Turning a Page – a derivative look at the future

May 31, 2011

Philosopher, cognitive scientist and pompous atheist (there aren’t to few) Daniel Dennett once said in a lecture that the secret of life is finding something that is important to you and then dedicating your life to it. The straightforward, matter of fact manner that Dennett reveals this profound truth downplays the difficulty of fulfilling one half of that maxim: discovering what is important to you. We can create a hierarchy of categories based on how people address that question.

1. The Vacuous

Examples: Reality tv stars, Professional athletes, Jeffrey Dahmer, Bay Street traders

Some people pursue things that have no intrinsic value or deeper meaning – the car collector (or sub in any other materialistic vice) and the sadomasochist are only following through on Dennett’s suggestion!

2. The Indicisive

Examples: Look behind you!

Some people can never make a decision, while others are forced into one by circumstances. At this point cognitive dissonance can take over and you’d never realize it. Your dreams are put on the back burner, if they resonate at all, and you go forward with what life has given you.

3. The Compromiser

Some find a dream of their impossible to pursue and have to aim for something more reasonable. This begs additional questions about how to judge what is realistic, and whether someone can settle for something less in life and still live knowing they gave up what meant most to them.

Following on that, I’m not a Romantic. A certain measure of compromise is essential if you are going to pursue some supreme good. But that compromise should never come at the cost of a life-long pursuit of that supreme good. Strategic retreats may be essential, but surrender cannot be an option.

Personally, I am turning over a new leaf. Maybe there are elements of all three of the above personalities in me as I am moving away from the responsibility free, moderately ascetic lifestyle of the prolonged adolescence typical of the 21st century adult, to a more financially secure place in a workplace with a career culture.

But I’m looking on the bright side of things. 2011 has brought a lot of things to light. Scratch that. There were a number of things I already realized years before that would have gave my life more meaning if I believed that I could pursue them to any reasonably successful end. It was only this year that I decided to go forward with them and see where, if anywhere, it takes me.

And though I’m not in my ideal job I do believe that I will still be able to follow through with some of what matters to me most. The job itself will provide me with the type of sustained analytical challenges that I have not had since my grad school days, which on its own is a good thing.

Beyond that, what really matters is what I do in the hours that I am away from work. Spending that time pursuing what matters most to me is vital if I’m going to build off this recent success. If I fail to do that, then I’ll regress back into the two profiles above – something I can’t let happen.

4. The Archetype

Example: Daniel Dennett (even if he can be an ass sometimes!), many writers, artists, philosophers etc.

Ideally we would all marry our intellectual/soul-gratifying pursuits with our financial livelihoods. Who wouldn’t want to make a living pursuing the one thing that gives them most meaning? Of course this scenario is incredibly rare. Those that reach this “marriage” don’t deserve our envy, as that would suggest a level of resentment. They deserve our undying admiration and support. Even those whose financial and spiritual livelihood are one and the same will have stressful days and may be tempted to lead a different life. We can’t let that happen. Strategic retreats are reluctantly acceptable, but defeatism is not.

This leads to what is really a second component of any definition of the meaning of life:  helping those around you reach their dreams. Pursue your own dreams but understand that their is an intrinsic value in helping someone else reach their own. It is a shame when someone gives up on something that they love the most, no matter how modest, for failure of receiving a little collective encouragement from those around them. But this is a double-edged sword – pure altruism is equally tragic as it entails the complete sacrifice of one’s dreams, the cost of which is immeasurable.

But we still haven’t settled on what is worth pursuing! Thankfully Professor Dennett provides another worthwhile consideration, something that I plan on touching on regularly in the coming months/years: the pursuit of knowledge and the problems associated with it. Consider this:

“One of the best secrets of life: let your self go. If you can approach the world’s complexities, both its glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only just scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size…  for if you can stay centered, and engaged, you will find the hard choices easier, the right words will come to you when you need them, and you will indeed be a better person.”

There is much that can be written about the above. But it’ll have to wait. The importance is that through sickness, chores and the stresses of a first day at work I got something down, even if not well considered or well written. It is a precedent for my new life…

Well, hopefully not the shitty writing and high school level approach but…

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Death of OBL Part 5: The Finale

May 19, 2011

I’m adding this final point as a final cap on the whole bin Laden killing theme because it is slightly more personal and looks toward the future. I also hope it’ll go to some length in describing why I was fascinated by the story line beyond the multiple angles that it could be approached from.

First of all, my interest had very little to do with Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda and terrorism per se. I do have a strong and growing interest in religious-inspired fanaticism regardless of the sect or the manner in which it manifests itself, and I do plan on continuing on with this theme. However, my primary interest in the story relates to Afghanistan.

As a kid I had a strange fascination with Afghanistan. I remember waking up in the morning to watch cartoons by myself and then joining my mother in the kitchen for cold coffee, cereal and the Sunday newspaper. Partially out of a desire to be like my mom, and partly out of curiosity as to what she was interested in I would read each section of the newspaper after she was finished (saving the most time for the comics of course!). In the late 80s the winding down of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was a major story, and as a simple 8 year old I bought into the Manichean presentation of the conflict that was infused in the Reagan-era narratives pedaled by the media. I was really moved by the simplistic story about the “brave” mujahadeen and took a general interest in learning about their exploits each Sunday morning.

As I grew I continued to follow the stories and became more an more familiar with the grey area occupied by the “honorable freedom fighters” as the media became less enamored of the mujahadeen and Afghanistan descended into civil war.

For me, Afghanistan moved back into the forefront of my mind and assumed an important place in the now daily consumption of news with the rapid success of the fundamentalist Taliban in 1994. The Taliban did not get a poor reception at first. They were roundly criticized for their terrible human rights record, but I recall them being presented as a stable alternative to the more than 15 years of fighting that had killed millions of Afghans and left millions more refugees.

I didn’t quite buy that argument.

I remember being physically ill the first (and second and third) time I saw a woman forced to wear the burqa. Maybe my feelings represented the misplaced idealism of a privileged 15 year old WASP, but I saw the Taliban’s victory in 1996 and the West’s not quite reluctant, not quite enthusiastic reception of the group as being wildly misplaced. I did not anticipate that there’d be a direct war with the Taliban, nor did I imagine they’d play host to a group that would engage in hostilities with the West. They simply came off as fanatics confined to their small slice of this planet. I cared about the people that inhabited that piece of earth, but never imagined it would affect me in any tangible way – and to date it hasn’t in any way that could be properly accounted for or appreciated (tax dollars were spent on occupying Afghanistan rather than health care etc.).

With the attacks of September 11 I saw the pitfalls inherent with invading and occupying Afghanistan and did not see that as the best course of action (taking it as a given that it was justified). When a prolonged occupation appeared inevitable I did see it as an opportunity to end the decades of collective misery experienced by Afghans. Whether it is morally permissible and/or efficacious for that matter to build a nation through force of arms is debatable, however, Afghanistan provided perhaps the most ideal testing ground in terms of need even if it presented exceedingly difficult challenges in terms of variables.

And the war appeared to be a tremendous success at first as the Taliban were quickly routed and Afghanistan came under the interim rule of the seemingly cosmopolitan and socially progressive Hamid Karzai. However, after nearly 10 years of mismanagement (most of which came from the detached stance of the either overconfident or bored Bush administration), Afghanistan’s future is looking increasingly bleak.

Consider the following:

1. The country is run by a regime that has proven itself to be fundamentally corrupt. A regime whose palms are greased through the drug trade, extortion and stealing the fruits of development aid from their own people and depositing it into foreign bank accounts, sometimes by the hundreds of millions.2. So long as the Taliban have safe haven across the border in Pakistan it will not be possible to defeat them militarily. Anyone who says so is lying or stupid. The madrassas in Pakistan offer a near endless supply of recruits for the Taliban, young men raised in religious fanatacism who are eager to surrender their lives to the machinations of evil leaders. The Taliban may be too weak to assert control over large sections of the country for any length of time but so long as they survive in Pakistan they will present a serious security threat to Afghanistan.

3. The commitment of the West to Afghanistan appears to be waning as NATO countries end or reduce their commitment. With the death of Osama bin Laden the argument to remain in Afghanistan will appear less salient to many Americans, and Obama has already scheduled a withdrawal to begin this summer, though at an undefined pace.

Given the above, it wouldn’t be difficult to argue that very little progress has been made. The counter-insurgency campaign waged by the West and their Afghan allies has failed in its most fundamental tasks. At the most basic level we have failed to provide Afghans security through a responsible (if not representative) government. At a more strategic level we do not appear to have made any headway in creating some sense of national consciousness among Afghans – the basic sense of collective responsibility that was destroyed within the country through 20, now 30 years of civil war and being subjected to a series of leaders more interested in pilfering the state for the benefit of their small clique rather than ruling it for the benefit of all.

That is the most damning outcome of all.

On the surface loyalties among Afghans appear to remain firstly, tribal or clan based and secondly, ethnicity based. It is impossible to build an Afghan state when their is no sense of collective identity as an Afghan Nation. Maybe this concern is, as renowned anti-colonial writer Frantz Fanon states “the result of intellectual laziness” and “the profoundly cosmopolitan mould” that my middle class mind is set in. More dangerous is possibly the implicit paternalistic vision inherent within such a design, an impression that may be found in the latent echoes of the colonial era – maybe “Afghanistan” is merely a legal construct that poses an unnecessary burden on lasting peace and prosperity? Being conscious of this “drivelling paternalism” and, more specifically to Afghanistan, the Orientalist perspective that is infused within it is as difficult as it is necessary when being exposed to relatively insular perspectives.

But an outright fear of unconsciously holding such a view should not limit a discussion of the applicability and desirability of a greater Afghan national consciousness. Such self-flagellation and self-censorship stymies the debate before it even starts. Avenues need to be explored before accepting as established fact that the individual is “fundamentally racist”, as Fanon writes, on account of his or her station in life. George W. Bush’s administration may be culpable of holding a paternalistic or even racist attitude towards Afghans as it turned a blind eye toward Karzai’s comically blatant corruption, implicitly implying that such behavior is endemic to the culture of the region and thus unavoidable. But the former president and his ideological flunkies do not represent the feelings of those that have a vested emotional stake in the future of that region.

And it doesn’t stop there. The entire basis of American nation-building and counter-insurgency theory (though I separated them here little distinction can be made between the two) has been built off of assumptions that have been unchanging since the time of the Kennedy administration (or if you like, colonialism for that matter). The foundation of Western policy towards the developing world has been that we have discovered the ideal (and it’s us!), that we’ve developed a fool proof method of achieving that ideal, and that history follows a clear linear path towards this prototype. This “Modernization Theory” (it is often given other names to differentiate it from previous models as its vacuousness is exposed, remaining fundamentally old wine in new bottles) proposes that “development” can best be directed by the developed and that the cure all for unstable countries is to provide stable government that allows its people’s pockets to grow fat. Economic progress, financial security are the ultimate demands of the underdeveloped, and from that democracy, individual rights and all those other goodies will follow. This belief, that individual financial prosperity, is the basic desire for all the world’s people underlines the flawed logic of the theory and the prism through which it has been formulated. Like all universal theories it runs into trouble once put against unexpected variables and its foundational assumptions are tested. That isn’t to say that Afghans do not want some measure of economic security. Instead, it is wrong to assume they desire a Western lifestyle or that even a faint replica of that lifestyle can overcome the divisions that are endemic to Afghan society.

Nor can Fanon’s solution of anational class solidarity, the force that Modernization theory sought to create an alternative to. But as George Orwell points out, a looser understanding of the word “nationalism”, one that would capture the spirit of the word’s origin, would suggest that a person’s fidelity and willingness to promote a particular CAUSE captures the proper meaning of the word – promoting the cause of a particular ethnic group, religion etc. would merely be a subcategory of “nationalism”. Nationalism is merely a means of categorizing individuals and adding to it an aggressive element as a nationalist promotes and pursues the “cause” of that category to which she or he belongs and to the detriment of their rivals. Thus, following Fanon’s advice Afghans should promote the nationalist cause of the peasantry (ideally a socialist would advocate on behalf of the proletariat, but Afghanistan has almost no proletariat) against those who exploit them – a not unreasonable position. The trouble with this outcome is that divisions would persist. Ethnic consciousness and the pitfalls that come with it would be replaced with a class consciousness, something that would be tantamount to running in one place as the hatred perseveres and metastasized itself into another category. As Orwell writes, regardless of the category, nationalism is “power-hunger tempered by self-deception” and thus destructive.

This does not mean that we need to oppose a solution that focuses on collective rights rather than individual, so long as that solution is not rigidly utilitarian. But is that necessarily the best manner? It seems that the problem is how the solution is implemented but the assumptions underlying it and in turn the breadth of the solution.  Maybe a plan based on a more narrow concept is necessary even if it is equally difficult. What I am interested in is a greater concern for human security. This should not be confused with economic security or the establishment of Jeffersonian rights, though legal rights are a part of it. No, the focus should be on creating an environment where Afghans can fulfill their individual goals and the aspirations of its varied communities peacefully within the confines of their country with the establishment of individual security from physical violence and duress. These rights do not necessarily have to be legally enshrined so long as they are respected. A formal document guaranteeing individual Afghan’s right to be free from threats of physical violence and physical violence is only effective if properly enforced. The primary concern should be establishing a civic minded police force and army to allow for the resumption of a normal social and economic life for the country.

Of course the likelihood of such a scenario happening in the near future appears to be nil. The Karzai regime and its Western benefactors have lost too much credibility over the past ten years and appear too uninterested in making the necessary commitment to ensure the security, so far as possible, of individual Afghans. Developing a responsible and effective armed force takes too long and too much time has already been wasted for any positive outcome to develop by the 2014 withdrawal date. It appears Afghanistan will continue to a sixth decade with its Hobbesian existence and life for individual Afghans will remain “poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

This outcome should weigh on the world’s conscience.


Death of OBL – Part IV: Pakistan’s Complicity?

May 15, 2011

This will be the last part. Though I have material for seven parts, I don’t much see the point of continuing on. If I do add one last part it will be a short addition about Condi Rice’s odd statement to Anderson Cooper in a recent interview about the death of Abu Nidal, since I have seen only one other person address the issue.

Many have been writing about the alleged complicity of Pakistani leadership in hiding Osama bin Laden from the Americans for the last ten years. Not surprisingly, Pakistan’s leadership has been vociferously refuting the allegations that they had made common cause with al Qaeda or bin Laden’s Taliban allies. So far the West has been skeptical of Pakistan’s claims, to say the least.

And not surprisingly so. Given what we have learned in the last two weeks – that bin Laden had been hiding in plain sight in what essentially constitutes a fortress one kilometer away from Pakistan’s most prestigious military school in what is recognized as a garrison town – questions about Islamabad’s complicity are inevitable.

If we look further back in history it can be seen that there has been a long standing relationship between the Pakistani government and the Taliban, and even between the Pakistani secret service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Taliban’s primary patron, al Qaeda.

The Taliban itself is merely a manufactured alliance between former mujahadeen commanders and Deobani-inspired fundamentalists from Kandahar. Established in the early 1990s as response to the lawlessness that pervaded the country in the civil war that followed the defeat of Moscow-backed communist forces, the Taliban received massive material aid from Pakistan up until September 12, 2001 – at least officially. That senior Taliban leadership has continued receiving assistance and safe-haven from certain Pakistani communities up to this day is an open secret.

The same could be said about Pakistan’s odd relationship with al Qaeda. Allegedly, there are similar ties between the ISI and bin Laden as al Qaeda training camps proved positive training grounds for terrorists engaged in a long-running anti-India insurgency. Additionally, there have been accusations regarding direct material support provided to the September 11 hijackers from senior (now retired) members of the ISI.

That Pakistan’s President, Asif Zardari, is conscious of these (former?) alliances is unquestioned. Whether Pakistan’s civilian leadership is directing Islamabad’s current relationships with the Taliban and al Qaeda is another matter (personally it would seem that Zardari, like any other Pakistani leader, is more interested in fleecing his people than concerning himself with such geopolitical calculations).

And America should be very careful in making accusations suggesting that the entire body of Pakistan’s government is complicit in hiding bin Laden, not simply because Islamabad, regardless of its alleged duplicity, is still a necessary partner if there is to be any success in bringing stability to Afghanistan, and because destabilizing a nuclear armed regime is never a good idea (Steve Coll called Pakistan the “AIG of nation-states” in that it is too big to fail). The United States should be careful because they’ve had their own string of substantial intelligence failures over the past decade.

Look at the failure to predict (and counter) an insurgency in Iraq.

Look at the failure to correctly determine that Iraq’s WMD program was lacking.

Look at the failure to prevent September 11.

That is a pretty terrible record. Each intelligence failure proved catastrophic in the destruction it caused.

Looking more closely at September 11, there is a certain parallel between Pakistan’s failure to locate Osama bin Laden and the CIA’s failure to identify the 19 men bent on flying hijacked planes into US landmarks. American intelligence agencies proved woefully inept at tracking the participants, some of whom were identified as al Qaeda members before they ever set foot in the United States, and a handful of them re-entering the US multiple times. Even after the attacks, American intelligence failed to track certain individuals who may have provided material support, the most prominent of which is the prostitute frequenting current al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula chief Anwar al-Awlaki.

That American intelligence did not do all they could do to prevent the September 11 attacks seems obvious, and begs the same question asked of the Pakistanis: were American intelligence institutions stupid or complicit? The 9/11 Commission report essentially blames the failure to prevent the attack on legal restrictions preventing intelligence sharing between federal agencies and crafts a rosy presentation that everyone did the best they could under the circumstances. And while I agree that intelligence sharing is a critical factor, it does not stand to reason that not a single person has been held to account for the failure of September 11.

Neither does it stand that no one should be held to account within the ISI, Pakistani military and/or Zardari administration. But America does have to be careful about how pervasive its criticism becomes. Washington expects to be given the benefit of the doubt with regard to its past intelligence failures, and for the most part it does (the number of people who believe in the absurd notion that the Bush administration had a direct hand in 9/11 is not small, but certainly a minority). In the debate between incompetence and complicity I, like most people, feel American failures stem from stupidity rather than some nefarious plot. Doesn’t Pakistan deserve the same luxury until evidence proves otherwise?


Death of OBL Part Three: Was bin Laden a product of the CIA?

May 12, 2011

The monster we created-yes, WE-in the 1980s by ARMING, FUNDING, &TRAINING him in the art of terror agnst the USSR, finally had 2 b put down. … Which reporter has the courage to say it? “American-armed terrorist from the 80s, Osama bin Laden, was killed earlier today by America,” – Michael Moore via Twitter

This is an oft repeated though fallacious view on Osama bin Laden. The logic of the argument goes something like this:

1.    The CIA supported and trained the mujahadeen
2.    Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders were part of the mujahadeen
3.    Osama bin Laden was funded and trained by the CIA

On the surface that argument appears valid, but dig a little deeper and it does not stand to reason.

For the first point, yes, the CIA provided billions of dollars of financial and material support to the mujahadeen fighting to liberate Afghanistan in the 1980s. However, it wasn’t like Ronald Reagan wrote a check and handed it directly to the insurgency. There were multiple layers that the money was filtered through for multiple reasons: one, the US has never been particularly concerned about central Asia, thus lacking the intelligence necessary to identify the best opposition groups to support; two, Washington needed to maintain some level of plausible deniability in providing support to an anti-Soviet armed rebellion lest they provoke their nuclear armed rival into taking retaliatory measures elsewhere.

So the money was funneled through a partner willing to take a measure of risk because of its interest in the region, and who possessed solid intelligence regarding the evolving situation on the ground and the personalities involved in the conflict: namely Pakistan. The CIA provided money and arms directly to the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, who then (after taking an exhorbitant cut of the proceeds), passed on the assistance to their partners within the insurgency. The CIA never had to develop a solid working relationship with the mujahadeen so long as it could trust the ISI as a reliable mediary. For its part the ISI discouraged a direct CIA-mujahadeen relationship as it would reduce the sizeable income source that came from fleecing the Americans. As a result, the CIA developed only limited unilateral contacts with certain members of the mujahadeen, contacts that were expanded in the 1990s.

Second, the presentation of the mujahadeen as a monolith is misguided and reflects how uninformed Moore and other neophytes of Afghan history are (and I am no expert!). The mujahadeen was compromised of multiple factions whose relationships with each could be described as “testy” at the best of times. Foremost amongst those factions, and the primary beneficiaries of American largesse (via the ISI) were the so-called fundamentalist groups of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Burhanuddin Rabbani, Mohammad Yunus Khalis, and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf. That these groups were not granted equal sums of money and material when receiving aid as the ISI played favorites (Hekmatyar got the lion’s share despite his reputation of killing more mujahadeen than Communists) only intensified the rivalry between these groups and increased the dependency of some upon sources beyond Pakistan. Stepping in to fill part of the void were the so-called Afghan Arabs, of which Osama bin Laden was a part.

Under the auspices and direction of Palestinian scholar and theologian Abdullah Azzam (perhaps the second most important figure in militant salafism besides Sayyid Qutb) many radicalized Arab youths began assembling in Peshawar, Pakistan in order to provide support to and directly participate in the mujahadeen. Among those youths was a Saudi millionaire and former Azzam student, Osama bin Laden. Azzam established the MAK (Maktab al-Khidamat/Afghan Services Bureau) under the protection of Khalis’ main commander Jalaluddin Haqqani and established relationships with the smaller Sayyaf faction. MAK served primarily as a financial institution, soliciting charitable donations from wealthy Arabs, particularly Saudi and UAE royalty, but also private American and Western sources through front charities. Azzam and bin Laden had established a successful, self-sustaining organization, which following the assassination of Azzam in 1989 would become the base of the al Qaeda conglomerate. As a result they did not depend on support from the ISI and by extension the United States.

Additionally, there has been no evidence presented to date that would suggest a direct relationship between Osama bin Laden and the CIA either for a means of financial support or training. That does not mean that such a relationship did not exist, however, it needs to be proven before making a blanket statement like Moore did above.

And there are avenues for proving such a relationship. Unilateral contacts were made between the CIA and Haqqani (who would go on to be the Taliban’s primary commander). While Abdullah Azzam, and his patron, Egyptian Islamic Jihad leader and later al Qaeda number 2, Ayman al Zawahiri toured the United States in the mid-1980s to solicit support for the mujahadeen (his alleged translator during the trip, Ali Abdul Saoud Mohamed needs particularly close examination), despite their known violent opposition to Israel and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Was their relationship with MAK more involved than we are led to believe? Were they prepared to overlook their, to put it mildly, questionable pasts in order to assist the anti-Soviet insurgency as best possible? Without evidence to support the former, we need to conclude the latter, for the time being. Washington was well aware of the vociferous anti-Americanism of all the mujahadeen commanders, Hekmatyar in particular, but accepted the ISI’s argument that they were merely posturing and, more than that, supporting them was the only option to mount an effective anti-Soviet campaign. So Washington ignored the potential of the negative consequences that could follow for Afghanistan, central Asia, and the United States itself, focusing on its myopic goal of facilitating a Soviet  military defeat.

And this is where Moore and I agree. Even if the CIA did not provide any material support or training to al Qaeda its decision to blindly support the ISI’s unquestionably brutal clients in its proxy war against the Soviet Union was positively amoral. The rationale that the enemy of my enemy is my friend ignores the impact that an erstwhile ally can have on innocents that have no place in the equation. I am empathetic to the innocent victims of violence regardless of their nationality. It is difficult to dispute the point that ordinary Afghans have paid more for the CIA’s Machiavellian calculation than anyone but that does not reduce my anger for the American victims of the same forces. The World Trade Center janitor is no more responsible for the ill-conceived machinations of his government than the goat herder from Herat. Unlike the underlying message of Michael Moore, I do not feel that the two are mutually exclusive.

America has done a number of evil things throughout its history – that can’t be questioned. But insinuating that they were critically involved in the creation of al Qaeda’s membership, infrastructure and had a hand in developing its expertise in terrorism does not hold up to the facts as we presently know them. Forming such an opinion and willfully propagating it over and over again without considering the plethora of worthwhile academic and journalistic investigations of the issue displays a lack of inquisitiveness as well as an absence of humility given the degree of certainty with which it has been repeatedly put forward. Empirical evidence should be the basis of opinion, not our rigid worldview.


Death of OBL: Part Two – Tortured History

May 10, 2011

One of the outcomes of the operation that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden has been the re-ignition of the debate over the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on al Qaeda suspects. Since the raid, many officials from the Bush administration (Rumsfeld, Cheney, Yoo, Thiessen, Rice etc.) have stated that CIA Director Leon Panetta’s suggestion that intelligence gathered from waterboarding, stress positions, induced hypothermia, sleep deprivation, and other psychological tactics authorized by the former president and stopped by Obama, may have played a role in the killing of bin Laden. Whether true or not this is a difficult assertion to evaluate, though, on the surface it appears to be not entirely true, as Andrew Sullivan shows in his considered takedown: “The Big Lie”

Why has the issue become a major theme surrounding the killing of Osama bin Laden? The reasons seem obvious. Since Obama rescinded presidential approval of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” two days into his presidency, Bush officials have been seeking validation of their controversial decision made in the wake of the September 11 attacks. If intelligence gathered through torture provided even one iota of help in locating bin Laden than the program, no matter how abhorrent, would have proven valid. The ends would justify the means in their eyes. Additionally, it would give former president Bush a substantial role in the operation itself. Fox News commentator and Republican mouthpiece Sean Hannity has already asserted that Bush deserves “at least” 50 percent of the credit, with former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld (not surprisingly) concurring. In fact, ex-Bushies argue that given Senator Obama’s past opposition to Bush-approved torture, bin Laden would never have been captured if the current president had had his way from 2005 to 2008. Give Bush the Congressional Medal of Honor!

But can we endorse or oppose torture  solely on the basis of whether it provides actionable intelligence? Whether torture aided in the capture of Osama bin Laden, and if so, to what degree, I do not know. Either way I think support or opposition of torture based on its utility is missing the point.

Opposing torture based on the argument that it is inherently unreliable is a popular argument, though it is not entirely sound. Information gathered via torture is like nearly any other intelligence source – it cannot be used as a singular source. The information needs to be vetted to some degree by finding confirmation through another source. An intelligence agency that does not have a diverse set of sources is bound to be misled regardless of the origin of their intelligence, be it a secret agent or torture. The only possible exception are rare instances when an intelligence agency can, in a sense, peer into the mind of its opponent. As unappealing as this may sound, torture has proven to be a valuable intelligence source many times in the past.

On the other hand, those that support torture based on pragmatic grounds are positively amoral. The use of the euphemism “enhanced interrogation techniques” rather than torture (and those approved “techniques” definitely qualify as torture, just ask Christopher Hitchens) when discussing this issue, beyond providing certain legal protections, is also somewhat indicative of the fact that members of the Bush administration and their supporters in the media are well aware of their own amorality. The lame and often repeated claim that immoral actions such as torture are permitted in cases where there is a need for immediate intelligence, so-called “ticking time bomb scenarios” is moot. Such a scenario has never come up. Furthermore, even if an immoral action such as torture can be accepted under such circumstances the instances where it was used to successfully locate bin Laden (something that didn’t happen for two and a half years after Barack Obama ended the practice) certainly does not meet the condition of “immediate” need. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Faraj al-Libbi’s interrogators would have had to have been conscious of the fact that neither detainee would have current information on the precise location of Osama bin Laden. Finding the al Qaeda leader would require solving an intelligence puzzle of many separate pieces. Not surprisingly this is exactly how events played out on May 1.

This answer may not be satisfying as it dodges the question of whether torture is ever justifiable. In my opinion the answer is that it can not be condoned under any circumstances. In the “ideal” circumstances described by torture supporters like John Yoo and Alan Dershowitz, where there is a ticking time bomb, authorities capture the terrorist responsible, they know that the terrorist will provided the location of the bomb under torture and that there is no other way to obtain said information, those who advocate torture are doing so on the basis of a utilitarian argument. They believe that the possible lasting damage to society through the gross violation of an individual’s rights is offset by the cost of saving countless lives. I, in turn, would take a similar utilitarian stance and advocate that we don’t stop with violating the terrorist’s rights for the greater good. The person who engages in or authorizes torture, regardless of how many lives he/she saves, should be also pay a price for the good of the many and be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. That would be their sacrifice under such unlikely circumstances.

Torture cannot be allowed to become a matter of routine. It is intrinsically wrong on moral grounds regardless of its dubious practical utility.


Death of OBL: Part One – The Jumbled Narrative

May 8, 2011

This is part one of a (possibly) seven part series dealing with issues surrounding the killing of Osama bin Laden last week. Generally I avoid topics such as these, but I find there is a lot to write about this topic so I’m going to use it as practice in the coming week.

Since President Obama’s surprise Sunday night announcement of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of an American SEAL team in Pakistan, details of the operation have been murky and unreliable. The story has shifted over the last week from an initial narrative claiming that bin Laden had been an active participant in a fierce 40 minute long firefight, to an explanation that there was significant resistance but bin Laden may not have directly participated, to the current understanding that the SEALs met almost no resistance throughout the operation.

Why has there been this constant shift in the narrative provided by the White House? Can the vast disparity in the details of the operation be explained simply as a result of the “fog of war”, with the Obama administration trying to get out in front of the story for a hungry world audience before a proper debriefing took place? Is this simply the natural result of relaying information in the age of the 21st century accelerated news cycle?

All of the above are valid explanations, though they may not explain the entire story. Certainly there was a propaganda aspect to each version of the story that came out, as Osama was told to have used his wife as a human shield in one version, and to have been “scared” in another – two characteristics that would not be in keeping with his carefully manufactured image the past 20 years.

But there is more than that. The murky details surrounding the assault on his compound may be the result of vague legal fears.

Osama bin Laden was not an ordinary grunt killed in the course of a battlefield engagement. He was a well-known leader of a multi-national organization and the preeminent face of evil for hundreds of millions if not billions of people, who was killed far from the combat zone, in peaceful middle-class Abbottabad. As such, there may have been certain legal implications considered, both domestic and international, in the operation that resulted in his death, and therefore the details that we have been provided.

In terms of American law, since the 1975 Church Committee hearings into CIA abuses, presidents, beginning with Gerald Ford, have issued Executive Orders banning assassinations. But the Executive Order banning assassinations was issued in response to successful (Lumumba, Trujillo, the Diem brothers, General Schneider) and unsuccessful (Castro) attempts on individuals with legal standing in the administration of their government. Despite his standing with Afghanistan’s Taliban and his past relationship with the Sudanese government, Bin Laden was always a non-state actor, so he wouldn’t seem to fit within the spirit of the law. Still, the vague wording of the executive order, the banning of assassinations in general, has placed a hindrance on administrations in the past, or, more cynically, given them an excuse to not take actions that would result in his death when applied to the letter.

This is particularly true of the Clinton administration’s attempts to deal with bin Laden. Despite his post-September 11 claims to have done everything within his power to decapitate al Qaeda, Clinton constantly deferred to the Justice Department’s concerns regarding CIA orchestrated covert actions against bin Laden. So long as the CIA’s operations, generally consisting of a raid by “tribal” Afghan elements raiding known al Qaeda hideouts, were more likely to result in the death of Osama bin Laden and others around him, rather than his capture, the Attorney General would not support such actions, and Clinton would not press. The CIA’s bin Laden unit, fearing the possibility of facing the legal repercussions by themselves therefore would not move forward without a blanket endorsement of operation that would have almost certainly lead to bin Laden’s death.

Given the above, it may seem somewhat peculiar that Clinton, like the presidents that preceded and succeeded him, certainly did not object to killing foreign leaders with air power. On the surface it would appear that attempts to bomb kill designated individuals would not necessarily violate the Executive Order banning assassinations according to the letter of the law as their homes, offices etc. can be characterized as “command and control” targets, necessary to pass on orders, and thus legitimate military targets. Air assault provides less precision in terms of who is killed so the choice would come down to not attacking designated “command and control’ targets or attacking them and risking the leaders’ lives. Assassination in this case would come within the course of conducting a justifiable military operation, hence there have been no hesitations in targeting Saddam Hussein in 1991, 1993, 1998, 2003; Slobodan Milosevic in 1999; Osama bin Laden in 1998; and Muammar Gaddafi in 1986 and in the current campaign. Unlike an air assault, an operation by foot soldiers would perhaps be subject to greater scrutiny as, unlike a bomb, they can be more precise in terms of who they kill in an operation and under what circumstances. Capture is not an option when dropping a 500lb bomb.

Beyond the domestic legal vulnerabilities of President Obama and the direct participants in the raid that resulted in Osama bin Laden’s death, there is a question of how vulnerable each of those parties would be to international legal repercussions. An authority no less revered than Noam Chomsky has asserted (championed?) such considerations in a recent op-ed piece. Undoubtedly the violation of Pakistani sovereignty (if, as claimed, Pakistan had no advanced knowledge of the assault) by an armed American force would have certain implications with regard to international law, but this is beside the point. Would the premeditated murder of Osama bin Laden leave President Obama subject to indictment? Maybe. Cases have been brought against foreign leaders by magistrates in the country of origin for the victims of those leaders’ crimes (fear of this may prevent George W. Bush from ever leaving North America again). This would be a difficult situation with regard to Osama bin Laden as he was a stateless person, having had his Saudi Arabian citizenship revoked 15 years ago, however, legal action could conceivably be taken on behalf of the four others killed in the operation.

The ultimate question, and the one that would have barring on any future prosecution of those involved, would be whether the killing was premeditated. According to our current understanding of the assault, capture was an option, however, the circumstances under which bin Laden would be taken were so strict that they were nearly impossible to meet. The Obama administration simply did not want him taken alive, but because of the potential, though unlikely, legal implications, are unwilling to admit it. The costs associated with dealing with Osama bin Laden’s legal fate given the controversial and overly-long process surrounding his lieutenants, and visceral reaction of a country clamoring for vicious revenge was simply too much to deal with and could prove too divisive. The euphoria of having finally achieved a 13 year old goal would have been offset by contentious debates surrounding his legal standing and treatment while in detention. He had to die – Obama simply cannot say it.

As a result a true picture of how the operation was conducted will never be seen and questions will continue. What should be a matter of public record will be left to rumor and innuendo, subject to the manipulations of those with a vested interest in creating legends and propaganda. That tried and tested objection that national security forbids honesty will be the continuing refrain once the rosy glow of Osama bin Laden’s long overdue death loses its hue.