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As America's morbid celebrations over the killing of Osama bin Laden begin to fade, we are left with a new landscape of risks -- and opportunities -- created by his slaying at the hands of a U.S. Special Forces team at a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
The range of those future prospects could be found in Wednesday's Washington Post. On the hopeful side, a front-page article reported that the Obama administration was following up bin Laden's death with accelerated peace talks in Afghanistan. On a darker note, a Post editorial hailed bin Laden's slaying as a model for "targeting" Libya's Muammar Gaddafi and his sons.
So, while there is the possibility that the United States might finally begin to wind down a near-decade-long war in Afghanistan, there is the countervailing prospect of the United States consolidating an official policy of assassination and violence as the way to impose Washington's will on the Muslim world.
If the Post's neoconservative editors get their way and the U.S. military is officially transformed into a roving assassination squad -- a global "Murder, Inc." -- it may turn out that future historians will view this as bin Laden's final victory. Having already helped create the climate for George W. Bush's administration to overturn longstanding American principles -- regarding civil liberties, aggressive war and torture -- bin Laden could go to his watery grave with the satisfaction of officially branding the United States as a nation of assassins.
If assassination becomes the preferred calling card of U.S. foreign policy, it also is a safe bet that the lines at al-Qaeda recruiting stations will grow longer, rather than shrink, and that more rounds of retaliatory violence will follow.
However, if Rajiv Chandrasekaran's speculation in the Post's news article is closer to the mark -- that bin Laden's death may clear the way for negotiations with the Taliban and a peace settlement in Afghanistan -- then something truly positive might be salvaged from this grisly episode. Not only might the 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan start coming home in significant numbers in July, but the United States might finally begin to repair its badly stained reputation as a "beacon" of liberty and the rule of law.Targeted Killings
The circumstances surrounding the targeted killing of bin Laden remind us how far the United States has strayed from its principles. Though clearly bin Laden represented an extreme case -- as the leader of an international terrorist organization that has slaughtered thousands of innocent people -- his killing was not unique. Over the past decade, U.S. Special Forces and sniper teams have been authorized to kill significant numbers of suspected militants on sight.
For instance, in 2007, a case surfaced regarding two U.S. Special Forces soldiers who took part in the execution of an Afghan man who was a suspected leader of an insurgent group. Special Forces Capt. Dave Staffel and Sgt. Troy Anderson were leading a team of Afghan soldiers when an informant told them where the suspected insurgent leader was hiding. The U.S.-led contingent found a man believed to be Nawab Buntangyar walking outside his compound near the village of Hasan Kheyl.
While the Americans kept their distance out of fear the suspect might be wearing a suicide vest, the man was questioned about his name and the Americans checked his description against a list from the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force Afghanistan, known as "the kill-or-capture list." Concluding that the man was Nawab Buntangyar, Staffel gave the order to shoot, and Anderson -- from a distance of about 100 yards away -- fired a bullet through the man's head, killing him instantly.
The soldiers viewed the killing as "a textbook example of a classified mission completed in accordance with the American rules of engagement," the New York Times reported. "The men said such rules allowed them to kill Buntangyar, whom the American military had designated a terrorist cell leader, once they positively identified him."
Staffel's civilian lawyer Mark Waple said the Army's Criminal Investigation Command concluded that the shooting was "justifiable homicide," but a two-star general in Afghanistan instigated a murder charge against the two men. That case, however, foundered over accusations that the charge was improperly filed. [NYT, Sept. 17, 2007]
According to evidence in a court martial at Fort Bragg, the earlier Army investigation cleared the two soldiers because they had been operating under rules of engagement that empowered them to kill individuals who have been designated "enemy combatants," even if the targets were unarmed and presented no visible threat.
In September 2007, a U.S. military judge dismissed all charges against the two soldiers, ruling it was conceivable that the detained Afghan was wearing a suicide explosive belt, though there was no evidence that he was. [For more details, see Consortiumnews.com's"Bush Turns US Soldiers into Murderers."]
In other words, the killing of Osama bin Laden was within well-established "rules of engagement" started under President Bush and continued by President Barack Obama. Obama's proud announcement on Sunday evening that "a small team of Americans" had killed bin Laden reflected not an anomalous action but a pattern of behavior, made distinctive only by the prominence of the target.
"At my direction," Obama said, "a small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. " After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body."Revised Accounts
On Monday, John Brennan, Obama's special assistant on terrorism, claimed that bin Laden either had a gun or was reaching for a gun when he was shot, but the White House on Tuesday amended that statement to say that bin Laden was unarmed when killed. Further U.S. revisions of the official story followed on Wednesday, as U.S. officials acknowledged that the "firefight" in Abbottabad was extremely one-sided. They told the New York Times that only one of bin Laden's "couriers," Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, fired at the U.S. team from a nearby guesthouse before he and a woman with him were slain.