Another story published recently was Truthout's Exclusive Investigation: The Truth Behind the Official Story of Finding Bin Laden. This article (which is quite interesting) claims that in 2003, the active directors of al-Qaeda isolated Bin Laden in his Abbotabad hideout, and essentially removed him from "command" of al-Qaeda operations, on the dual grounds that he was (a) physically not well and required care, and (b) a total loose cannon whose ideas where impractical and dangerous. After reading the Truthout article, a friend of mine posted the following on Facebook:
Hmm. So it seems that the killing of Bin Laden was a completely empty gesture? "bin Laden was not the functioning head of al-Qaeda at all, but an isolated figurehead who had become irrelevant to the actual operations of the organization."The Truthout account sounds plausible, but it concerns me, because as I read it, it is based on information from a single source, retired Pakistani Brig. Gen. Shaukat Qadir. Gen. Qadir apparently knew large numbers of both ISI operatives and local militants, because of his long military career, and they all seem to have repeated everything they knew to him. (Great security.) If you assume that these sources always told Gen. Qadir the truth, and that he repeated what they said accurately, the story is significant; but those are two large ifs. Also, frankly, I'm not sure the extent of Bin Laden's control over Al Qaeda over the last few years really matters.
Was it really necessary for the U.S. to assassinate Osama bin Laden? I believe it was.
Bin Laden was the driving force behind the World Trade Center attacks, even though Khalid Sheikh Mohammed did (or says he did) the actual operational planning. If the World Trade Center attacks had been organized and carried out by a country, they would have been an act of war. They were the second attack on U.S. territory by a foreign power since the bombing of Pearl Harbor (after the World Trade Center attack in 1993), and one of only a few in the history of the nation. The casualties were higher than at Pearl Harbor, and worse - 3,000 civilians died in New York, whereas 2,402 military personnel died at Pearl Harbor.
Having been attacked, I believe the United States had to respond. When President Bush attacked Afghanistan (because the Taliban, ruling Afghanistan, were publicly harboring Al Qaeda) the world supported the action as self-defense. Unfortunately, Bush and his cabinet soon began planning the insane attack on Iraq. At that point he lost world support, and the action in Afghanistan took second place to the Iraq war.
Fast forward to the beginning of last year. President Obama has been in office for 3 years, he is pulling the last troops out of Iraq (finished Dec. 2011). Osama bin Laden communicates less frequently than he once did, but he's still there, and he was and is the man symbolically responsible for the September 2001 attacks. President Bush, after talking repeatedly about "getting" bin Laden, ultimately failed to do so. President Obama now has intelligence that suggests Bin Laden may be in the house in Abbotabad. What does he do? We know what he did do: he authorized a highly risky operation by the Navy Seals to go in and "take" bin Laden. The Seals say that bin Laden resisted them with arms when they broke in, and they shot him. Given the Seals' training, this was predictable, although I heard an interview on NPR that suggested they would have taken him alive if he had obviously surrendered. The point is moot.
What if the President had not sent the Seals? Bin Laden would have stayed in Abbotabad, probably communicating less and less, and eventually died. But the man responsible for killing 3,000 civilians in September 2001 would be free and would die a free man. The symbolic message to the rest of the jihadi world? You can attack the United States with impunity. We won't come after you. The U.S. is a paper tiger - as bin Laden is said to have believed.
It would have been irresponsible of a U.S. President to allow that message to stand, if he could alter it. The message now is: attack the United States, and we will hunt you down if it takes a decade. The operational effect on Al Qaeda may well have been minor; the symbolic importance is overwhelming.
Should we have taken bin Laden alive and tried him in the U.S.? If we could, yes. Could we have done it? I doubt it. For one thing, I don't believe he would have surrendered. If we had captured him alive, we couldn't have tried him in civilian courts - we attempted to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in the New York courts, and New York refused to host the trial on security grounds. We would have had to try bin Laden at Guantanamo, which would have tainted the entire proceeding.
If somebody slugs you in the nose, you can choose not to respond, at which point the attacker may or may not hit you again. No one is at risk but you. If a group attacks a nation, and kills a number of its citizens, can the government of that nation reasonably say, oh, how sad, we wish it hadn't happened, and take no action against the attackers? I don't think so. The rules of engagement with the worldwide jihad are being made up as we go along, but one of the things a government is supposed to do is defend its citizens from attacks by outsiders.