Spy Hard

In war on terror on May 3, 2011 at 8:02 pm

For a brief moment, we can all feel satisfaction at the death of Osama bin Laden, and we can all relish the cross-political goodwill that results. In wars like this, revenge and justice seem interchangeable. Progressives and Conservatives seem equally delighted by the attack in Pakistan that led to bin Laden’s death.

But let this lesson be learned: Such an assassination should have happened years ago. SEAL teams were just as effective in 2001 as they are now, the CIA just as sophisticated, the military just as competent. So why did we invade Afghanistan in the first place, let alone Iraq?

To say I opposed the Afghan invasion from the very beginning is a moot point. I have no record of protest or editorial dissent. I have only the many backyard conversations I held with friends, who cover the gamut of politics, from Green to Libertarian. We often concluded the same thing: Invasion made no sense. Sending thousands of soldiers to foreign nations is expensive and a proven folly. Most American soldiers do not speak the language and know little of the history, religions or complex regional politics.

My leftist friends liked this perspective because they know I am profoundly anti-war. But I also appealed to rightist friends: The United States should never bomb countries to weed out terrorists. This approach is sloppy and senseless. Tanks, infantry and air-support are an old-world strategy, more useless now than during Vietnam. Terrorists behave like spies. They create networks of contractors, and each contractor wears a disguise. They know that a standing army is no advantage in a global, ideological war. They use a bricolage of available weapons, including cell-phones and modified shoes.

Since the beginning, the U.S. should have behaved the same way. Our intelligence services are the best equipped in the world. We have mastered the art of covert manipulation since the CIA was formed. Our country should be an expert at this kind of tactic. Why drop a bomb when you can send a double-agent?

My example was John Walker Lindh, an ordinary guy from Silver Spring, MD, who not only joined Al Qaeda; he even shared space with bin Laden, certainly long enough to snap a neck. If Lindh, a generic suburbanite, could learn Arabic and insinuate himself into a terrorist cell, why couldn’t our government agents?

The immediate aftermath of September 11th was not a sober period. We were intoxicated by grief and rage, and our reaction was as enormous as our avenging spirit. But this was a terrible error, one that cost thousands of U.S. lives and countless civilian casualties. Fighting a ground war was exactly what Al Qaeda hoped for, because it made generalized enemies of Westerners and Arabs.

It’s clear that the Bush Administration wanted to broadcast an obvious, even theatrical, response to the September 11th attacks, and secret operations might not satisfy the American public. Bombs raining on Baghdad are a clearer retaliation than, say, Operation Wrath of God, whose particulars are still disputed. But the results are very mixed. Iraq has been devastated, and the Taliban continues to grow poppies and try to reinstate itself. The world rejoices at bin Laden’s death, but the scars of overblown war remain.

And this is all supposing that assassination is the best policy. Traditional revolutions are breaking out across the Middle East, replacing religious radicalism with practical upheaval. Let’s seize the moment: Even now, no one is certain who deserves the $50 million bounty for bin Laden’s death. So let’s build some schools, in Pakistan, Afghanistan and beyond. If Greg Mortenson didn’t accomplish as much as he claimed to, let that $50 million finish the job. If intelligence can win the war, maybe education can win peace.


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