Thursday, May 5, 2011

The death of Osama bin Laden

I've been thinking a lot about Osama bin Laden in the past few days. I wanted to write something about the celebrations of his death, since I felt much of it was unseemly. Yet, I myself am glad that he is no more, since his life was one of violence and murder directed at not only his enemies but at many innocents who happened to surround his enemies. His claim that his faith justified this bloodshed was, of course, directly in the mainstream of religiously inspired violence that has flowed down through recorded history.

At the same time, he and his major enemies, the U.S. and the former U.S.S.R., are bound together in a kind of triangle of dualities whose pairings raise some of the most fundamental questions of morality: ends and means, evil and innocence, faith and cynicism.

It all starts with the cold war, the political and military division of the world into "East" and "West", and the Manichean division of the world into "Good" and "Evil". There is no doubt of the cruelty of Stalin and his successors, but the U.S. side also installed and supported numerous bloody dictators in South and Central America. And of course the nuclear and thermonuclear arsenals of both sides made "Mutual Assured Destruction" a very real possibility for decades.

In 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, shortly after the Islamic revolution in Iran deposed the Shah (a U.S. puppet himself) and installed Ayatollah Khomeini, a theocratic tyrant.

At this point Osama bin Laden, who had been studying radical Islamic theology in Saudi Arabia, moved to Pakistan and started to assemble the jihadists who would become the anti-Soviet mujahideen in Afghanistan and later al-Qaeda. As the scion of a Saudi family made wealthy through its construction company, he was able to use his business connections and organizational skills to create an effective military force to attack the Soviets across the border.

Also around this time the U.S., through the CIA, made contact with the mujahideen. Steve Coll, reporting in the Washington Post, writes:

"In March 1985, President Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive 166,...[which] authorize[d] stepped-up covert military aid to the mujahideen, and it made clear that the secret Afghan war had a new goal: to defeat Soviet troops in Afghanistan through covert action and encourage a Soviet withdrawal. The new covert U.S. assistance began with a dramatic increase in arms supplies -- a steady rise to 65,000 tons annually by 1987, ... as well as a "ceaseless stream" of CIA and Pentagon specialists who traveled to the secret headquarters of Pakistan's ISI on the main road near Rawalpindi, Pakistan. There the CIA specialists met with Pakistani intelligence officers to help plan operations for the Afghan rebels."

These supplies were merged with those provided by Osama and others, and used by the mujahideen to kill Soviet troops. Money to buy more arms was also provided by the drug (heroin) trade. Charles Cogan, former CIA director in Afhanistan, writes:

"Our main mission was to do as much damage as possible to the Soviets. We didn't really have the resources or the time to devote to an investigation of the drug trade,'... `I don't think that we need to apologize for this. Every situation has its fallout.... There was fallout in terms of drugs, yes. But the main objective was accomplished. The Soviets left Afghanistan."

Basically, over the next few decades, and especially after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, the mujahideen moved on to other countries including Macedonia, Chechnya and the Balkans. In Afghanistan they morphed into the Taliban and, still using support supplied covertly by the CIA, established a severe and brutal rule -- one that the U.S. publicly denounced only years later.

Thus, when it suited the needs of the U.S., Osama bin Laden and his jihadists received cash and arms to wage terror on the Soviets. The Chechen rebels, among others, are actively terrorizing Russians through bombings in major cities. It is likely that they are still using some equipment and arms provided by the CIA.

Thus, in the 1980s Osama bin Laden was being supported by the CIA to do to the Soviets what he would later do to us.

Meanwhile, the U.S. was sending more and more technical and military support to prop up the corrupt regime in Saudi Arabia, which had (and maybe still has) the largest proven oil reserves in the world. The presence of "infidel" troops in the holy cities of Medina and Mecca caused Osama to transfer his attention from the departed Soviets to his previous benefactors: the U.S. His strict Wahabi version of Islam caused him to redirect his jihadi efforts against American troops and Americans in general. This led to a series of terrorist attacks against U.S. troops and civilians throughout the world: in Sudan, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Kenya and Yemen (U.S.S. Cole). He formed al-Qaeda and set up its training camps in Afghanistan, then under Taliban control.

These efforts culminated in the attacks of September 11, 2001.

At this time the Bush administration was already looking for a pretense to attack the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq: the timing couldn't have been better for them. (A good account of this can be found in Against All Enemies, a best-selling book by Richard Clark, national security adviser to Reagan, Bush senior, Clinton and the junior Bush).

Of course, the U.S. had not been sitting idly by. When Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, with little initial discouragement from Bush Sr., the U.S. launched an attack on Iraq, sometimes referred to as the "First Gulf War." This was all about oil. The result was a massive defeat for Saddam and the slaughter of perhaps 100,000 poorly trained and conscripted or reluctant Iraqi troops at the hands of the very hi-tech U.S. army. No American had been threatened by Saddam previous to this undeclared war, and American casualties were very light. The American invasion stopped short of Baghdad. Many felt that Bush Sr. didn't want a populist government to arise if Saddam were toppled at that time; the U.S. had been playing off Iraq against Iran ever since the Shah was deposed.

In any case, the pretext of 9/11 enabled G.W. Bush, in the face of massive domestic and international popular opposition, to invade Iraq and overthrow America's sometime ally Saddam Hussein. Heavy U.S. bombing destroyed much of Iraq's infrastructure (water, power, transportation) and opened a hornet's nest of partisan and religious violence. This has resulted in at least 100,000 civilian (non-combatant) documented deaths. Most of these were from terrorist activity, but many resulted from errant U.S. ordinance -- the so-called "collateral damage".

Thus, two needless wars produced over 200,000 unnecessary deaths in Iraq alone; thousands more have died in Afghanistan: most also from terrorist activity, but also thousands from collateral damage from American bombs and drones.

By contrast, about 3000 died in NY on 9/11. Several thousand American soldiers have been killed and many more thousands wounded. The late Osama bin Laden had a lot of blood on his hands, but so do we and the Soviets and the various murderous despots that we, the Russians, and the terrorists supported and opposed at various times.

So, while it is good that Osama has been "neutralized", it is hardly a cause for much self-congratulatory celebration. There has been too much killing and enough blame to go around.

(Our President seems to be a generally peace-loving person, who favors humanistic government policies; so, if anything else is good about Osama bin Laden's death, it is that it strengthens Obama's political standing.)

In balance, then, quiet reflection seems to me to be the best stance at this time.

(Most information about Osama bin Laden's history was gleaned from articles in The Boston Globe and CRG (Centre for Research on Globalisation).


  1. The U.S. has a poor track record for picking rulers of foreign countries -- witness the Shah, Noriega, Marcos, Castro, and on and on. Our foreign policy seems to be driven by money alone. We rarely intervene in the politics of another country unless they have something we want. Meanwhile we ignore the Hutus and Tutsis of the world.

    I do believe that Obama would rather respond diplomatically than with military might, however with corporations now running our government Obama doesn't have much of a chance of prevailing. Beware the military-industrial-ites who are only interested in the short-term bottom-line.

  2. I had always thought that the term "mujahideen" was somewhat generic and that almost any combination of groups taking up arms could be referred to with this moniker. When American forces first invaded Afghanistan I remember their assembling a coalition of mujahideen fighters to help against the Taliban. Perhaps some of the members of the earlier coalition went on to become Taliban, but this seems quite different to me from the statement that one transformed into the other. ~Marshall

    It is entirely possible that I misunderstand the entire relationship of forces as things have played out over the past few decades. After all, my information was based on standard newspaper and magazine accounts and no in-depth, scholarly treatment of the Afghanistan scene, which has always seemed to me to be kaleidoscopic and quite enigmatic. I am curious as to how accurate it would be to say that the mujahideen became the Taliban.