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Pulitzer Prize winner tells of bin Laden Hunt

Stuhldreher, Katie | Friday, September 30, 2005

Steve Coll, two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author and journalist, drew upon his journalistic endeavors in India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Afghan-istan to explain the importance of the ongoing hunt for Osama bin Laden and the restructuring of the intelligence community after Sept. 11 in the Jordan Auditorium Thursday.

Coll, a former South Asia bureau chief for The Washington Post and author of “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001,” focused his lecture on past frustrations and failures of the U.S. intelligence community and misperceptions about bin Laden and the Taliban following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

“I think that our biggest missed opportunity at the statecraft level was when the Soviets made it clear that they were leaving Afghanistan and we left as well,” Coll said. “I think that this was mere indifference, not actual deliberation. We didn’t have enough of an interest to consider alternatives to giving up and leaving the Afghans in their misery.”

He described the rise of Osama bin Laden from this point forward as well as the failed attempts of the Clinton Administration and the CIA to effectively contain or eliminate him.

“I’m just trying to emphasize how difficult it is to defend our values, laws and constitution against people who don’t recognize or respect these rules,” Coll said.

Coll also explained his findings about the rise of the Taliban government in Afghanistan in the context of Pakistan military domination with the United States as a willing bystander. Coll said the lack of American leadership and involvement in Afghanistan after the Soviet pullout allowed that area to become a breeding ground for al-Qaeda.

“Why throughout the entire period of the 1990s did the U.S. not see the Taliban as an adversary?” Coll asked. “We continued to talk to them in a very nuanced way to try to persuade them to expel bin Laden. It’s hard now in 2005 to remember how far away the rest of the world seemed back then.”

In the course of fielding questions from the audience after the lecture, Coll also addressed the implications of the ongoing hunt for bin Laden four years after Sept. 11.

“Al-Qaeda has changed since September 11 in that it used to have a corporate shape to it, and that organization no longer exists,” he said. “It evolved from an organization to a movement that relies upon stimulation of local like-minded jihadists. This is the first time in history that a guerilla movement has moved from physical space to cyber space.”

Coll said some people argue that due to this development, the death or capture of bin Laden would not significantly impact the war on terror. Coll explained that he adhered to the school of thought that a central, visible figure like bin Laden – who regularly appears in the media – still serves as a motivational leader and is a target who merits continued pursuit.

“I won’t argue that it wouldn’t have been a bigger blow to decapitate al-Qaeda back in 1997 or 1998 when it was still more of an organization, but I still think that bin Laden is enough of a leader that it would still make a difference if we were to get him,” Coll said.

Coll pointed out that many of the challenges and vulnerabilities illuminated by the attacks would serve as enduring problems to be addressed by subsequent generations.

“There has been a big generational change occurring within the intelligence community,” he said. “There had been an enormous wave of hiring of young people since September 11, and these people are the ‘September 11 generation,’ just like many of the students here tonight. They are coming of age and were shaped very much by these events, and I think that so far, they are by and large extremely impressive.”

Notre Dame’s Kellogg Institute for International Studies and the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies sponsored the lecture and discussion as a means to stimulate discussion of global issues within the community.

“Both institutes aim to bring to campus a diverse set of views about global issues,” George Lopez, a senior fellow at the Kroc Institute and political science professor, said. “This was a high quality, in-depth journalist – not just a Pulitzer Prize winner, but someone with scholarly awards due to his experience on the ground in this part of the world.”

Coll’s current plans include travel to Saudi Arabia to work on an upcoming book and settling into his new position at The New Yorker.