To Capture or Not to Capture Osama bin Laden

18 02 2008

Capturing and killing Osama bin Laden and the al Qeada network seemed like a no brainer after the 9/11 attacks. At first, the war in Afghanistan seemed to be aimed at precisely doing just that. In fact, several intelligence experts told the Atlantic Monthly in 2006 that in the immediate aftermath of the invasion of the Central Asian country the United States dismantled al Qaeda’s training camps, and disrupted its communications, travel, and money transfers. Al Qaeda was on the run. But then the Bush administration allowed bin Laden to slip away in the battle at Tora Bora.

Al Qaeda, along with the Taliban, soon took advantage of the Bush administration’s zeal in prosecuting a misbegotten and poorly executed war in Iraq to reconstituted itself in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Director of National Intelligence Mitch McConnell recently told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that al Qaeda has now mutated into a more sinister threat. Mark Mazzeti from the New York Times recounted McConnell’s testimony on February this way:

The director, Mike McConnell, told lawmakers that Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, remained in control of the terrorist group and had promoted a new generation of lieutenants. He said Al Qaeda was also improving what he called “the last key aspect of its ability to attack the U.S.” — producing militants, including new Western recruits, capable of blending into American society and attacking domestic targets.

This kind of threat assessment would lead most people to think that capturing or killing bin Laden , in addition to the new terrorist cells themselves, is a greater priority than it ever. Yet Lawrence Wright in the January 21st issue of The New Yorker found that not all experts within the government’s national security apparatus seem to disagree:

Moreover, there is the quandary of what to do with bin Laden if he was actually captured. Killing him would only insure his “martyrdom” and seal his legacy; putting him on trial grants him a priceless venue for promoting his cause and invites acts of terror in response, including kidnappings designed to ransom the Al Qaeda leader.

Wayne Murphy, the assistant director of the F.B.I. for Intelligence, told me that the radicalization of young Muslims will continue, regardless of bin Laden’s mortal fate. “In the end, I don’t know if the benefits of getting bin Laden would balance out,” he said. “And I don’t know if it buys us anything. Think about what we just went through with Saddam Hussein.”

So there you have it. According to the experts, capturing bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri just maybe a counterproductive proposition. We might just endanger the security of the U.S. and its allies because of the response it would inspire among a new breed of radical terrorists. Perhaps I am just missing something here, but I think its much better to destroy the al Qaeda leadership than to leave it intact indefinitely. Any aggressive act against them may bring about short term blowback, but chances are that its better than risking another 9/11 in the U.S. or elsewhere. This does not gaurantee the elimination of all or even the most dangerous cells, but it would be a serious blow to their infrastructure of support.

Resisting putting bin Laden on trail because it might serve as a propaganda or recruiting tool may be somewhat understandable, but entirely sensible. After all, bin Laden has the luxury of doing all that now, including releasing videos on the eve of U.S. elections.

Furthermore, these mixed messages just make it even easier for the Pakistani government to wiggle out of the responsibility of trying to capturing him either. Why would Pervez Musharraf help the U.S. in going after bin Laden if we are not serious about it ourselves. Lawrence Wright underscored this exact point in the New Yorker:

The United States has paid the Pakistani government more than ten billion dollars since September 11th for its help in tracking down bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders. But for the past four years the special relationship with Pakistan has been unproductive; in a recent interview with CBS, President Musharraf said of bin Laden, “We are not particularly looking for him.” John McLaughlin, the former deputy director of the C.I.A., told me, “It’s not too hard to figure out why we haven’t gotten bin Laden. We’re not there.”

All of this makes me wonder if we are not serious about pursuing bin Laden or the al Qaeda leadership why even bother calling it a “war on terror” in the first place, much less invoke 9/11 as a justification in other counterterrorism efforts.

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