrative is central to the mythos of al-Qaeda. And today, Osama bin Laden’s successors are pursuing the same strategy in their fight against the United States.

"Bin Laden's Legacy" reveals al-Qaeda’s grand strategy in full: for the late Osama bin Laden and his followers, America's economy is its center of gravity.  Thus, al Qaeda seeks to provoke the United States into overextending itself and ruthlessly driving it into debt, just as they believe to have done to the Soviet Union.  In doing so, al-Qaeda has deliberately sought to drive up the costs of war and attack economic targets.  

In fairness, Gartenstein-Ross, a counter-terrorism expert and doctoral candidate from the  Catholic University of America, rightly disputes the simplicity of al-Qaeda’s narrative.  The Soviet economy was wracked by far greater problems than the war in Afghanistan—most notably plummeting oil revenues, a dysfunctional agricultural sector, and a faltering credit rating.  (Not to mention, the role played by Osama bin Laden and his followers during the Soviet-Afghan War was relatively insignificant) Nevertheless, expenditures on the Soviet-Afghan War were significant, and almost certainly hastened the Soviet Union’s demise.

Through various short-sighted political, military and economic policies, asserts the author, the United States plays right into al-Qaeda’s hands.  In its response to 9/11 attacks, the United States has suffered self-inflicted wounds through partisan politics and gross financial indiscipline. 

During the 2002 election, Republican strategists, such as senior Bush advisor Karl Rove, advised candidates to take advantage of the party’s commanding lead on terrorism-related issues, and, in Rove’s words, “focus on the war”.  By repeatedly playing the terrorism card, Gartenstein-Ross asserts, the United States was more easily seduced into war with Iraq, especially after US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld boasted he had “bulletproof” evidence of collaboration between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. 

Of course, the link would prove erroneous, and the Iraq War actually served as a boon to al-Qaeda’s recruiting efforts (though their affiliate, al-Qaeda in Iraq, was eventually dealt a heavy blow during the “Awakening” movement).  Nevertheless, the damage was done:  the Iraq War bled the United States Treasury of trillions of dollars, and hamstrung America’s efforts in Afghanistan. 

America’s bull-headed approach to fighting terror was further exacerbated by government inefficiency, lax oversight and pork-barrel politics, as America’s national security establishment ballooned in size.  A two-year investigation by the Washington Post revealed that 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private contractors were involved in national security, and that over 800,000 Americans held top-secret clearances: more than the entire population of Washington, DC.  Moreover, in the rush to bolster airport security, egregious waste all but inevitable: the cost of hiring additional airport screeners had exceeded initial estimates by a factor of eight.  And of course, pork-barrel politics resulted in millions of dollars being doled out for reasons completely unrelated to combating al-Qaeda.  In one instance, the Kentucky Office of Charitable Gambling received $36,200 to stop al-Qaeda from raising money for their nefarious schemes in Kentucky’s bingo halls.  (A 2007 Congressional report quotes an official stating that “he did not know of terrorists [raising money via bingo], ‘but the potential there, to me, is huge’”.)

In letter from bin Laden to Mullah Mohammed Omar, written a few days before the commencement of Operation Enduring Freedom, the al-Qaeda leader felt that the impending military conflict would “impose great long-term economic burdens, leading to further economic collapse, which will force America, God willing, to resort to the former Soviet Union’s only option:  withdrawal from Afghanistan, disintegration, and contraction”.  Bin Laden continued that the upcoming war should “serve a blow to the American economy”, causing investors to “refrain from investing in America or participating in American companies, thus accelerating the fall of the American economy”. 

Of course, America’s economic woes are by no means solely attributable to al-Qaeda—atrocious fiscal policies have contributed far more to the massive Federal deficit amd a shattered credit rating.  Yet, al-Qaeda’s capacity for economic disruption is real.  Gartenstein-Ross quotes former CIA officer Bruce Riedel, who estimated that the total damage from the 9/11 attacks—aimed at the World Trade Center, one of America’s greatest commercial targets—cost the US nearly $2 trillion in property damage and financial disruption.

In recent years, many of al-Qaeda’s plots have been aimed at oil targets, essentially, America’s strategic Achilles heel.   As the largest consumer—and importer—of crude oil, it is no exaggeration to say that the American economy would grind to a halt without constant access to petroleum.  Thus, Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and other al-Qaeda leaders have long advocated attacking oil fields, refineries and pipelines in order to bring the American economy to its knees.  Indeed, by mid-2008, US forces recorded over 450 attacks on oil targets throughout Iraq, and several foreign security forces have uncovered numerous plots to attack oil fields and refineries throughout the Middle East. 

Gartenstein-Ross’ evaluation of al-Qaeda’s strategy, means, and intentions is without equal, as is his analysis of America’s missteps during the War on Terror.  Unfortunately, his final chapter, “How to Survive al-Qaeda”, flies in the face of intractable forces in America's political landscape. 

In fairness, many of his recommendations for American political leaders are sound, and certainly feasible.  Gartenstein-Ross rightly cautions against ill-conceived military adventurism in Libya, champions reforming America’s national security apparatus, and advocates employing behavioral detection officers at airports, rather than ever-more expensive technological screening devices. 

Yet, Gartenstein-Ross falls short of mark on two recommendations.  First, he warns that America must reduce its dependency on foreign oil.  Though a laudable—not to mention, strategically sound—goal, it's nevertheless been a policy objective for every single American president since Richard Nixon.  Second, and perhaps even more whimsical, is Gartenstein-Ross’ exhortation to empower political moderates and ease partisan tensions in America—tensions which, according to the author, obscure real debate, and preclude the difficult choices America must make in solving its economic woes.  Yet, if the recent budget crisis has proven anything, it’s that this goal is still a long way off.  (Even Standard and Poor’s agrees)

Wars require sacrifice on the part of the American people.  If we are to defeat al Qaeda's strategy, we will only do so by making difficult, indeed unpopular, fiscal decisions in the years to come.

Cover price for Daveed Gartenstein-Ross’ “Bin Laden’s Legacy: Why We’re Still Losing the War on Terror” is $25.95 USD, and is available from