The Fateful Choice

by The Editors | published May 6, 2011

When 19 al-Qaeda hijackers attacked New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, the United States faced a strategic dilemma that was unique in magnitude, but not in kind. Terrorists had killed numerous civilians before, in the US and elsewhere, with and without state sponsorship. Al-Qaeda was not the first non-state actor to present no coherent demands alongside its propaganda of the deed or to have no single fixed address. Nor were Americans the first victims of unprovoked terrorist assault to set aside political differences, at least for a time, in search of a unified self-defense.

What separated the spectacular horrors of September 11 from past episodes was scale and symbolism: In the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the four hijacked airliners, 2,752 people died, employees at work or on their way, passengers in transit, paramedics treating the wounded, firefighters trying to save others from an inferno fueled by the full tanks of two Boeing 767s. The intent to commit mass murder was unmistakable, as was the meaning of the targets, the tallest buildings in the financial capital of the world and the military headquarters of the world’s sole superpower. Al-Qaeda designed the attacks to cast doubt on the American state’s ability to protect not only its citizenry but also itself.

There was no one, in the smoky, anguished aftermath of the attacks, who did not want justice. This feeling was, in fact, shared across the world, where the attacks were commonly regarded as abhorrent crimes against humanity; the expressions of schadenfreude in some locales, though reported ad nauseam by some outlets, were scattered and unrepresentative.

The choice faced by the administration of President George W. Bush was not whether to seek justice but how. Acts of terrorism, perpetrated by state and non-state actors, had sometimes been treated as crimes, to be investigated patiently, adjudicated properly and then punished. Such an approach, directed only at those who were complicit, was itself a repudiation of the original acts, its narrowness and judiciousness intentionally contrasting with the wholesale mayhem of terrorism. In the case of the September 11 attacks, the political advantages of this tack were even greater than usual, as the US was regarded warily by Arabs and Muslims who had long felt collectively demonized for the violence of a few. On this occasion, its severity notwithstanding, the US would not overreact. The US would join its allies and even erstwhile adversaries in marshaling a uniform rule of law and universal moral sense to corral a handful of nihilistic, literal-minded dunces at the outermost orbits of Islam.

There is no evidence that the Bush administration considered this option, for from the beginning it framed the September 11 attacks as the opening salvo in a war. It was to be “a new kind of war,” moreover, one in which the US would exempt itself from existing rules and create its own as the battle proceeded. The instinctive good will of the world sloughed away. As for Arabs and Muslims, they may accept or reject the repeated assurances that the post-September 11 war “is not a war against Islam,” but they cannot help but notice that they are always in the crossfire. Osama bin Laden, the late al-Qaeda leader, predicted that he would die at the hands of the US, and that many more innocent people would die as well, as the US flexed its muscles in Afghanistan and then Iraq. “The Americans in both countries are between two fires,” he said in a September 2004 audiotape. “If they continue they bleed to death and if they withdraw they lose everything.” The American media scoffed at bin Laden’s pronouncements as the schoolyard taunts that they were, but rarely paused to consider that they seemed to be succeeding in provoking the White House into further and further extension of the war.

Ironically, and not terribly surprisingly, the Navy SEAL operation that eventually snared bin Laden on May 1, 2011, not quite ten years into the war, was not dissimilar from what might have happened had the international justice approach been chosen. The raid came about through years of examination of data and surveillance of suspects, not exploitation of a battlefield breakthrough; it carefully targeted bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan; it was aimed only at bin Laden’s capture or, more likely, killing. And yet the “moral victory” that many Americans are claiming is illusory, in the sense that few but Americans feel it. President Barack Obama’s administration will neither reap political advantage in the Islamic world nor renew Americans’ claim on global sympathies. Nor will bin Laden’s demise reduce the likelihood or perceived legitimacy of future terrorist attacks, not because of the questions swirling around the official accounts of the raid and disposal of remains, but because of the havoc wrought by the US-led war on terrorism.

A further and closely related irony is that all phases of the war, especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan, are likely to have postponed bin Laden’s reckoning. First was the Bush administration’s rapid decision to widen the war aims beyond apprehension of the aiders and abettors of the September 11 attacks to “terrorists and those that harbor them,” a vague formulation that would expand to encompass several states, quasi-states and organizations, but which at the time primarily referred to the Taliban. The Pashtun Islamist militia might not have been serious in its early (and unexplored) offer to turn over the al-Qaeda head if shown evidence of his involvement in the September 11 atrocities, but now there was no chance to find out. The war had morphed into a project of regime change in Afghanistan; thus existentially threatened, the Taliban (and their paymasters in Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency) henceforth did everything they could to thwart the seizure of bin Laden and his lieutenants. The al-Qaeda chieftain vanished in the mountainous Afghan-Pakistani borderlands, a lanky six-footer with history’s most circulated mug shot, an Arabic speaker in an ocean of Pashtu, Dari and Baluchi, a walking $25 million bounty in one of the poorest regions on earth.

For all the talk of “a new kind of war,” the US had launched a large conventional war to “liberate” territory, displaying a fundamental misunderstanding of the task at hand. As Carl Conetta of the Project on Defense Alternatives wrote in his January 2002 assessment of the Afghanistan venture, Strange Victory, “The essential importance of Afghanistan to the extra-regional goals and activities of al-Qaeda was not that it provided a sanctuary and training site for terrorists. Instead, Afghanistan served the organization’s global activities principally as a recruiting ground for future cadre.” The recruits came from among the young strivers who had arrived to fight the godless Soviet occupiers or, later, to combat the Afghan militias excommunicated by the Taliban and al-Qaeda. In Afghanistan, their attention was turned from these “near enemies” to the “far enemy” in the West. By moving into Afghanistan, the US had not robbed al-Qaeda of safe haven -- their numbers were small enough and their finances healthy enough to find that nearly anywhere -- but it had strengthened al-Qaeda’s case for the innate belligerence of “Zionists and Crusaders” and enhanced the attractiveness of southern Central Asia as a theater of jihad. The Bush administration would repeat this error on a grander scale with the invasion of Iraq.

More damaging still, the conduct of the war was anything but discriminating. The CIA squads who infiltrated Afghanistan to assist the Taliban’s domestic foes, the so-called Northern Alliance, were followed into action by soldiers, Marines and B-52s, which hit the country with purposely indiscriminate ordnance like “daisy cutters” and cluster bombs, as well as the ballyhooed precision munitions. The bombardment, supplemented later by Hellfire missiles fired from the CIA’s prized Predator drones, smashed the Taliban’s defensive lines and ushered the Northern Alliance’s warlords into Kabul. The Taliban, bloodied but unbeaten, resorted to guerrilla tactics; they and their brethren across the Pakistani border saw the US intervention as another infidel occupation of Muslim lands. Their ISI advisers, having abandoned the militia to fate under the US barrage, were pleased to facilitate its reestablishment. Many of the smaller bands of Afghan fighters that had battled the Taliban on the CIA payroll in 2001-2002 were now happy to switch sides. Some Taliban affiliates took US money to guard by day the supply routes they mined by night. Worst of all, in both moral and strategic terms, the old kind of war in Afghanistan killed civilians by the thousands. According to UN and Human Rights Watch numbers, the civilian death toll in 2007-2010 alone has been 9,759, with 2,723 of these deaths coming at the hands of “pro-government forces,” meaning the US, its NATO allies and the fledgling army of President Hamid Karzai.

With the Afghan Taliban crossing back and forth into Pakistan, and eponymous Islamist militias sprouting among Pashtuns there, Pakistan was increasingly dragged into the conflagration. That country’s powerful army and spy services strove harder at the double game they had been playing since soon after the September 11 attacks: Desirous of both Pentagon boodle and a client in Afghanistan, they hunted the Taliban and al-Qaeda with one eye while supervising the Taliban’s reconstitution with the other. Hated by many Pakistanis for enlisting in the war on terror and by others for spurring the “Islamization” of Pakistani society, they denounced the drone strikes out of one side of their mouths while ordering incursions into Pashtun tribal regions out of the other. The generals felt confident in this gambit, risky as it seemed. For all the criticism that streamed their way from Washington, the US had no alternative partner, and when the White House eventually tired of the war, the ISI would still have its “strategic depth” in the 65-year conflict with India.

And, just as the US presence inflamed Afghans who were otherwise lukewarm toward the Taliban, so Washington’s recurrent scolding of Pakistan won the generals points in public opinion. After bin Laden’s shooting, according to a New York Times reporter watching Pakistan’s Geo TV, the well-known commentator Ansar Abbasi averred that “behind closed doors,” the ISI and army “admit that the US is an enemy of Pakistan and Muslims, but face to face we cannot communicate this to the Americans.” The source of the much quoted number of Pakistanis killed in the war on terror, 30,000, is Inter-Services Public Relations, the media outreach arm of the Pakistani military.

Against this backdrop, few were truly shocked when Osama bin Laden was tracked down in Abbottabad, the scenic submontane burg where the Pakistani army maintains its military academy. It is darkly comical to hear the ISI plead “shortcomings” in intelligence gathering that precluded them from seeing the most wanted man in the world right under their noses. Only a week before the May 1 raid, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the army chief of staff, had paid a visit to the Abbottabad school. White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan and CIA head Leon Panetta have confirmed that Pakistan was not informed of the raid until the Navy helicopters bearing bin Laden’s corpse had exited Pakistani air space. The marriage of militaries that Washington and Islamabad worked so hard to consummate, and that cost both so much in political and material capital, counted for nothing at the moment of truth. But the generals, thus far, have won their bet: Despite the clamor in Congress, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced on May 5 that the US-Pakistani partnership would perdure. “It is not always an easy relationship, you know that,” she told journalists. “But, on the other hand, it is a productive one for both our countries.”

Why did it take so long for the US to locate bin Laden, who had apparently been holed up in his Abbottabad chateau since 2006? Doubtless, Pakistani military skullduggery played a role, as did the alienation of countless ordinary Afghans and Pakistanis from US prerogatives by the escalating civilian casualties. But there is a third culprit -- the systematic torture practiced by the CIA and private contractors as part of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” authorized by the Bush administration.

There is nothing new about torture in warfare, even as waged by democracies. What is new (at least in the modern era) is the brazenness with which torture’s proponents have asserted its compatibility with democracy and the rule of law. The Bush administration’s tangle of poor legal argumentation in support of its torture policy need not be rehearsed; the Obama administration was right to rubbish the lot. It has been disgusting, therefore, to see Bush officials emerge from the woodwork to suggest that finding bin Laden came about through torture. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for instance, told FOX News that “anyone who suggests that the enhanced techniques, let’s be blunt, waterboarding, did not produce an enormous amount of valuable intelligence, just isn’t facing the truth.” His fellow Republican, Rep. Peter King of New York, went one step further: “Osama bin Laden would not have been captured and killed if it were not for the initial information we got from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed after he was waterboarded.”

A former top military interrogator in Iraq, who goes by the pseudonym Matthew Alexander, has corrected the record by insisting that torturing detainees produces “limited information, false information or no information.” As Alexander and others note, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the operational planner of the September 11 attacks (who, incidentally, was captured at home in a commando raid, not on a battlefield, with a nudge from another $25 million bounty), blurted out nothing of value despite being waterboarded 183 times. He was confronted with the nom de guerre of a courier -- the one whose trail eventually led to bin Laden -- and claimed he had “retired” from al-Qaeda. The nom de guerre and all subsequent actionable leads were obtained from other sources through old-fashioned detective work. These facts have led Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) to contradict Rumsfeld and King, saying: “So far, I know of no information that was obtained, that would have been useful, by ‘advanced interrogation.’” And when the CIA tortured Abu Faraj al-Libbi, another al-Qaeda courier who would have known others, he proffered a fake name that sent the manhunt on a wild goose chase. Torture is thus likely to have delayed the apprehension of al-Qaeda’s master terrorist.

The utility of torture is beside the point, in any case; torture is repellent and degrading of those who practice it as well as those subjected to it. It is also manifestly illegal, under both US and international law. As anyone who pays attention knows, the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere swept away what remained of the post-September 11 wars’ moral credibility in the eyes of the world. Along with the Bush administration’s deceptions, arrogant doctrines of US dominance and disdainful asides to the effect that “we don’t do body counts,” torture poisoned all of the wars’ fruits, even turning bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, the ugliest caricatures of Arab anti-imperialism, into heroes to some.

With Osama bin Laden eliminated, the Obama administration has a golden opportunity to discontinue the Bush administrations’ wars. It is time for the US to leave both Afghanistan and Pakistan, neither of which countries supplied a September 11 hijacker, to sort out their internal messes undisturbed. But President Obama made clear, in the same speech that proclaimed bin Laden’s death, that these wars will not end.

When the rhetoric is stripped away, the reasons return to the fateful decision to treat the September 11 attacks as an act of war, rather than a monstrous crime. That choice, though it will probably forever be portrayed as an unavoidable bow to the righteous fury of American citizens, emanated at least equally from raison d’état. Not only had 19 men with box cutters destroyed iconic buildings and sown panic in the two most strategic US cities, they had breached the walls of the mightiest military power the world has ever known, catching its watchmen unawares. The hijackers hailed, moreover, from the region of the globe where US interests most require the projection of invincibility. To secure its guardianship of Persian Gulf oil reserves, such a crucial component of its superpower status, the US felt compelled to stage as dramatic a show of force as it could muster. It so happened that the Bush administration was staffed with men and women who had been waiting for the occasion to make sure the world knew who was boss. The Obama administration, having inherited the aggressive forward deployments, is loath to rein them in without first demonstrating US dominion conclusively. Osama bin Laden surely knew what was he was doing in picking his targets, but the US national security state has chosen to fulfill his foul prophecy.

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