Bin Laden and the ironies of history…

In contrast to popular perception, the death of Osama Bin Laden brings to a close a chapter of geopolitics that did not begin with the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

The chapter began with the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, after which US policy led to the creation of anti-Soviet forces that many have argued had direct connections to the genesis of Al Qaeda (see Steve Coll’s brilliant Ghost Wars).  According to Coll, anti-Soviet rebels (i.e. the mujahideen) became radicalised while on recruitment missions in the US, some of whom then went on to form the ranks of Al Qaeda.

The advent of the ‘war on terror’ combined with the promulgation of George W Bush’s notion of ‘imminent threat’ created the precedent for the Iraq War in which the Bush Administration sought to make a direct link between the 9/11 attacks and Saddam Hussein. The ensuing saga involved the search for non-existent weapons of mass destruction, an altered mission towards regime change, many thousands of deaths and massive expenditure from the United States and its allies. Bush had turned his attention to toppling Saddam Hussein, while Afghanistan drifted from view.

The October 2001 invasion of Afghanistan was hailed by many as a justified response to the 9/11 attacks and even defended on the grounds of just war theory (see e.g. Jean Bethke Elshtain’s Just War Against Terror).   I concurred at the time of the invasion and even though the mission has changed, I still think that the war in Afghanistan has had the correct focus: addressing one of the main sources of terrorism and to rebuild the country after decades of war. President Obama refocused on Afghanistan, increased troops and made the search for Bin Laden a priority of his administration. Like Iraq, the indicators on Afghanistan are chilling, but the intent and progress are far more palatable than anything that was carried out in Iraq.

And now, it would appear, the plan to find Bin Laden worked.

On 12 September 2001 I was asked by the BBC if I thought that Osama Bin Laden had human rights. I answered a very firm ‘yes’ at that time and still do today. I would have preferred then as I do now that he was captured and tried using the standards of evidence and protection of rights that our democracies seek to uphold. To do otherwise undermines the many cherished ideals for which numerous wars have been fought and for which numerous countries now stand.

We may never know the true circumstances of his death last night, but what we do know is that an operation based on solid intelligence led to a brisk operation, firefight and ultimately his death. George W. Bush called this ‘justice’ after hearing the news. It is a form of retributive justice and perhaps a hallmark of the ancient edict ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. But it is not the kind of justice that has emerged in the modern world.

In the event, I am not saddened by the death of Osama Bin Laden as he bears huge responsibility for the tragic attacks that were visited upon my beloved country, but I do regret that he was not captured alive and tried.

After World War II, the victorious Allies established the International Military Tribunal to hear evidence about Nazi atrocities (see Joseph Persico’s wonderful book Infamy on Trial). This was an experiment in ‘transitional justice’ and has set a standard for subsequent developments, such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and the International Criminal Court (ICC).

As we watch events unfold in the Middle East and North Africa during the ‘Arab Spring of 2011’ we need to remember the values and standards upon which many post-World War II notions of peace and justice have been based. Colonel Gaddafi of Libya is now in the sights of many for regime change, but I hope that NATO avoids the approach used last night if it all possible. To do otherwise will once again set back the quest for justice, peace and the protection of human rights. Moreover, it is important to avoid the human rights double standard, as we watch hundreds of innocent Syrians die at the hands of the security forces with no equivalent response from the United Nations Security Council as we have seen in the case of Libya.

We must also remain vigilant as the great powers seek to mould current developments, not to get caught in the ironies of history that have so bedeviled us with respect to Afghanistan and Osama Bin Laden.

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