Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Stephen Walt on whether the US murdered Bin Laden

Stephen Walt talks a look at the question, Did the United States murder bin Laden? Foreign Policy 05/04/2011. He indicates that he's "inclined to cut them [the Administration] a bit of slack on this one." Based on what we know so far, he thinks "it would hardly be a stretch to imagine Obama sending in the SEALs not with deliberate orders to kill bin Laden, but with instructions that made his death very, very likely." And he also observes that sending in a SEALs team rather than use a drone strike was likely made in part to minimize noncombatant casualties. And also to be able to make a more credible case that we had really killed Bin Laden.

But he leans toward thinking the intent was to take Bin Laden dead rather than alive:

There are two reasons to suspect that we were more interested in killing him than capturing him. The first is the obvious point that having him in custody would have been a major policy challenge. How many terror threats or hostage takings might have accompanied his trial and incarceration? In the abstract, I'd prefer to have put him on trial for his crimes, to draw the sharpest possible contrast between his lawless behavior and the principles of the rule of law that we like to proclaim. But the practical obstacles to that course would have been daunting, and I can understand why the U.S. government might have preferred just taking him out.

The second reason, of course, is that targeted assassinations have become an increasingly favorite tool of U.S. security policy. And it's not just drone attacks on suspected terrorists in Pakistan or Yemen, targeted killings by special forces are one of the key ways that we are prosecuting the war in Afghanistan. And there's certainly some reason to believe that this is how NATO is trying to resolve the civil war in Libya, though of course we will never say so openly. [my emphasis]
As he's explained in another post, targeted assassination is a problematic policy in a number of ways.

Leaving aside the notion of assassinating heads of state, when dealing with any terrorist group, obviously disrupting, imprisoning or otherwise neutralizing their leaders can have a major effect. Especially if it's a matter of a relatively isolated sect, like the Red Army Faction (RAF) in Germany or the Weather Underground in the US. Although we should note than in those two incidents, the authorities in their respective countries did not concentrate on trying to kill their leaders.

But even isolated groups have some kind of network of sympathizers. When we look at groups founded in tribal societies in which family clan ties are important, like Afghanistan today or (to a significant extent) the American South during Reconstruction, then eliminating the leadership may complicate rather than facilitate counterinsurgency efforts. If you want a terrorist group to lay down its arms and negotiate a peace deal, or even if you want to keep that option open, leaders who are experienced and trusted among the fighters are more likely to be able to make such a deal and see that it's implemented than newer leaders who have to prove their credibility to their followers. Aside from the need of new leaders to prove themselves in military/terrorist operations, there's no guarantee that a new leader will be less effective from the group's side, or more favorable generally from the counterinsurgency's side, than the old ones. Killing a respected leader may make his remaining followers more intransigent.

Israel has practiced targeted assassination for many years against Palestinian leaders. In their case, increasing intransigence and radicalization among the survivors in the terrorist group may have been part of the intention. Or at least an effect that wasn't entirely unwelcome to an Israeli leadership that preferred not to have a negotiated settlement that would likely be acceptable to the Palestinians.

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