Focal Points Blog

Could the Death of bin Laden Become a Cornerstone of Peace in Afghanistan?

Panetta PetraeusAccording to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Leon Panetta, the U.S. never informed Pakistan about the operation to assassinate al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden because it thought the Pakistanis could “jeopardize the mission” by tipping off the target.

Maybe, and maybe not. This is, after all, the ground over which the 19th century “Great Game” was played, the essence of which was obfuscation. What you thought you saw or knew was not necessarily what was.

The “official” story is that three CIA helicopters—one for backup—took off from Jalalabad, Afghanistan and flew almost 200 miles to Abbottabad, most of it through Pakistani airspace. Pakistan scrambled jets, but the choppers still managed to land, spend 40 minutes on the ground, and get away.

Is it possible the helicopters really did dodge Pakistani radar? During the Cold War a West German pilot flew undetected through the teeth of the Soviet air defense system and landed his plane in Red Square, so yes. Choppers are slow, but these were stealth varieties and fairly quiet. But at top speed, the Blackhawks would have needed about an hour each way, plus the 40 minutes on the ground. That is a long time to remain undetected, particularly in a town hosting three regiments of the Pakistani Army, plus the Kakul Military Academy, the country’s equivalent of West Point. Abbottabad is also 35 miles from the capital, Islamabad, and the region is ringed with anti-aircraft sites.

Still, it is possible, except there is an alternative scenario that not only avoids magical thinking about what choppers can do, but better fits the politics of the moment: that Pakistan’s Directorate of Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) knew where Bin Laden was and fingered him, estimating that his death would accelerate negotiations with the Taliban. Why now? Because for the first time in this long war, U.S. and Pakistani interests coincide.

Gen. Hammad Gul, former head of the ISI, told the Financial Times on May 3 that the ISI knew where he was, but regarded him as “inactive.” Writing in the May 5 Guardian (UK), author Tariq Ali says that a “senior” ISI official told him back in 2006 that the spy organization knew where bin Laden was, but had no intention of arresting him because he was “The goose that laid the golden egg.” In short, the hunt for the al-Qaeda leader helped keep the U.S. aid spigot open.

Indeed, bin Laden may have been under house arrest, which would explain the absence of trained bodyguards. By not allowing the al-Qaeda leader a private militia, the ISI forced him to rely on it for protection. And if they then dropped a dime on him, they knew he would be an easy target. As to why he was killed, not captured, neither the U.S. nor Pakistan wanted him alive, the former because of the judicial nightmare his incarceration would involve, the latter because dead men tell no tales.

As for the denials: the last thing the ISI wants is to be associated with the hit, since it could end up making the organization a target for Pakistan’s home-grown Taliban. If the ISI knew, so did the Army, though not necessarily at all levels. Did the Army turn a blind eye to the U.S. choppers? Who knows?

What we do know for certain is that there is a shift in Pakistan and the U.S. with regards to the Afghan war.

On the U.S. side, the war is going badly, and American military and intelligence agencies are openly warring with one another. In December the U.S. intelligence community released a study indicating that progress was minimal and that the 2009 surge of 30,000 troops had produced only tactical successes: “There remains no clear path toward defeating the insurgency.” The Pentagon counter-attacked in late April with a report that the surge had been “a strategic defeat for the Taliban,” and that the military was making “tangible progress in some really key areas.”

It is not an analysis agreed with by our NATO allies, most of which are desperate to get their troops out of what they view as a deepening quagmire. A recent WikiLeak cable quotes Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Union, saying “No one believes in Afghanistan anymore. But we will give it 2010 to see results.” He went on to say Europe was only going along “out of deference to the United States.” Translation: NATO support is falling apart.

Recent shifts by the Administration seem to signal that the White House is backing away from the surge and looking for ways to wind down the war. The shift of Gen. David Petraeus to the CIA removes the major U.S. booster of the current counterinsurgency strategy, and moving Panetta to the Defense Department puts a savvy political infighter with strong Democratic Party credentials into the heart of Pentagon. Democrats are overwhelmingly opposed to the war but could never get a hearing from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a Republican.

The last major civilian supporter of the war is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but Gates, her main ally, will soon be gone, as will Admiral Mike Mullen, head of the Joints Chiefs of Staff. The shuffle at the top is hardly a “night of the long knives,” but the White House has essentially eliminated or sidelined those in the administration who pushed for a robust war and long-term occupation.

A surge of sanity? Well, at least some careful poll reading. According to the Associated Press, six in 10 Americans want out of the war. Among Democrats 73 percent want to be out in a year, and a USA Today/Gallup Poll found that 72 percent of Americans want Congress to address an accelerated withdrawal. With the war now costing $8 billion a month, these numbers are hardly a surprise.

Pakistan has long been frustrated with the U.S.’s reluctance to talk to the Taliban, and, from Islamabad’s perspective, the war is largely being carried out at their expense. Pakistan has suffered tens of thousands of civilian and military casualties in what most Pakistanis see as an American war, and the country is literally up in arms over the drone attacks.

The Pakistani Army has been deployed in Swat, South Waziristan, and Bajaur, and the U.S. is pressing it to invade North Waziristan. One Pakistani grumbled to the Guardian (UK), “What do they [the U.S.] want us to do? Declare war on our whole country?” For the 30 million Pashtuns in the northwest regions, the Pakistani Army is foreign in language and culture, and Islamabad knows that it will eventually be seen as an outside occupier.

A poll by the New America Foundation and Terror Free Tomorrow of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan’s northwest—home and refuge to many of the insurgents fighting in Afghanistan—found some 80 percent oppose the U.S. war on terror, almost nine in every 10 people oppose U.S. attacks on the Taliban, and three quarters oppose the drone attacks.

The bottom line is that Pakistan simply cannot afford to continue the war, particularly as they are still trying to dig themselves out from under last year’s massive floods.

In April, Pakistan’s top military, intelligence and political leadership decamped to Kabul to meet with the government of Harmid Karzai. The outcome of the talks is secret, but they appear to have emboldened the parties to press the U.S. to start talking. According to Ahmed Rashid, author of “Taliban” and “Descent into Chaos,” the White House is moving “the fledgling peace process forward” and will “push to broker an end to the war.” This includes dropping “its preconditions that the Taliban sever links with al-Qaeda and accept the Afghan constitution before holding face-to-face talks.”

Given that in 2008 the Taliban agreed to not allow any “outside” forces in the country and pledged not to pose a danger to any other country, including those in the West, this demand has already been met. As for the constitution, since it excluded the Taliban it will have to be re-negotiated in any case.

While there appears to be a convergence of interests among the major parties, negotiations promise to be a thorny business.

The Pentagon will resist a major troop drawdown. There is also opposition in Afghanistan, where Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara minorities are deeply suspicious of the Taliban. The Karzai government also appears split on the talks, although recent cabinet shuffles have removed some of the more anti-Pakistan leaders.

Then there is the Taliban, which is hardly a centralized organization, especially since U.S. drone attacks and night raids have effectively removed more experienced Taliban leaders, leaving younger and more radical fighters in charge. Can Taliban leader Mullah Omar deliver his troops? That is not a given.

Both other insurgent groups—the Haqqani Group and Hizb-i-Islami—have indicated they are open to negotiations, but the Americans will have a hard time sitting down with the Haqqanis. The group has been implicated in the deaths of numerous U.S. and coalition forces. To leave the Haqqani Group out, however, will derail the whole process.

The U.S. would like to exclude Iran, but as Rashid points out, “No peace process in Afghanistan can succeed without Iran’s full participation.” And then there is India. Pakistan sees Indian involvement in Afghanistan as part of New Delhi’s strategy to surround Pakistan, and India accuses Pakistan of harboring terrorists who attack Indian-controlled Kashmir and launched the horrendous 2008 attack on Mumbai that killed 166 people.

Murphy’s Law suggests that things are more likely to end in chaos than reasoned diplomacy. But self-interest is a powerful motivator, and all parties, including India, stands to gain something by ending the war. India very much wants to see the 1,050-mile TAPI pipeline built, as it will carry gas from Turkmenistan, through Afghanistan and Pakistan, to Fazilka, India.

A lot is at stake, and if getting the peace process going involved taking out Osama bin Laden, well, in the cynical world of the “Great Game,” to make an omelet, you have to break eggs.

Back in the Victorian era the British Army marched off singing a song:

We don’t want to fight but by jingo if we do
We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, and we’ve got the money too

But in the 21st century most our allies’ armies don’t want to fight, ships are useless in Afghanistan, there aren’t enough men, and everyone is broke.

For 33 years the people of Afghanistan have been bombed, burned, shot, tortured and turned into refugees. For at least the moment the pieces are aligned to bring this awful war to an end. It is time to close the book on the “Great Game” and bring the troops home.

More of Conn Hallinan’s work can be found at Dispatches From the Edge.

WikiLeaks: Gitmo Guards’ Rewards System for Detainees Backfires

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the fifty-second in the series.

The story of Yasser Talal Al Zahrani offers one of the most mysterious, and ultimately tragic, narratives in the “Gitmo Files” published by WikiLeaks this past week. The son of “a senior official in the Saudi Interior Ministry, reportedly holding the rank of abid, or brigadier,” the seventeen-year-old al Zahrani reportedly left home, having just completed the eleventh grade, “after hearing that sheiks from neighboring [sic throughout] towns were saying jihad in Afghanistan (AF) was a religious duty.”

He first travelled to Karachi, Pakistan, financing “the trip himself with saving he had earned selling perfumes to hajj pilgrims.” In Karachi, al Zahrani hooked up with a man named Saria al Makki, who travelled with him to Konduz, Afghanistan.

In Konduz, detainee was taken to a place called the Taliban Center. He spent one month training under an individual named Khair Allah on the use of the Kalishnikov rifle, the Makarov pistol, hand grenades, and in field training. The detainee was then assigned a guard position at a second line post between Konduz and Taloqan.

The American Taliban fighter, John Walker Lindh, remembered Abu Ammar distinctly, in part because he was little more than a kid when they fought together in Afghanistan.

Lindh identified detainee as Abu Ammar from Saudi Arabia. He further stated that detainee was one of the youngest, which is why he stood out. Lindh stated detainee was approximately seventeen years old and was always joking and talking. Detainee…was involved in foo services. Detainee was always at front line base camps…

When the front line crumbled under the pressure of American fire power, “the group retreated to Konduz where coalition forces surrounded them.” Lindh reported that while there, al Zahrani “helped in a kitchen of an Arab guesthouse (as a cook) in Konduz after fleeing from the front lines.” Just over a week later, Konduz fell, and al Zahrani’s group cut a deal with the Northern Alliance, “Allowing fighters to leave with their weapons and travel to Mazar-E-Sharif, AF, where they would surrender.” What happened then is a bit confused, but the report notes that

On the eleventh day of Ramadan, the fighters traveled to Mazar-E-Sharid where they turned in their weapons and were taken to the Qala-I-Jangi prison. The day after they arrived at the prison, detainee and others were taken to a square in the prison yard. Detainee heard gunfire and explosions coming from the prison and then a firefight ensued injuring detainee in the leg and foot. He fell to the ground and remained in the same position until nightfall, when other prisoners retrieved him and carried him back to the underground prison. They remained there for seven days before they were forced to surrender.

A month later, he was turned over to the American forces, and processed to Guantanamo Boy shortly thereafter.

From what can be gathered in al Zahrani’s assessment, he was quite a handful. In the five years he spent in Guantanamo, Abu Ammar racked up over one hundred disciplinary infraction reports detailing all manner of disruptive incidents, including

assault, failure to follow instructions/camp rules, using provoking words and gestures with the guards, threatening the life of a guard, damage to property, inciting a disturbance, exposing himself to guards, possession of both weapon and non-weapon type contraband, and cross block talking. The detainee had twelve reports of disciplinary infraction for assault in 2005. The detainee’s most recent assault was committed on 13 November 2005 when he punched a guard in the jaw upon being returned to his cell. The detainee has numerous cases of verbal harassment and threats towards guards…The detainee was a major participant in the voluntary total fast of 2005-2006. The detainee has notes of conducting PT, to include combative type training, and at least twice has taunted guards claiming to want to fight. On 11 July 2005, detainee told a guard that he would use a knife to cut his stomach open, cut his face off, and then drink his blood, smiling and laughing as he said it.

Major General Jay Hood, who authored the report, determined that al Zahrani’s antics were enough to keep him held indefinitely in Gitmo detention, despite the fact that the Saudi was basically of no use to al Qaeda or the Taliban, much less the United States Government.

No reporting indicates detainee served in a leadership or operational planning capacity….detainee’s exposure to the jihadist element in Afghanistan is unremarkable and less than many other detainees. The information detainee is assessed to know about the Taliban and events in Qala-I-Jangi is limited beyond what he has already provided. It is assessed the intelligence to be exploited from detainee is limited, and it would probably be dated and not tactically or strategically critical…most reporting indicates detainee was probably the average mujahid…

As it turns out, while al Zahrani may have been the average mujahid, he made a name for himself at Guantanamo for being one of four inmates to successfully commit suicide. Three months after the assessment was conducted by Hood, al Zahrani and two other detainees simultaneously killed themselves in their cells. According to the Washington Post,

Zahrani, in Cell A-8, was the first detainee to raise concern among guards. One guard passed his cell and thought the silhouette under his sheets looked too small. When guards inspected further, they found the sheet concealing random items and Zahrani hanging from a noose in the darkness… Some of the guards were “very emotional,” according to the report [on the suicides]. “I feel that the guards and myself on Alpha block did an inadequate job monitoring the detainees that night to make sure that they were following the rules as to show some kind of skin while sleeping,” said one guard, who name was redacted from the documents.

Inadequacy was only the tip of the iceberg. An investigation later demonstrated that

guards had become lax on certain rules because commanders wanted to reward the more compliant detainees, giving them extra T-shirts, blankets and towels. Detainees were allowed to hang such items to dry, or to provide privacy while using the toilet, but were not supposed to be able to obscure their cells while sleeping.

Guards told officials that it was not unusual to see blankets hanging in the cells and that they did not think twice when they passed several cells on the night of June 9, 2006, with blankets strung through the wire mesh. Authorities believe the men probably hanged themselves around 10 p.m., but they were not discovered until shortly after midnight on June 10.

How al Zahrani was able to get his hands on all this good-behavior swag given his extensive list of misdemeanors was never explained. What is clear, however, is that al Zahrani was slated for release at the very moment he decided to take his own life. “Zahrani, according to Guantanamo records, was next on the ‘Saudi DMO’ list, which meant he was imminently going to be part of a “Detainee Movement Operation” that would have transferred him to Saudi Arabia’s reintegration program and ultimately to freedom.” He was twenty-one years old.

A Bin Laden Trial a “Circus”? Who Doesn’t Like a Circus?

I have it on good authority that Navy SEALs put a premium on capturing targets because they’re taught that information is the true prize. Then why, we continue to wonder, did one of them shoot Osama bin Laden, especially since indications are that he’d already been captured? Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan explains.

SEAL Team Six was told to accept surrender only “if he did not pose any type of threat whatsoever,” and if troops “were confident of that in terms of his not having an IED [improvised explosives device] on his body, his not having some type of hidden weapon or whatever,”

But Americans weren’t aware of that when they were celebrating what sounded like a cold-blooded shooting. Even here: Jubilation Erupts in Harvard Yard As Obama Tells World Osama Bin Laden is Dead. (In a side note . . . young men — want a true test of how yoked to violence your sexuality is? Young women cheering bin Laden’s killing: major turn-on or turn-off?)

How does Americans celebrating bin Laden’s killing look to the rest of the world? An NBA player, of all people, has an idea.

[Chris] Douglas-Roberts [was] disturbed by the ensuing celebration. It reminded him of the response in Afghanistan — which was also captured on television — following 9/11. “We just looked like the Afghan people, a decade later,” he said.

As you’re no doubt tired of seeing me post, a court case would have been preferable. Many claim that a trial would be a “circus.” At the Independent (via Duck of Minerva via the Progressive Realist) Geoffrey Robertson writes:

I do not minimise the security issues at his trial or the danger of it ending up as a squalid circus like that of Saddam Hussein. But the notion that any form of legal process would have been too hard must be rejected. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – also alleged to be the architect of 9/11 – will shortly go on trial and had Bin Laden been captured, he should have been put in the dock alongside him, so that their shared responsibility could have been properly examined.

Failing that, Robertson adds

Bin Laden could not have been tried for 9/11 at the International Criminal Court — its jurisdiction only came into existence nine months later. But the Security Council could have set up an ad hoc tribunal in The Hague, with international judges (including Muslim jurists), to provide a fair trial and a reasoned verdict.

This would have been the best way of de-mystifying this man, debunking his cause and de-brainwashing his followers. In the dock he would have been reduced in stature — never more remembered as the tall, soulful figure on the mountain, but as a hateful and hate-filled old man, screaming from the dock or lying from the witness box.

At its most elemental level, legality exists to mitigate man’s brutality to man. A court case would have spared us Americans (including President Obama at Ground Zero) making a brutish spectacle of themselves.

Returning to bringing bin Laden back alive, at Time’s Swampland, Massimo Calabresi writes:

John Yoo, who wrote the brief [for the Bush administration] that provided legal cover for waterboarding, sleep-deprivation and other harsh interrogation methods, wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal . . . arguing that bin Laden’s assassination “vindicates the Bush administration, whose intelligence architecture marked the path to bin Laden’s door.” . . . Most provocatively, Yoo asserts that by killing bin Laden, rather than capturing and interrogating him, the Navy Seal team made a grave error. “Special forces using nonlethal weaponry might have taken bin Laden alive . . . [and] one of the most valuable intelligence opportunities since the beginning of the war has slipped through our hands.”

It’s mortifying when John Yoo gives voice to one’s sentiments. But, no matter what his motivation is, when he’s right, he’s right.

A Generation Exhales with Bin Laden’s Death

The enthusiastic flag-waving. The gaudy red, white, and blue jumpsuits, the booming chants of “USA, USA, USA.” The huge crowd of jubilant young people gathered outside the White House, celebrating Osama bin Laden’s death.

Is it right to celebrate the death of an individual, even one as abhorrent as bin Laden?

His death won’t bring home the thousands of troops fighting and losing their lives in the name of “nation-building” in Iraq and Afghanistan. The “Global War on Terror” (a never-ending war on a tactic) won’t end with bin Laden’s death. Is it really appropriate to engage in such unrestrained partying?

I feel it’s somewhat jarring to see the images of Americans marking this historic moment by partying outside the White House and across the country. We may be effectively guilty of celebrating death and exhibiting the worst of Western excesses, while we continue to condone drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan that kill terrorists and civilians alike.

However, from the perspective of someone who was only 11 years old when the 9-11 attacks happened (as were many of the college-age revelers), there’s a real emotional and mental aspect to this event that is being overlooked. Every young person in my age group vividly remembers where he or she was when the terrorist attacks happened. I remember hearing the news crackle through the radio on my school bus in London and then seeing the horrific images of the attacks once I got home.

While my contemporaries and I may not have had the ability to look at the events through a critical lens, the images from those days will be forever burned into our psyches. There was a definite feeling that the world we knew before the attacks was gone and that things would never be the same again.

For those of us who grew up in the West under the shadow of the attacks in New York, Washington, Madrid, and London, Osama bin Laden is really the embodiment of a world that has become gripped in fear and hatred. A man who was responsible in whole or in part for murdering thousands of people, encouraging a climate where human rights and freedoms are limited, destroying the popular image of Islam as a religion, and radicalizing the debate on identity so that it has become “them vs. us.” Perhaps my generation, he has become a literal bogeyman who changed the world we live in for the worse.

The kind of celebrations that erupted in front of the White House could be seen as a disturbing sign of people who have been whipped up into a jingoistic frenzy. However, I suggest that these celebrations are something else: the collective “exhale” of a group of young men and women who have grown up in a world that lacked confidence, belief, and any semblance of “peace.”

Laurence Hull is a former Foreign Policy In Focus intern at the Institute for Policy Studies. He lives in London, UK and is studying history and international studies at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia.

Reading Netanyahu the Riot Act Would Have Done More to Halt Terrorism Than Killing bin Laden

Netanyahu ObamaBut apart from that cynical thought, let us be straight about one thing. Bin Laden was killed this Sunday, and it does offer serious possibilities.

Gullibility and skepticism seem joined at the hip. People who would take their umbrellas if the Obama administration told them it was sunny outside are quite willing to believe and quote any deranged website with a conspiracy theory. It is interesting to note the convergence of left and right — Osama’s death was faked, Obama’s birth certificate was forged.

Occam’s razor compels me to think that neither is true. And by the way, I was living close to the World Trade Center, saw and heard the planes, and commented at the time on Rudi Giuliani’s spectacular incompetence at putting his emergency headquarters in Number 7 World Trade Center and stocking it with tanks containing thousands of gallons of fuel in defiance of his own city’s Fire Department regulations.

That consistent incompetence is a factor that has fueled a thousand conspiracy theories. Going after Saddam Hussein and downplaying Afghanistan allowed Bin Laden to get away. Trusting the Pakistani ISI, former CIA surrogates in the region, allowed him to stay away. The war in Afghanistan was consistently under-resourced so the Bush White House could exorcise its own familial ghosts in Baghdad.

But strategic incompetence has not obviated flashes of tactical brilliance on the part of conservatives. As I said at the time, the perennial TV news backdrop of the triptych of the burning World Trade Center flanked by Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein helped provide the emotional strength for the war on Iraq, despite it having nothing to do with Al Qaeda or the 9-11 attack. It occurred to me that some of the exultation on those young faces in the flash mob with their unseemly celebration of Bin Laden’s death could have derived from subliminal childhood exposure to those images. It is also that image which has given some metaphysical substance to the absurdity of a war on an abstraction, the “War on Terror.”

Which comes back to the death of Bin Laden. It was a very risky move for Obama. “Liberals” and Democrats are not allowed the luxury of spectacular failure. Jimmy Carter’s abortive attempt to rescue the hostages from Teheran haunted his career. A similar helicopter crash in Pakistan could have sealed the fate for the Obama White House.

Of course an assassination on the territory of a foreign and allegedly friendly state could also have caused problems. It is indeed illegal in a prima facie way, but Bin Laden’s presence in a major Pakistani metropolis certainly embarrasses the government there. It was in everybody’s interest not to inform the local authorities. The Pakistan government could disclaim knowledge, and the US could be certain that any information they passed on would go straight to warn Bin Laden. Indeed, such is the climate of rancor among American conservatives one would almost wonder if one of the worries in Washington was a risk of leaks or sabotage from insiders there. But internationally, while, say Beijing and Moscow might tut tut about it, the heirs of the KGB are hardly in a secure pulpit to sermonize, and their real feelings are more likely to be admiration than admonition.

Even the burial at sea is, shall we say, a red herring. Few of his victims got to choose their funeral rights, and the Sunni Wahabi tradition is spartan in the extreme.

In any case the action has given Obama a big boost domestically at a time that he needed it. It would be ironic if healthcare for elderly Americans were protected because the President has overseen the assassination of an elderly Saudi, but that’s politics!

Internationally, it will not necessarily have that much effect. Bin Laden was no Lenin overseeing an Islamist international. Al Qaeda was a state of mind more than an organized conspiracy. He was no Old Man of the Mountains sending out his assassins, but his example inspired the varying spontaneous degrees of psychopathology among the disaffected.

But his rallying cause for jihad still holds: US support for Israel is as strong now as ever. Obama would have had more beneficial international results taking out Netanyahu politically than eliminating Bin Laden physically, since it would address that genuine cause. Recent poll results from Iran and Egypt suggest that the US still provides plenty of room for suspicion in the region.

One possible consequence is that Obama might be tempted to declare victory and pull out of Afghanistan. He could even claim budget savings to protect Medicare! However, the Taliban were not controlled by Al Qaeda and his death is unlikely to affect their belligerence. His elimination at least allows the US to get over its prejudices and get into serious talks with the Pushtoon communities for a negotiated settlement of some kind.

Indeed the exorcism of the Bin Laden ghost could even provide political cover for talks with Hamas and Hizbollah. Of course anyone except Fox news pundits knows that Al Qaeda had nothing to do with them at all, but with his shade out of the way, an emboldened Obama could do it.

But it comes back to the same core problem. At the core of America’s fractious relationship with most of the world, and particularly the Middle East, is Washington’s relationship with Israel — and he is unlikely to get Netanyahu’s “permission,” for it. Would he go ahead anyway? How about being tough on terror — and on the excuses for terror as well? It is possible and desirable, but is it likely?

For more by Ian Williams visit Deadline Pundit.

Was Bin Laden Killed Because U.S. Feared He Might Be Found Innocent in Court?

Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, said, “If we had the opportunity to take bin Laden alive, if he didn’t present any threat, the individuals involved were able and prepared to do that.”

. . . reported the Associated Press.


. . . a U.S. national security official told Reuters. . . . “This was a kill operation,” . . . making clear there was no desire to try to capture bin Laden alive in Pakistan.

And, in fact, Osama bin Laden, though unarmed, was shot. At the New Yorker Jeffrey Toobin writes that

. . . it’s worth noting that the apparently universal acclaim for the killing represents a major shift in American perceptions of such actions. Following the revelations of C.I.A. assassination plots by the Church Committee, in the nineteen-seventies, President Ford issued Executive Order 11905 (later 12333), which stated, No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.

Humanitarian concerns and legality aside, what about strategic considerations of bringing him back alive? Despite the computers, storage devices, and documents seized, the man himself might have eventually provided a font of information, especially from the point of view of a nuclear-arms specialist such as myself, on not only terrorism networks but his attempts to acquire nuclear know-how, technology, and fuel.

Many claim the trial — whether in a civil or military court in the United States, or in the International Criminal Court — would have been a circus. But is that a reflection of a fear they might share with the U.S. government — that despite what was seized, the evidence might be insufficient to convict bin Laden?

Bin Laden May Be Dead But His Grievances Live On

The killing of Al-Qaeda founder and leader Osama bin Laden is not likely to have a profound impact one way or the other in the struggle against the terrorist organization and its allied groupings. On the one hand, Al-Qaeda may face a potential leadership void and internal divisions. On the other hand, the organization has decentralized in the ten years since the United States and allied forces drove them from their sanctuaries in Afghanistan and terrorist cells operate independently from bin Laden’s leadership and a whole new generation of terrorists subscri bing to the apocalyptic and genocidal ideology has sprung up as a result of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The good news, however, is that Al-Qaeda and like-minded groups have been seriously weakened in recent months. Indeed, far more significant than bin Laden’s death has been the nonviolent pro-democracy insurrections that have been sweeping the Arab world in that they are empowering civil society, instilling hope, and creating models of governance that are much less likely to breed terrorists.

Bin Laden always insisted that only through subscri bing to his apocalyptic reactionary ideology and genocidal methods could Muslim peoples overthrow oppressive and corrupt U.S.-backed Arab dictatorships. Indeed, his first attack against U.S. interests was a residential compound of U.S. soldiers training the repressive Saudi internal security forces back in 1995. However, bin Laden and his followers never came close to overthrowing any Arab regime. Most Arabs found his methods not only morally reprehensible, but recognized how he gave dictatorial governments an excuse to crack down even harder against all dissent. Instead, millions of Middle Easterners are recognizing that – as did Filipinos, Poles, Chileans, Serbs and others before them – that strategic nonviolent action is far more powerful and effective. The masses calling for freedom, liberty, and social justice directly counter bin Laden’s medieval visions of a theocratic dictatorship to which very few Muslims aspire.

The sense of triumphalism and celebration of bin Laden’s death is inappropriate, though, in many respects, the Obama administration handled the situation well. Any killing of a prominent leader by hostile forces could conceivably cause a backlash – and, ideally, it would have been better had he been captured and tried in an international tribunal – but the circumstances of his death will hopefully minimize any anti-American reaction.

Bin Laden was killed in a gun battle, not as a result of assassination by an anonymous drone launched in a control center thousands of miles away. Despite formal denials by both sides, there was clearly some cooperation with Pakistani authorities, so it was not a unilateral American operation. It appears that there were no civilian casualties. Bin Laden was buried in accordance with Muslim ritual, rather than having his body unceremoniously displayed in a propaganda show.

How this contrasts with the policies of Bush administration: If there was any logic to the madness of 9/11, it was the hope that the United States would overreact and launch massive ground invasions of Middle Eastern countries, like the Soviets did in Afghanistan a generation later. Bin Laden knew that the inevitable large-scale killings of civilians and blatant neo-imperialist agenda inherent in such ill-fated efforts would radicalize a whole new generation of extremists to bin Laden’s cult-like heresy in the name of Islam. Bush fell right into his trap, naively believing that a decentralized network of underground terrorist cells could be destroyed through high-altitude bom bing, and sending U.S. forces into fighting bloody counter-insurgency wars in Islamic countries with a long tradition of resistance to foreign invaders.

To Obama’s credit, he recognized the folly of the invading Iraq, correctly noting that unilaterally taking over a country that was no threat to us and had absolutely no operational ties to Al-Qaeda would be a major distraction from the fight against an organization that really was a threat. Ironically, however, most of his key appointments to relevant positions in his administrations were supporters of the illegal and unnecessary war: Joe Biden as vice-president; Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State; Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense; Janet Napolitano as Secretary for Homeland Security; Richard Holbrooke as special advisor for Afghanistan and Pakistan; Dennis Ross as special advisor for the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia; among others. His willingness to appoint people who clearly had difficulty distinguishing real threats from phantom threats raised serious questions regarding whether he really took the threat from Al-Qaeda seriously.

However, the final demise of Osama bin Laden appears to have come not through the indiscriminate use of force against entire nations, but through a well-planned precisely-targeted paramilitary operation based upon solid intelligence painstakingly gathered over many months.

(Ironically, it appears that bin Laden could have been caught soon after 9/11. Pakistani and British newspapers reported that in the weeks after the attack that leaders of Pakistan’s two Islamic-identified parties negotiated a deal that could have avoided war. According to these reports, the Taliban would have extradited bin Laden to Pakistan to face an international tribunal that would then decide whether to try him or hand him over to the United States. However, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Wendy Chamberlain pressured that country’s military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, to kill the deal. An American official was later quoted saying that “casting our objective too narrowly” risked “a premature collapse of the international effort if by some luck chance Mr. bin Laden was captured.” In short, the United States actually preferred going to war than bringing bin Laden to justice.)

Similarly, improved intelligence and interdiction, com bined with breaking up the financial networks that supplied Al-Qaeda operatives, have done far more the prevent another 9/11-type attack than military operations.

Ultimately, the way to stop the threat of the kind of mega-terrorism that came to America’s shores nearly ten years ago is not simply through killing terrorists but in ending policies that help create them. As most Muslims long recognized, bin Laden was never an authority on Islam. He was, however, a businessman by training who – like any shrewd businessman – knew how to take a popular fear or desire and use it to sell a product: in this case, anti-American terrorism. The grievances expressed in his manifestoes – the ongoing U.S. military presence in the Middle East, the humanitarian consequences of the U.S. policy in Iraq, U.S. support for the Israeli government, and U.S. backing of autocratic Arab regimes – have widespread appeal in that part of the world. Even if only a tiny percentage of Muslims accept bin Laden’s ideology and tactics, it will be enough to replenish the ranks of Al-Qaeda and like-minded groups as long as the United States continues to pursue such misguided policies.

U.S. and Japan Equally Shameless in Shuttling Officials From Regulatory Agencies to Nuclear Energy Industry

In both Japan and the United States, nuclear power is just another industry in which officials shuttle back and forth between it and jobs with regulatory and other government agencies. In his Rolling Stone article, America’s Nuclear Nightmare, Jeff Goodell explains.

Over the past decade, the nuclear industry has contributed more than $4.6 million to members of Congress — and last year alone, it spent $1.7 million on federal lobbying. Given the generous flow of nuclear money, the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] is essentially rigged to operate in the industry’s favor.

Goodell turned to IPS’s own Robert Alvarez for some insight on such officials.

“They are vetted by the industry,” [he said.] “It’s the typical revolving-door story — many are coming in or out of jobs with the nuclear power industry. You don’t get a lot of skeptics appointed to this job.”

For example:

Jeffrey Merrifield, a former NRC commissioner who left the agency in 2007, is a case in point. When Merrifield was ready to exit public service, he simply called up the CEO of Exelon, the country’s largest nuclear operator, and asked him for a job recommendation. Given his friends in high places, he wound up taking a top job at the Shaw Group, a construction firm that builds nuclear reactors.

Merrifield returned the favor.

During the Fukushima disaster, Merrifield appeared on Fox News, as well as in videos for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s lobbying group. In one video . . . Merrifield reassures viewers that the meltdown in Japan is no big deal. “We should continue to move forward with building those new plants,” he says, “because it’s the right thing for our nation and it’s the right thing for our future.”

Meanwhile in Japan, report Norimitsu Onishi and Ken Belson for the New York Times

Though it is charged with oversight, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency is part of the Ministry of Trade, Economy and Industry, the bureaucracy charged with promoting the use of nuclear power. Over a long career, officials are often transferred repeatedly between oversight and promotion divisions, blurring the lines between supporting and policing the industry.

Influential bureaucrats tend to side with the nuclear industry — and the promotion of it — because of a practice known as amakudari, or descent from heaven [which] allows senior bureaucrats, usually in their 50s, to land cushy jobs at the companies they once oversaw. . . . generations of high-ranking officials from the ministry have landed senior positions at the country’s 10 utilities since Japan’s first nuclear plants were designed in the 1960s.

A prominent example is Tokio Kano, a former vice president at Tepco who was elected to Parliament.

. . . on the strength of Mr. Kano’s leadership, Japan adopted a national basic energy plan calling for the growth of nuclear energy as a way to achieve greater energy independence and to reduce Japan’s emission of greenhouses gases. The plan and subsequent versions mentioned only in broad terms the importance of safety at the nation’s nuclear plants despite the 2002 disclosure of cover-ups at Fukushima Daiichi and a 1999 accident at a plant northeast of Tokyo in which high levels of radiation were spewed into the air. . . . In a move that has raised eyebrows even in a world of cross-fertilizing interests, he has returned to Tepco as an adviser. . . . In an interview at a Tepco office here, accompanied by a company spokesman, Mr. Kano said he had served in Parliament out of “conviction.”

Now for the money quote:

“It’s disgusting to be thought of as a politician who was a company errand boy just because I was supported by a power company and the business community,” Mr. Kano said.

It’s even more disgusting when workers trying to keep spent fuel rods from overheating become ill with radiation sickness.

WikiLeaks: U.S. Is Just All Right to Jihadists Fighting With Libyan Rebels

Will John McCain never learn? On Wednesday, the 2008 presidential hopeful was busy banging the drum for increased American presence in the civil war raging in Libya. Arguing that a stalemate in the conflict between Libya’s leader Colonel Moamer Gadaffi and rebels in the country’s east would harm American interests, McCain suggested that “we could do the same thing that we did in the Afghan struggle against the Russians. There are ways to get weapons in [to the rebels] without direct US supplying.”

Little does McCain know (we have to hope), but he was advocating for aiding and arming some of the same people that were actively trying to harm the United States just a few short years ago. As an embassy cable released months ago by WikiLeaks made clear, some of the rebels fighting Gadaffi got their chops battling American forces in Iraq as insurgents following the US invasion in 2003. And now this week comes word that one of the rebel leaders was a former detainee in Guantanamo Bay.

By his own account, Abu Sufian Ibrahim Ahmed Hamuda bin Qumu has a long and sordid history, including close ties to the Taliban, al Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden. Born in Derna in 1959, bin Qumu

Served as a tank driver in the Libyan armed forces as a private. The Libyan Government states he was addicted to illegal drugs/narcotics and had been accused of a number of crimes including: murder, physical assault, and distributing narcotics. He was sentenced to ten years in prison. In 1993, he escaped from prison and fled to Egypt. He traveled to Afghanistan (AF) and trained at Usama Bin Laden’s (UBL) Torkham Camp. After participating in the Soviet jihad, he moved to Sudan (SU). Detainee worked as a truck driver for Wadi Al-‘Aqiq, one of UBL’s companies in Suba, SU.

Bin Qumu was considered such a nuisance to the Gadaffi regime that the Libyan government persuaded the Sudanese to push him out of the country. “He left Sudan sometime in 1997, using a false Mauritian passport. He travelled to Pakistan (PK), where he resided in…Peshawar.” Soon, according to bin Qumu’s own narrative, he “joined the Taliban movement…and fought with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance and was wounded in the leg.”

In a strange twist, the assessment notes that following his injury, bin Qumu returned to Peshawar and worked with the Qadaffi Foundation, run by Moamer’s now-reviled son Saif al-Islam al Qadaffi. The report’s author, Brigadier General Jay Hood, apparently did not hold the foundation in particularly high regard, noting that their work in Pakistan involved “relocating extremists and their families.” Nevertheless, it was the Qadaffi Foundation itself who tipped off bin Qumu’s whereabouts to Pakistani authorities.

Note: The Qadhafi Oragnization operated out of the Libyan Embassy and worked to secure transportation to Libya for any Arab fleeing the region, including Al-Qaida members. There appeared to have been an agreement between the governments of Libya and Pakistan that allowed the Pakistanis to interview the Arabs before they left. Detainee was likely detained by the Pakistani’s [sic] and turned over to US forces against the Libyan government’s wishes due to discrepancies in his story.

The report goes on to list the various reasons bin Qumu poses a threat to American national security. Among other things, the report notes that

Detainee has a long-term association with Islamic extrewmist [sic] jihad and members of Al-Qaida and other extremist groups. Detainee refuses to disclose complete information regarding his past, associates, and activities…The Libyan Government considers detainee as “dangerous man with no qualms about committing terrorist acts. He was known as one of the extremist commanders of the Afghan Arabs”…[which] refers to Arab Mujahideen that elected to stay in Afghanistan and Pakistan following the Soviet Jihad…Detainee is an associate of UBL’s from Sudan. Al Shweikh, possibly a reference to Ibn Sheikh Al Libi, recommended detainee to UBL. UBL reportedly knows detainee’s brother very well. Detainee drove a truck for one of UBL’s companies while living in Sudan.

Curiously, given bin Qumu’s intelligence value, which the report lists as “high,” the assessment makes clear that the Libyan’s continued detention at Guantanamo Bay would be inappropriate.

JTF GTMO recommends detainee by [sic] Transferred to the Control of Another Country for Continued Detention…Based upon information obtained since detainee’s previous assessment, it is recommended he be transferred…to his country of origin (Libya) if a satisfactory agreement can be reached that allows access to detainee and/or access to exploited intelligence. If a satisfactory agreement cannot be reaced for his continued detention in Libya, he should be retained under DoD control.

The recommendation to transfer bin Qumu back to Libya likely reflects the emerging relationship between the George W. Bush administration and the Qadaffi regime after it agreed to give up its nuclear ambitions in late 2003.

A satisfactory agreement was reached between the Washington and Tripoli, and bin Qumu was returned to Libya in September 2007. He was released in 2010 under the auspices of an amnesty granted by Qadaffi to anti-regime prisoners. Today, bin Qumu is one of several prominent leaders Senator McCain has advocated supporting in the fight against Qadaffi.

The New York Review of Book’s Nicholas Pelman caught up with bin Qumu in eastern Libya’s rebel enclave Derna just the other week.

In a small alleyway near the town’s main bank, Sufian bin Qumu, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, nursed his Kalashnikov, hailed the United States as a protector of the weak, and pronounced the US-led bombardment “a gift from God.” Solitary confinement in the prisons of Muammar Qaddafi or at Guantanamo Bay seemed to make many Libyans garrulous and extroverted, as if compensating for the years of lost human company. But bin Qumu’s six years under Guantanamo’s arc lights—he had been detained in Pakistan after the September 11 attacks—and three years in a Libyan cell the size of his cubbyhole look in Darna have turned him into a recluse. He is convinced that Western intelligence agenicies are still hunting him. His hennaed hair is combed flat, ain a style uncommon in Libya, as if he were wearing a toupee. A pair of fluffy white slippers embroidered with cats lie on a rattan bookcase. Neighbors fend off intruding journalists by saying he has left for the front. “You know I know who you are,” he says a touch disconcertingly when we meet. He asks me to put away my tape recorder, saying it reminds him of his interrogators.

Bin Laden: If Ever We Wanted to Bring ‘Em Back Alive

At Wired’s Danger Room, David Axe and Noah Shactman wrote of Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. Special Operations: “Depending on which version is true, Pakistan either had a direct role in the risky, bloody raid … or no role at all.” More to the point:

The crash occurred near the Pakistani Military Academy in Abbottabad, according to the report, highlighting Bin Laden’s long-term proximity to Pakistan government forces — and thus the great extent of his local protection.

In other words, the size of the compound alone meant its inhabitants must have been known to the Pakistani authorities, yet they weren’t the source of the information leading to the attack on the compound.

Meanwhile MSNBC reports: “The U.S. was conducting DNA testing and used facial recognition techniques to help formally identify him, Reuters reported. Results of the DNA tests were expected to be available in the next few days.” From another report: “ABC News just reported that the government used a DNA sample from the brain of a deceased bin Laden sister held by a Boston hospital to match the DNA from bin Laden’s body.”

Which presumably is why the rumor arose that he was killed earlier in the week and the news withheld until the body was identified. Whatever the case, burying bin Laden’s body at sea limits the number of people who saw the dead body. It fuels those who stand ready to make the case he wasn’t really killed perhaps because they think he was/is a CIA asset. Nor did Al-Arabiya TV help when it ran a Photoshopped image superimposing mortal injuries on a photo of bin Laden taken when he was alive.

Meanwhile, for those who fear a bout of blowback, it might be time to duck and cover, if you believe disclosures in the latest WikiLeaks dump. From the International Business Times

Shortly after 9/11, Al Qaeda had warned to set off a “nuclear hellstorm” if Osama bin Laden is ever captured or killed, according to U.S. government documents that were leaked just last month by Wikileaks.

Wikileaks’ files show that al Qaeda’s senior leader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was detained and interrogated, had spilled the beans that the terrorist group had, indeed, hidden a nuclear bomb in Europe and that it would be detonated if Osama bin Laden is captured or killed.

While this is, no doubt, bravado, it does highlight an opportunity missed. If we were able to bring bin Laden back alive, we might have extracted information from him about his attempts to secure nuclear-weapons — the know-how, the technology, and the fuel. No, of course not through torture — conceivably it might have been something he’d have wanted to brag about.

Sure, coaxing bin Laden out of his compound might have been unrealistic because it would have required rustling up all his wives, children, and grandchildren that could be found, lining them up outside his compound, and threatening to kill them. Naturally, we wouldn’t, but it would have been up to him to call our bluff. From the viewpoint of those concerned with nuclear terrorism, something along those lines might have been worth trying.

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