(Many thanks to Mr. Ackerman for the intro—I am indeed a misanthrope in the policy community, though in his case I pick on him because I like him.)

My friend Alex Strick van Linschoten, who is one of the only independent journalists living in Kandahar full-time, posted a review of Bruce Riedel’s book, In Search of Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future. Riedel is a high-profile, very respected foreign policy wonk, and recently headed up President Obama’s "Af-Pak" (God how I hate that term) review. Which is why Alex’s comments are so interesting:

The most puzzling feature of this structure – out of which he explains his conception of al Qaeda – is the inclusion of Mullah Omar as a fundamental feature (a full one quarter of the narrative) of al Qaeda. The authors of these comments have not read an account of al Qaeda to date which makes a claim as bold as this for the role that Mullah Omar played. Nor have we heard any claims that Mullah Omar was involved (to whatever level – Reidel is frustratingly unclear) in the planning or strategic decisions that lead to 9-11. This in itself is not evidence to support a claim, but the authors have been engaged in Afghanistan and in research on the issues relating to jihadism and Islamism for at least eight years and we had not previously heard this claim.

Alex is perhaps being overly cautious. While Riedel is certainly respected, and has a background rooted in the CIA, that’s no indication of any particular depth of knowledge—indeed, in his many biographies (the Brookings Institution lists his expertise as "Counter-terrorism; Arab-Israeli issues; Persian Gulf security; India and Pakistan," which is another way of saying "almost everything") there’s no reason to think he has special access or expertise that many other people don’t. In fact, I’ll take it a step further: the CIA in particular has a lousy history of allowing their former analysts to publish books (say, by "Afghanistan chief" Gary Schroen) that are laden with so many easily-checked errors that one wonders if they ever consulted maps while serving.

Not to knock Riedel specifically. But his invocation of Mullah Omar—the former mujahideen fighter who didn’t make a name for himself until he strung up a Kandahari warlord by the neck for raping a teenaged girl in 1994—as a key player in al Qaeda, which, if Larry Wright is to be believed, wasn’t involved in Afghanistan until years later… well, I mean, surely he’d provide some proof, yes?

Alex further complains, "Bold and new allegations are not backed up by credible sources (or, in some cases, any sources) and the reader must simply trust Reidel." Which is nice, but… well, I mean, he’s no Nazif Shahrani. Hell, if Shahrani made some of these claims—like the Kathmandu hijacking (which is fertile ground for many conspiracy theories) was a dry run for 9/11—without any evidence, I’d wonder why I should trust him, as well.

Which might be pointing at a deeper problem within the entire Afghanistan policy arena: the reliance on reputation, instead of argumentation, to draw conclusions. In Riedel’s case, I could easily see the tight interweaving of the Taliban and al Qaeda as serving a grander purpose—say, the justification for President Obama’s new focus on Afghanistan as the major front in the War on Terror—but without any real basis for saying so, I’m left to wonder… why bother?

Actually, Bruce, why bother? If you’re going to add so much to the discussion this late in the game, please have a reason for saying it. Because it just might be true, and if it is, I’d like to know for certain.

Joshua Foust

Joshua Foust