What was I thinking?
In my previous column on the upcoming trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and four other defendants implicated in the 9/11 terrorist attacks – and in this comment on the "Congress Blog" of The Hill – I missed out on what should have been the main point. It was only in re-reading what I had posted on The Hill that I realized my oversight: yes, I thought, as I reviewed what I had written, why not try them in a court of law, and of course that’s better than just locking them up and throwing away the key: we’re a nation of laws, we need to live up to our own standards, etc. etc. – you know the drill – and then it hit me.
I asked myself : Why now? Why is the Obama administration moving at this particular moment to make a controversial move, one that could quite possibly backfire? They’re taking a risk in which the downside is clear – but what’s the upside? What’s in it for them?
The little bird sitting on my left shoulder was quick to reply: Well, of course it’s out of sheer idealism – the need to correct an injustice and do the right thing.
I laughed, and brushed that feathered fool aside with a single wave of my hand, as the truth dawned on me: it’s all about the war in Afghanistan.
With President Obama getting ready to announce his new course on the "Af-Pak" front, which will involve sending as many as 40,000 more US troops to that graveyard of empires, what better time to underscore the alleged dangers emanating from that part of the world than a public trial of these particular al-Qaeda prisoners?
All five of the Gitmo defendants are not only directly linked to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, with Mohammed as the "mastermind" and the others playing some sort of support role, but they also sought sanctuary in Pakistan, where they were picked up by the ISI, handed over to the US, and packed off to Guantanamo. All five received "training" from al-Qaeda in the Af-Pak region, and fit very nicely into the "safe haven" paradigm promulgated by the Obama administration, and analysts such as Peter Bergen, who maintain that the existence of these havens represents the main danger to our security and interests. As Bergen puts it in his testimony before Congress, recently posted on Foreignpolicy.com:
"It is my assessment that the al Qaeda organization today no longer poses a direct national security threat to the United States itself, but rather poses a second-order threat in which the worst case scenario would be an al Qaeda-trained or -inspired terrorist managing to pull off an attack on the scale of something in between the 1993 Trade Center attack, which killed six, and the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, which killed 168. While this, of course, would be tragic, it would not constitute a mass-casualty attack sufficiently large in scale to reorient U.S. national security policy completely as the 9/11 attacks did.
"An important element in al Qaeda’s much degraded capability to launch a mass casualty attack on the American homeland is the pressure it is under in Pakistan — ramped-up U.S. drone attacks in the Pakistani tribal regions where the group is headquartered; far better intelligence on the militants based in those tribal areas; and increasingly negative Pakistani public and governmental attitudes toward militant jihadist groups based in Pakistan."
A key element in this analysis is the alleged importance of those al-Qaeda "training camps," which presuppose a safe haven of some sort — and yet why couldn’t such training take place in any one of a number of other locations, such as Somalia, Yemen, or one of the Central Asian ‘stans? And of course the honing of al-Qaeda cadre in the Iraq and Afghan conflicts has provided Osama bin Laden with plenty of skilled fighters, who presumably wouldn’t need all that much more training to wreak havoc wherever they were sent. Remember, the actual 9/11 hijackers were living in Hamburg, Germany, and in the US, in the months and years before 9/11, where they trained and prepared for the attacks.
Al Qaeda has always placed its main strategic emphasis on attacking the "far enemy," i.e. the US, as the key to bringing down the "near enemy," i.e. Israel, or the Arab regimes they see as Uncle Sam’s Quislings, such as the Saudis, the Jordanian king, Mubarak in Egypt, etc. As such, bin Laden represents a minority in the jihadist movement, which up until 9/11 had been dominated by Muslim nationalists in religious garb, who emphasized the "liberation" of their respective homelands. Al Qaeda, however, uniquely argues that in order to defeat the "Crusaders and Zionists" at the source of their power, it is necessary to hit and humble the world headquarters of the infidels, which is none other than the US.
In light of this, Bergen’s dismissal of the threat posed by bin Laden’s cohorts to the continental US – and his belief that another attack on the scale of 9/11 is unlikely just because bin Laden is taking hits from our drone forays into Pakistan – seems like complacency at its most dangerous.
Given the growth of al-Qaeda’s core of hardened cadres, the alleged centrality of "safe havens" to bin Laden’s strategy also seems questionable, at best. Al Qaeda has always been a decentralized transnational conspiracy, highly fluid and adaptable organizationally. Most importantly, it is lacking the vulnerabilities of a traditional state: a fixed location and readily-indentifiable leadership. This ethereality, indeed, has been al-Qaeda’s chief strength: Bergen and the Obama administration are utilizing an outmoded strategy against a new kind of enemy.
As Obama announces his decision about how many troops to send to Afghanistan – and tries to rally war-weary Americans around a supposedly "new"-and –improved strategy to win the war — the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his fellow Gitmo defendants will be opening in New York. What a coincidence!
The trial of the Gitmo defendants isn’t going to be about the rule of law, it isn’t motivated by the Obama administration’s liberal idealism, and it most certainly won’t signify anything as rational as putting an end to the "war on terrorism" and treating Al Qaeda the same way we treated the Mafia and Cosa Nostra, i.e. as a floating international criminal conspiracy rather than a stationary military threat. What it will be about is generating war propaganda, positioning the Obama-ites as "tough"on terrorism and serious about national security.
Here’s the narrative the Justice Department will spin out, as the trial – surely to be one of the most closely-watched in recent memory — progresses: the defendants, hiding in their Pakistani-Afghan "safe haven," were able to plot the 9/11 attacks, and future terrorist acts, from a safe distance, until we swooped in (or, rather, the ISI swooped in, but never mind that … ) and wrecked their plans. The whole legal procedure should be fairly close to its seemingly inevitable verdict just as the debate over the Afghan war reaches an acrimonious crescendo – yet another fortuitous coincidence, no doubt….
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
More commentary from me posted at The Hill.