As America’s morbid celebrations over the killing of Osama bin Laden begin to fade, we are left with a new landscape of risks – and opportunities – created by his slaying at the hands of a U.S. Special Forces team at a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
The range of those future prospects could be found in Wednesday’s Washington Post. On the hopeful side, a front-page article reported that the Obama administration was following up bin Laden’s death with accelerated peace talks in Afghanistan. On a darker note, a Post editorial hailed bin Laden’s slaying as a model for “targeting” Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and his sons.
So, while there is the possibility that the United States might finally begin to wind down a near-decade-long war in Afghanistan, there is the countervailing prospect of the United States consolidating an official policy of assassination and violence as the way to impose Washington’s will on the Muslim world.
If the Post’s neoconservative editors get their way and the U.S. military is officially transformed into a roving assassination squad – a global “Murder, Inc.” – that could be viewed as bin Laden’s final victory.
Having already helped create the climate for George W. Bush’s administration to overturn longstanding American principles – regarding civil liberties, aggressive war and torture – bin Laden could go to his watery grave with the satisfaction of officially branding the United States as a nation of assassins.
If assassination becomes the preferred calling card of U.S. foreign policy, it also is a safe bet that the lines at al-Qaeda recruiting stations will grow longer, rather than shrink, and that more rounds of retaliatory violence will follow.
However, if the Post’s news article by Rajiv Chandrasekaran is correct – that bin Laden’s death may clear the way for negotiations with the Taliban and a peace settlement in Afghanistan – then something truly positive from this grisly episode might be salvaged.
Not only might the 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan start coming home but the United States might finally begin to repair its badly stained reputation as a “beacon” of liberty and the rule of law.
The circumstances surrounding the targeted killing of bin Laden remind us how far the United States has strayed from its principles.
Though clearly bin Laden represented an extreme case – as the leader of an international terrorist organization that has slaughtered thousands of innocent people – his killing was not unique. Over the past decade, U.S. Special Forces and sniper teams have been authorized to kill significant numbers of suspected militants on sight.
For instance, in 2007, a case surfaced regarding two U.S. Special Forces soldiers who took part in the execution of an Afghan man who was a suspected leader of an insurgent group. Special Forces Capt. Dave Staffel and Sgt. Troy Anderson were leading a team of Afghan soldiers when an informant told them where the suspected insurgent leader was hiding. The U.S.-led contingent found a man believed to be Nawab Buntangyar walking outside his compound near the village of Hasan Kheyl.
While the Americans kept their distance out of fear the suspect might be wearing a suicide vest, the man was questioned about his name and the Americans checked his description against a list from the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force Afghanistan, known as “the kill-or-capture list.”
Concluding that the man was Nawab Buntangyar, Staffel gave the order to shoot, and Anderson – from a distance of about 100 yards away – fired a bullet through the man’s head, killing him instantly.
The soldiers viewed the killing as “a textbook example of a classified mission completed in accordance with the American rules of engagement,” the New York Times reported. “The men said such rules allowed them to kill Buntangyar, whom the American military had designated a terrorist cell leader, once they positively identified him.”
Staffel’s civilian lawyer Mark Waple said the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command concluded that the shooting was “justifiable homicide,” but a two-star general in Afghanistan instigated a murder charge against the two men. That case, however, foundered over accusations that the charge was improperly filed. [NYT, Sept. 17, 2007]
According to evidence in a court martial at Fort Bragg, the earlier Army investigation cleared the two soldiers because they had been operating under rules of engagement that empowered them to kill individuals who have been designated “enemy combatants,” even if the targets were unarmed and presented no visible threat.
In September 2007, a U.S. military judge dismissed all charges against the two soldiers, ruling it was conceivable that the detained Afghan was wearing a suicide explosive belt, though there was no evidence that he was. [For more details, see Consortiumnews.com’s "Bush Turns US Soldiers into Murderers.”]
In other words, the killing of Osama bin Laden was within well-established “rules of engagement” started under President Bush and continued by President Barack Obama. Obama’s proud announcement on Sunday evening that “a small team of Americans” had killed bin Laden reflected not an anomalous action but a pattern of behavior, made distinctive only by the prominence of the target.
“At my direction,” Obama said, “a small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. … After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.”
On Monday, John Brennan, Obama’s special assistant on terrorism, claimed that bin Laden either had a gun or was reaching for a gun when he was shot, but the White House on Tuesday amended that statement to say that bin Laden was unarmed when killed.
Further U.S. revisions of the official story followed on Wednesday, as U.S. officials acknowledged that the “firefight” in Abbottabad was extremely one-sided. They told the New York Times that only one of bin Laden’s “couriers,” Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, fired at the U.S. team from a nearby guest house before he and a woman with him were slain.
After the U.S. troops entered the main building housing bin Laden, they assumed people they encountered might be armed, the U.S. officials said. According to this account, a second “courier” was killed inside the house as he was believed to be preparing to fire. One of bin Laden’s sons who reportedly lunged toward the attackers was killed, too.
Upon reaching the third-floor room where bin Laden was, the U.S. team spotted him within reach of an AK-47 and a Makarov pistol, the U.S. officials said. The commandos then shot and killed him and wounded a woman, apparently one of his wives.
It is, of course, difficult to second-guess the split-second decisions of commandos on a dangerous nighttime mission as to whether there was a reasonable prospect of taking bin Laden alive or whether he did constitute a lethal threat.
But their rules of engagement clearly were to shoot first and ask questions later. As CIA Director Leon Panetta explained in TV interviews, the commandos were authorized to kill bin Laden on sight, although they were prepared to accept his surrender if there was no sign of resistance.
Put differently, the orders were to “kill or capture” rather than “capture or kill.” And the “kill” option appeared to be the favored choice.
Obama himself suggested that priority in his Sunday address, disclosing that at the start of his presidency, he ordered Panetta “to make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of our war against al-Qaeda, even as we continued our broader efforts to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat his network.”
Obama, a former professor of constitutional law, has come a long way in accepting the frame of reference created by his predecessor who smirked at the niceties of international law and whose White House counsel Alberto Gonzales mocked the Geneva Conventions as “quaint” and “obsolete.”
As details of the bin Laden raid – and then the corrected details – spill out over the next several days, it is hard to predict the reaction in the Muslim world, and particularly in nuclear-armed Pakistan, where the targeted killing took place.
Extremists of all stripes may be given extra incentive to upend governments that acquiesce to American violations of their sovereignty. There are also heightened dangers of anti-U.S. terrorist attacks.
In Pakistan, where U.S. drone strikes against Taliban and al-Qaeda militants, have been a major bone of contention, the bin Laden assault has already increased the turbulence in U.S.-Pakistani relations.
According to both governments, Obama chose not to inform President Asif Ali Zardari until the nighttime raid was finished, apparently fearing that Pakistani authorities might tip off the bin Laden compound. Only after the fact did Obama reach Zardari by telephone to let him know what had just gone down.
The Pakistani government responded with a stern official statement of the obvious, that the “unilateral” attack had violated Pakistan’s “sovereignty.” But there was embarrassment, too, that the world’s most hunted terrorist had been found living in a million-dollar compound just down the road from Pakistan’s top military academia and a military base.
That fact set – and the history of Pakistan’s chief intelligence agency, the ISI, playing double games regarding Islamic extremism – were factors in Obama’s decision to go it alone, Panetta suggested in an interview with Time magazine.
“It was decided that any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardize the mission,” the CIA director said. “They might alert the targets.”
Still, the impression of the U.S. running roughshod over the Pakistani government will make it more difficult for senior Pakistani military and government officials to cooperate – or even pretend to cooperate – with the U.S. war across the border in Afghanistan.
Zardari is already in a peck of trouble. His very position as president is in jeopardy.
That means Zardari will be under still more pressure to demonstrate his independence of Washington at a time when Pakistanis perceive they have been subjected to a string of indignities, even preceding the high-profile controversy over the bin Laden raid.
Whether or not the Pakistani military decides to allow President Zardari to remain in office, many Pakistanis are likely to react strongly against the U.S. at a time when bilateral relations are already at their nadir.
Since Sunday, many U.S. officials have harshly criticized Pakistan for harboring bin Laden, with some suggesting major cuts in U.S. aid which has totaled about $20 billion over the past decade.
For its part, Pakistan can retaliate by blocking the resupply of U.S. and NATO forces along roads to the Khyber Pass and into Afghanistan. This extremely long logistics line may well prove the Achilles heel of the entire U.S. war effort.
No one knows this better than the Pakistanis who have already shown themselves ready to use the leverage afforded by NATO’s dependence on the difficult supply line.
Ignoring Other Options
In favoring killing over capture, it also appears that the United States passed up the prospects of questioning bin Laden about al-Qaeda in favor of killing him, all the better to avoid the messy legal complications of how to proceed against him.
Yet, there are commonly accepted legal ways to capture and bring such people to a court of law — yes, even violent “bad guys” like Osama bin Laden. It is difficult – especially given the complexities with Pakistani authorities and the risks involved in grabbing a dangerous target – but it can be done.
That bin Laden might have had extremely valuable information to impart to interrogators is a no-brainer. But some of that information also might have been embarrassing to important elements of the U.S. government, especially considering his longstanding relationship with the CIA going back to the 1980s and the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan.
Much as some prominent U.S. officials breathed a sigh of relief when Iraq’s deposed dictator Saddam Hussein was hanged in 2006 – avoiding a thorough investigation that might have exposed unwelcome secrets dating back to the 1980s – some operatives from the same period probably are glad that bin Laden’s secrets are now buried at sea.
Yet, despite the future risks for the United States and the Muslim world – and the fact that the U.S. assault was a fairly clear violation of international law – the killing of bin Laden paradoxically does offer a possible route back from the institutionalization of American lawlessness.
Since bin Laden and his actions on 9/11 created the shock that allowed the Bush administration to lead the United States into the “dark side” of “enhanced interrogations,” “preemptive wars” and a wholesale assault on civil liberties, it could follow that the death of bin Laden will permit a retracing of those steps.
The first step in that journey would be a serious attempt to negotiate a political settlement in Afghanistan and the withdrawal of American and NATO troops. If enough public pressure is brought to bear, there could even be a full-scale reassessment of U.S. priorities, pulling back from the expensive garrison state that bin Laden helped create.