Friday, May 04, 2012

Killing Bin Laden

On the one-year anniversary of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the government has chosen to release some of the documents they captured in Abbotabad, which, with the President's night trip to Afghanistan, has revived the subject.  The general summary from NPR today, of the official documents just released, suggests that Bin Laden was frustrated because the regional jihadi groups kept killing Muslims, thus destroying Muslim support for Al Qaeda, and he felt that he didn't have control over them.

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.


  1. Anonymous9:56 PM

    Yes. Figureheads are called figureheads for a reason. They are a rallying point, and a literal embodiment of the ideals of their followers. If such a figurehead as Bin-Laden suceeds in inciting a spectacular, deadly atrocity, he's both a belligerent and a civil criminal. We began, with good reason, to pursue him after the September 11 atrocity and capture, or death in combat was the goal.

  2. David Hucklesby8:21 PM

    "When President Bush attacked Afghanistan (because the Taliban, ruling Afghanistan, were publicly harboring Al Qaeda) the world supported the action as self-defense."

    Not quite true. I clearly remember there being a lot of discussion at the U.N. and elsewhere at the time. Afghanistan did not attack the U.S. - the only condition that would have met legal conditions for the attack. It was, in fact, an illegal act under national and international law.

    Yes, the U.S. had to respond. But there were many options - the one chosen has only led to fueling a vast cesspit of hatred across the Arab and Asian world. Bringing the dangerous and criminal perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks to justice, on the other hand, would certainly have met with far more universal approval. As a method of defending U.S. citizens, the course taken seems to me a terrible failure.

  3. I have a question, David. It is early 2002. We would like to bring the criminal perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks to justice. We know they are in Afghanistan, which is currently being run by the Taliban. We know the Taliban approve of Al Qaeda, and allow the leaders to operate there more or less openly. What were the "many options" open to us, and which of them would you have recommended?

    As I recall, the Taliban were already largely international pariahs, with no particular trade with the west. I don't think diplomacy would have done a thing; I don't recall that we had diplomatic relations with the Taliban, largely because we had been funding the warlords they defeated. Our intelligence in the area was compromised; I recall reading that we had no "humint" on the ground in the Taliban areas. What else COULD we have done?

  4. Hedera: Your post is based on what you acknowledge is third- or fourth-hand intelligence. But, even if what we "know" is true, it's all water under the bridge.

    We know, for instance, that Bush's people had actually planned an Iraq invasion even before his election, when, during the Florida election dispute, members of his team and future cabinet nominees, met in Texas to discuss how this could be brought about. We also know that Cheney and Wolfowitz bullied the CIA into concocting a phony portfolio of "evidence" to justify invading Iraq--an act so transparently heinous that school-children could see through it.

    During the Clinton term(s), attempts were made to conduct drone and isolated strikes against Al Quaeda strongholds, and I distinctly remember the Republicans bitching about that at the time. And recently, that's been our best option for taking out little hideouts and pockets of activity.

    When 9/11 occurred, the Bush team was overjoyed. His popularity ratings were low, and there seemed no way to resuscitate them. Then, suddenly, he's a "war President" and it's no surprise that he continually refers to an open-ended "war on terror." His ratings jump, and his re-election is assured.

    There are some--myself included--who believe that our intelligence actually knew where Osama bin Laden was at various points in time, but deferred to caution, because we really "needed" him alive to justify our continued presence in both Afghanistan and Iraq. We needed an enemy, and the bearded figure living in a cave in the rocky highlands of Afghanistan had an imaginative quality that was made to order.

    When Obama finally pulled the trigger, our military and intelligence planners were in total agreement. The war profiteers had milked the situation dry, and there wasn't much to be gained by another 5-10 years of "peace-keeping" and "nation-building" so everybody said "okay, off the bastard, and let's move on." Osama may have been a "symbolic" figurehead, but it was largely his money that funded most of the underground terrorism around the world. But imagine what would have happened if Bush had killed him back in, say, 2003. He'd not have been the "war President" and might well have lost (no second term). And there was so much more mischief the Republicans had to accomplish as long as he was in the White House.

    I think the Bush family has been in bed with the petroleum corporations--and the Saudis--for two generations. I think we knew to within a couple of miles--at any given moment--where bin Laden was, and we chose not to act. Shocking? Not really, when you consider the level of corruption during the Bush years. You need a boogeyman to scare people,. and he was perfect.

  5. Part II

    As far as our long-range interests are concerned, we'd do well to stay out of places like Afghanistan, which has been a sink-hole for the West for a 100 years. It's untamable country, and not really worth saving, certainly not at the cost of American lives. Dust and rock and opium poppies.

    And Pakistan is every bit as corrupt as Afghanistan. Their intelligence people clearly also knew where bin Laden was the whole time, and shrugged in glib dismissal. If we lose interest in Osama, what happens to our foreign aid package?

    The Middle East wars emptied our coffers, and ruined our reputation around the world. Hundreds of thousands dead, perhaps a trillion dollars spent on war materiel, and for what?

    Six months after we leave Afghanistan, the Taliban will be back in control. And in Iraq, it will only be a matter of time before the next "strong-man" appears and restores "order."

    The events that unfolded after 9/11 were scripted by Al Quaeda. We did precisely what Osama wanted. Perhaps not in his fondest dreams, could he have imagined the trouble he created for us. We fell right into his trap.

    It's almost Shakespearean in its sadness.

  6. David Hucklesby6:02 PM

    I'll answer your question, Hedera, with one of my own. Who attacked the U.S. on 9/11, exactly?

    It sure wasn't Afghanistan, which was and is hardly a functioning country. I know we like to believe that there are "leaders" who are responsible for what happens there, but it just ain't so. The Taliban, who held sway in only part of the country, did in fact offer to hand over bin Laden, but the offer was refused. I'm assuming, of course, that bin Laden was guilty - I don't think that has been proved.

    Why not react the way any civilized entity does when a monstrous criminal perpetrates a heinous act? I suggest that an international manhunt, supported by coordinated police action, would have been a far better option. But instead, the only planes flying over the U.S. right after the attacks were those escorting Saudi nationals, including members of bin Laden's family, back to their country. No chance for questioning them in case they had something to reveal!

    No. I have no answers. But I do have a lot of questions - questions that are unlikely to be answered. But one very brave member of congress stood alone at the time, and pleaded: "Let us not become the enemy we abhor."

    I rest my case.