For my second post on the political impact of Osama bin Laden’s death, I’d like to address foreign policy and the War on Terror, or whatever we’re calling it these days.
In terms of foreign policy, there are two obvious countries in my periscope: Pakistan and Afghanistan. Back during the 2008 presidential debates, Barack Obama stated that if he knew Osama bin Laden was in Pakistan, he would go in and get him, even if it meant violating the sovereignty of an ally. McCain called him naïve. Fast forward two and half years, and Obama did exactly that. And Pakistan did not like it.
When I watched Obama’s speech announcing the event, one thing I noticed was that the intended audience seemed to be the Pakistani government just as much as the American people. The President made explicit overtures to the continuing friendship of the two countries, and seemed to be implying, “I understand this isn’t going to go over well in Pakistan, but please understand my position and stick with me.” I don’t know if they will. Obama had the option of pursuing a joint operation with Pakistani forces, but nixed it, signaling mistrust either of their abilities or their intentions. Some Pakistani politicos seem mostly willing to stand with Obama, while also criticizing the operation out of political necessity, but others are angrier. Pakistan’s spy agency, for example, leaked the name of a local CIA chief, seemingly in retaliation, and there have also been increasingly harsh words and saber-rattling. I don’t know whether this is just a necessary “cathartic” process in response to a violation of sovereignty, or whether it really will deteriorate relations further. A recent firefight between U.S.-led NATO helicopters and Pakistani troops near the border suggests more problems on the horizon. Some voices here in America are calling for us to cut off aid to Pakistan, suspecting that the government was at least complicit in hiding Osama. That would be naïve because it is still better to have a duplicitous Pakistan as a half-hearted ally than to not have them on our side at all.
Meanwhile, a chorus is also growing for the U.S. to start leaving Afghanistan ASAP. The thought process goes that we got bin Laden, so our work is done. This is simplistic because it overlooks the strategic importance of our presence there: first, to prevent an al-Qaeda-supported Taliban from taking over and turning the country into a terrorist launching ground; and second, to be prepared and in the neighborhood for an emergency situation should nuclear-armed Pakistan take a bad turn. Now, at the same time, the argument could be made that police-style intelligence and sting operations like the one that got Osama are a more effective way to combat terrorist networks. They would certainly cost less. However, contrary to popular belief, the nation-building in Afghanistan has actually seen progress since Obama took over from Bush. I still believe it’s possible, with more time and money, and the new emphasis on building the Afghan police force, to leave Afghanistan as a stable, if deeply flawed, nation. Unfortunately, I have no idea if it’s worth it.
Lastly, the killing of Osama has reignited the debate over the use of torture for intelligence gathering. Conservatives have been on a media frenzy to argue that torture helped lead us to bin Laden, so liberals should get over their wussiness already. This idea is so stupid and debunked that I really thought it could be relegated to the domain of frat guys fresh off of the latest episode of 24. Silly me. Despite interrogation experts from right and left agreeing that torture doesn’t provide accurate information, and evidence that torture may have even delayed our progress catching bin Laden, conservatives continue to play up this myth. In many cases, torture only hardens the detainee’s resolve against his captor, and repeated torture yields only, “either limited information, false information, or no information,” to quote the former senior US military interrogator, Matthew Alexander. Case in point, eight years of waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed brought him no closer to revealing the name of Osama’s courier. He was waterboarded 183 times without giving up any leads to the one man that led us to bin Laden. Interrogation techniques based on building rapport have proven to be much more successful. Even John McCain is making it clear that torture did not lead to Osama bin Laden:
Moving beyond its demonstrated ineffectiveness, do we really want to be a nation that tortures? When terrorists “attacked our American values” did we really think the best way to respond was by abandoning those values? If Osama bin Laden says the United States is a cruel, moraless nation, and we respond by torturing all of his friends and shooting him in the face, who wins?
I hope the answers to these questions are obvious, because if not, we have a lot of soul-searching to do on what it really means to be American.