Notes From the Margins…

Bin Laden Day

  • May 02, 2012
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It’s exactly one year since the president of the world’s most powerful democracy sent a team of Navy Seals to kill the world’s most wanted man in his pyjamas in a rundown house compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad.   Who can forget that historic  moment which a photographer captured for posterity, when the Commander-in-Chief sat hunched in his leather jacket in the Situation Room, the image of steely masculinity, watching the kill with his key officials?

In case anyone was inclined to forget it, the Peace Laureate has rarely missed  an opportunity to celebrate an event that he  appears to regard as a military achievement akin to raising the flag at Iwo Jima.

At this year’s State of the Union address he was citing the execution as an example of team spirit and national unity.    And yesterday Obama marked the anniversary of the hit with a visit to Bagram air base in Kabul, where he engaged in the sonorous and vacuous oratory that has become his trademark.  One minute he was declaring

‘My fellow Americans, we”ve traveled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war. Yet here, in the pre-dawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of new day on the horizon.’

And why is that?  Because America is close to achieving its war aims and the increase in troop numbers in Afghanistan over the last three years ‘broke the Taliban momentum’.

Ah yes, that ‘momentum’ again.   Never mind the fact that the numbers of civilian and coalition deaths in Afghanistan have been rising exponentially since 2009, the year in which the Afghan ‘surge’ in troop numbers began.  Or that the number of IED bombs has also increased, and the Taliban now operates freely across the country, striking at NATO supply columns and carrying out attacks at will even in the heart of Kabul – including a car bomb attack in the capital only hours after Obama made that speech.

Never mind all that, because Obama has an election to win and he needs to spin the Afghan war as victory and also to take credit for it.   Thus he told his audience of soldiers:

‘One year ago, from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. The goal I set — to defeat Al Qaeda, and deny it a chance to rebuild — is now within our reach.’

Well if you’re going to tell one whopper, you may as well throw in another.  Because the idea that Bin Laden’s execution has paved the way for the defeat of al Qaeda is false for various reasons.  Firstly, Bin Laden’s influence over the Al Qaeda network had already waned long before his death and he was largely a symbolic figure rather than a hands on commander directing operations.

Secondly, the idea that Al Qaeda is dependent on a territorial base in Afghanistan has always been based on false assumptions.   AQ  has always been a franchise and an ideology rather than a centralised organization, whose significance lies in its ability to present its savage concept of resistance and revenge as the only available option in any situation that seems to justify it, whether in Yemen, Syria or Toulouse.

In terms of diminishing that appeal, it would have been more effective to have arrested Bin Laden and put him on trial like Anders Breivik – a self-professed imitator of Al Qaeda’s use of atrocity-as-propaganda.  Only the most die-hard racists and fanatics can have been impressed by the disgusting spectacle that Breivik has presented at his trial – or the horrendous discrepancy between his acts and his ’cause’.

Had the Navy SEALS team arrested Bin Laden and brought him to justice, his appearance in a criminal court would have revealed a similar discrepancy.   A trial might also have struck a more powerful blow to AQ than the swathe of lawless violence that America has carved across the world since 2001.

So many questions could have been asked and possibly answered, about the organization and planning behind the 9/11 attacks, about Al Qaeda’s operations in post-invasion Iraq and other countries, about his alliances with the Pakistani intelligence services, about how the world’s most wanted man came to be living alongside the ‘Pakistani Sandhurst’.

But those who ordered his execution were not interested in asking these questions and perhaps didn’t want to get the answers.   Instead of justice they preferred vengeance,  and a dead Bin Laden who could be presented to the American people as a personal triumph for Obama – and a triumphant conclusion to the disastrous wars of the last decade.

A president in election year clearly has his own reasons for propagating this version of events.  But the idea that Bin Laden’s execution has paved the way for victory, in Afghanistan or anywhere else, is just one more delusional fantasy in the dark and morbid politics that have characterised what W.H. Auden once described in another context as a ‘low, dishonest decade’ in which truth and justice have been conspicuously absent.



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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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