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How not to capture Osama



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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August 26, 2009

LONDON - Six days after the attack on the World Trade Centre, President George W. Bush declared that the capture of Osama bin Laden was his prime objective. "I want justice", he said, "There's an old poster out west that I recall that said "wanted dead or alive'". He also said that the purpose of going to war was to "smoke him out".

The U.S. and the U.K. then unleashed their bombs all over Afghanistan, killing far more innocent Afghans than were killed on 9/11. It did no good at all, and it certainly didn't touch bin Laden and his team who were safely hidden in caves in the impenetrable mountains of Pakistan. Not long after Bush turned his attention to Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Less and less was spoken of the need to hunt down bin Laden. None of this made sense.

Afghanistan is now in a mess. The U.S. and its allies are in as deep as were the previous Soviet invaders and the Taliban are as apt at keeping them on the defensive and wearing them down by a war of attrition as were the mujahedeen 25 years ago.

Today the Western powers say their aim is to change the nature of Afghanistan society - ending Islamic militancy, liberating women, educating girls, building clinics and roads. But are we there to re-fashion a conservative society? That is not our business.

And today the need to track down bin Laden is given little consideration. Instead the firepower is aimed loosely at the Taliban, but often innocent villagers, and in Pakistan the focus is on the leadership of the Taliban and other violent fundamentalist groups. No wonder many of us are confused.

What should have been done?

There never should have been any bombing neither immediately after 9/11 nor today. The U.S should have chosen to run bin Laden to earth as the wartime allies and Israel hunted down the big Nazis who were on the run. It was hard, dogged police work over decades. In numerous cases, including Adolf Eichmann, the concentration camps' supremo, it worked.

What was needed after 9/11 was the recruitment of the most motivated Pashto speakers from the Pakistani army, intelligence service and police force and then their training for the task ahead by the FBI and Scotland Yard. That should have been backed up by CIA and MI6 field officers working with all the tools of modern detective work (which the Israelis didn't have for their pursuit of Eichmann ) - forensic science, infrared capabilities and so on).

Washington and London would argue that for five years before the World Trade Centre bombing they had been trying to hunt down bin Laden and even three years before had sent operatives to Afghanistan in an attempt to encourage the leaders of the anti-Taliban opposition to capture him.

Later in 1999 the CIA trained 60 commandos from Pakistani intelligence to enter Afghanistan and capture or kill him. But when General Pervez Musharraf staged his coup d'etat in Pakistan he forbade the continuance of this useful operation.

Police work and commando deployment of this kind is hard and frustrating. Yet there were also opportunities missed. In the early spring of 1996 the government of Sudan, where bin Laden was living, made an offer to the CIA to arrest him. But the Clinton Administration faltered. It passed up the possibility of bringing him to the U.S., believing it couldn't get a conviction in a U.S court and instead tried to persuade Saudi Arabia, his home country, to take him in and try him.

But there was an alternative, as President George W. Bush showed later - his internment on a U.S. naval brig. Moreover, he could easily have been classed as a prisoner of war, subject to the Geneva Conventions but not to trial.

Samuel Berger, Clinton's National Security Advisor, revealingly told the Washington Post in 2001, "In the U.S. we have this thing called the U.S. Constitution, so to bring him to justice I don't think was our first choice. Our first choice was to send him some place where justice was more streamlined". Three colleagues made it clear to Post reporters what Berger meant: "They hoped that the Saudi monarch would order bin Laden's swift beheading."

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This is how it came to be that Sudan expelled bin Laden to Afghanistan, where he planned the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the near destruction of the American destroyer in Yemen and, finally, the devastation in New York and Washington.

Berger's account rings with contradictions. If he was convinced at the time that bin Laden was such a danger to the U.S. then it seems clear that the White House possessed incriminating evidence. Why did it not act upon it? Hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved - in east Africa, in New York and Washington, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, not to mention the casualties of U.S. and allied troops.

It is not too late to change the tactics in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We should recall the hunt for Adolf Eichmann, a more dangerous man than bin Laden with a far worse record.



Copyright © 2009 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172
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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
I say, why not?"


Jonathan Power's 2001 book

Like Water on Stone
The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



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