By Ray McGovern
May 5, 2011
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.
hailed bin Laden’s slaying as a model for “targeting” Libya’s Muammar
Gaddafi and his sons.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
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.” – it may turn out that future historians will view this 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 Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s speculation in the Post’s news article is closer to the
mark – that bin Laden’s death may clear the way for negotiations with the Taliban and a peace settlement in Afghanistan –
then something truly positive might be salvaged from this grisly episode. Not
only might the 100,000 U.S.
troops in Afghanistan start
coming home in significant numbers in July, but the United States might finally begin
to repair its badly stained reputation as a “beacon” of liberty and the rule of
surrounding the targeted killing of bin Laden remind us how far the United States
has strayed from its principles.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 guesthouse 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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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 focusing on what economists call “opportunity costs.”
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He is a veteran Army officer and also served as a CIA analyst for 27 years. He co-founded of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) in January 2003. [Robert Parry, Editor of Consortiumnews.com contributed to this article; it appeared first on Consortiumnews.com.]