"I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth." (Karl Popper)

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Weighing risks in counter-terrorist operations

This story, though by no means a new one, should be borne in mind in debates about collateral damage, or, in plain English, civilian casualties in war. It dates from the 1998-9 and has been in the public domain since at least the publication of the 9/11 Commission report. The facts, in brief, are these: In February 1999 U.S. intelligence had solid information that Osama bin Laden was at a particular training camp in Afghanistan. Preparations were made for a possible strike, but no strike was launched. The intelligence could not specify bin Laden's quarters; there was also a concern that official visitors from the United Arab Emirates were present and would likely suffer. The UAE is an important and close ally of the U.S. in the Gulf region. Fear of a diplomatic incident swayed president Clinton against ordering the strike. Richard Clarke was one of the U.S. intelligence officials involved in the decision; he seems to have been sceptical of the merits of such a strike. On February 10th Clarke detailed to deputy national security advisor Donald Kerrick intelligence placing bin Laden in the camp, and informed him that the Pentagon might be in a position to fire the next morning.

But, consider: If the opposite decision had been taken, a critical blow might have been dealt al-Qaeda's leadership. The attacks on Washington and New York might never have come to pass. It would certainly have been open to the U.S. administration to defend such an operation by replying that, while it regretted the non-target casualties, officials of a close ally should not have been in secret discussions with bin Laden at one of his terrorist training camps. There was also no reason why the intelligence linking the UAE officials need have been publicly acknowledged at the time. In any event, one need only contrast the strike by U.S. forces in Afghanistan across the Pakistani border. 18 people are believed to have been killed, including several civilians, and associates of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. It has been reported that Midhat Mursi, described in the media as "al Qaeda's master bomb maker and chemical weapons expert" and "of four known major al Qaeda leaders present at an apparent terror summit in the village of Damadola", was among the casualties. Intelligence, we are told, placed Zawahiri and a number of key associates in a particular house at a particular time. An opportunity presented itself to deal a serious blow to the terrorist network. Given the 1999 bin Laden episode, it should at least be accepted that this issue is not black and white. It is difficult and complex. The civilians who seem to have been killed in Pakistan were probably less morally blameworthy than the UAE officials in bin Laden's Afghan camp. But the real question is whether a better opportunity was likely to present itself. Al-Qaeda is, of course, a clandestine, stateless network. The next time Zawahiri might have been seen by U.S. officials might have been on an al-Jazeera video celebrating the next terrorist attack. And the next investigating Commission would later ask the same questions the 9/11 Commission did.


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