Bin Laden's Killing Shows the Utter Folly of our "War on Terror"

The killing of Osama bin Laden illustrates yet again the utter folly of responding to acts of terrorism by waging “pre-emptive” war against nation-states -- the heart of the so-called “Bush Doctrine,” which has continued in many (but not all) respects under the Obama administration. It is no small irony that it is being hailed as a great victory in the “War on Terror.”

The methods that reportedly led to his capture were the antithesis of that doctrine – intelligence was unearthed, old-fashioned police-work developed the lead further and a special forces team executed the operation. Bin Laden was living in the lap of luxury among our allies, not in either of the countries we've invaded and occupied since 9/11. Not only was he nowhere near a battlefield, he was in a military cantonment, less than a half-mile away from the Pakistan Military Academy at Kakul. 

While bin Laden was able to slip away at Tora Bora -- evading capture during large-scale U.S. military operations in Afghanistan – his ultimate undoing was the product of the same formula that has proven successful in rolling back other organized crime networks.

It was intelligence, police work and narrowly targeted paramilitary operations. But there is another component of that proven strategy which was not apparent in the hunt for bin Laden: close coordination between allied police and intelligence agencies. According to the Obama administration, the Pakistan government was only informed of the assault on Bin Laden's compound after it had been accomplished. It is difficult to imagine that the man was holed up in a massive compound a stone's throw away from a Pakistani military academy for 6 years without the knowledge of people within the country's intelligence establishment.

Could we have gotten greater cooperation from Pakistan?We might have had we not declared a “war” on terrorism, invaded a neighboring country and launched military operations within its tribal areas. It's impossible to know for sure based on existing information. But it's undeniable that Pakistan has had to thread a difficult needle – being as cooperative with the U.S. as it needed to be to maintain the alliance (and receive billions in post-9/11 military aid), while distancing itself from American military operations that have infuriated its citizens. So it is at least a possibility that we might have captured Bin Laden sooner if our counterterrorism strategy weren't based on the idea that we were at “war” with what is ultimately an old tactic.

The “war on terror” has given birth to a new generation of militants. After the news of bin Laden's killing broke, The Nation's Chris Hedges, a former Middle East Bureau Chief for the New York Times, noted that he was “intimately familiar with the collective humiliation that we have imposed on the Muslim world.”

The expansion of military occupation that took place throughout, in particular the Arab world, following 9/11 – and that this presence of American imperial bases, dotted, not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Doha – is one that has done more to engender hatred and acts of terror than anything ever orchestrated by Osama bin Laden.

Again, we don't know what might have happened if we had taken a different approach, but it's hard to imagine that “engendering hatred” across the Muslim world resulted in greater cooperation.

A number of news reports suggest that information obtained from either Al Qaeda deputy Khalid Sheik Mohammed or Abu Faraj al-Libbi, a former senior al Qaeda officer who was captured in 2005, was the key to finding Bin Laden. Like the al Qaeda figurehead, neither man was found on a battlefield in Afghanistan or Iraq. American intelligence agents tracked al-Libbi's cell phone to Mardan, Pakistan, about 75 miles north of Islamabad. They tipped off Pakistani intelligence agents who picked him up and eventually transferred him to U.S. custody. Mohammed was captured by our ally's security forces in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.

As one might expect, some observers are claiming that the intelligence gleaned from these "high value detainees" is proof that torture works. But that claim isn't supported by what we know so far. According to Newsweek's Evan Thomas, al-Libbi was first interrogated by the FBI, “but when the FBI wanted to use its normal, go-slow methods, the prisoner was turned over to the CIA—who promptly turned him over to the Egyptians.” He was later returned to American custody, where former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld insists that he yielded the information under “normal interrogation approaches ...[it was] not harsh treatment and it was not waterboarding.”

But we know that while being tortured by the Egyptians, “al-Libbi talked of plots and agents,” and the information he provided “was used to make the case for war against Iraq.” As Evan Thomas noted, “there was only one problem: al-Libbi later recanted, saying that he had lied to stop the torture.”

Mohammed was also subject to torture. It was under duress that he told interrogators that al Qaeda sleeper cells had "hidden a nuclear bomb in Europe which will unleash a 'nuclear hellstorm' if Osama bin Laden is captured" -- yet more faulty information.

The torture which led to that bad intelligence would not have been embraced had we resisted the “war on terror” narrative. Everything that followed -- secret detentions, torture, the invasion of Iraq, the assault on domestic dissent -- flowed inevitably from the failure to challenge Bush's claim that an act of terror required a military response. The United States has a rich history of abandoning its purported liberal values during times of war, and it was our acceptance of that war narrative that led to the abuses.

That may have been the most expensive blunder in our history – hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians and thousands more Americans are dead as a result. And according to conservative estimates, the traditional wars that we chose to wage in response to 9/11 have cost us between $1.3 and $3 trillion in national wealth.

The biggest problem with the “war on terror” was that it was a conflict that offered no obvious point at which we could declare our victory – terrorism is a tactic that will be with us forever. With the death of bin Laden, we now have the opportunity to turn the page on one of the darkest chapters in our history. The war in Afghanistan is deeply unpopular with the American public, but much of the establishment has embraced it as the "good war" on which Bush should have remained focused. Bin Laden is now dead, the nation has its “closure” on the attacks of 9/11, and now we should declare victory, restore our civil liberties and bring those troops home.


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