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America's Geronimo

In a critical look at the imperial hubris that drove the United States killing of Osama bin Laden, this article argues for democratic forces to challenge the idea that terrorism can be successfully countered by military means. It is necessary to address the root causes of terrorism - lack of self-determination, poverty and deprivation - and resist the urge for militaristic solutions. It is equally necessary to support civil society efforts to push back the domination of the military in Pakistan's polity.

COMMENTARY
America’s Geronimo Manoranjan Mohanty code name for a terrorist, which carries a racist slur, even under a black president has offended the American Indians. The president of the National Congress of American Indians has protested. The Pen-

In a critical look at the imperial hubris that drove the United States killing of Osama bin Laden, this article argues for democratic forces to challenge the idea that terrorism can be successfully countered by military means. It is necessary to address the root causes of terrorism – lack of self-determination, poverty and deprivation – and resist the urge for militaristic solutions. It is equally necessary to support civil society efforts to push back the domination of the military in Pakistan’s polity.

Manoranjan Mohanty (drmohantys@gmail. com) is visiting professor in global studies, University of California, Santa Barbara, United States.

G
eronimo was the code name for Osama bin Laden in the US commandos’ attack on his residential compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan in the early hours of 2 May.

When the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director Leon Panetta announced “Geronimo EKIA” (enemy killed in action) to the national security team of US President, Barack Obama, assembled in the White House situation room, the president reportedly said, “we got him”.

That ended a 10-year search for Osama bin Laden, the head of Al Qaida who had masterminded the attacks on New York and Washington DC on 11 September 2001 in which nearly 3,000 people were killed and who is also blamed for many other terrorist attacks in different parts of the world. No doubt the killing of Osama is a high point in the counterterrorism campaign of the US, removing the original mastermind and inspiration behind a global network of terrorism. But the way this has led to celebrations in the US shows how little understanding exists in the public discourse on the nature of the terrorist challenge and how quickly American public opinion tends to be mobilised by the dominant media in a single direction. The way the US Navy commando (popularly called “SEALs”) operation was conducted and the subsequent steps taken by the US government in tossing Osama’s body into the sea, giving one version after another about the operation and deciding not to reveal the photographs have raised many questions. For forces of peace and democracy around the world, who are engaged in the struggles against hegemonism as well as terro- rism, this situation has posed new challenges.

Incidentally, Geronimo (1829-1909) was the legendary American Indian warrior of the Chiricahua Apache nation who led uprisings against the military forces of the US and Mexico during 1858-86 in the region of New Mexico and Arizona. This

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tagon says that the operation as a whole was named “jackpot”.

US Celebrations

President Obama himself announced the news of the killing of Osama bin Laden in an address to the nation in the mode of a victory speech. Immediately, there were celebratory demonstrations outside the White House and in “ground zero” in New York, soon spreading to other parts of the country. Obama’s opponents in the Republican Party too congratulated him for this success. The opinion polls which had shown falling rates of approval for the president and stood at 43% before 1 May rose to 53% the next day and reached an astounding 83% on 5 May. This was Obama’s glorious hour seeming to ensure a second term in the presidency – a prospect that had become a point of worry in recent days due to persisting unemployment, in- creasing petrol prices and the slow pace of economic recovery.

The tone of the celebrations had an unmistakable assertion of America’s global might. From the president and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, to the senators and the media commentators everyone was talking about America’s capacity to accomplish what it decided to do. “There is nothing in the world that we cannot do”, the president declared, “if we put our shoulders on the wheel”. The commando operation was swift and commendable. The Navy SEALs were described as the best trained in the world for such operations. The special Stealth helicopters were technologically superior and could fly through Pakistani airspace avoiding detection by radar. Above all, the intelligence leading to the operation was collected by the CIA working on its own and, during this time – since August 2010 when the lead to the Abbottabad house was ascertained and the week when the decision to launch the operation was take n – the entire process was conducted by the Obama team with utmost secrecy.

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In the public celebrations there seems to be little realisation of the lessons from the wars in Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, in none of which the US could achieve its stated goals. Nor was there a sense of self-reflection about the economic crisis that has still not seen a full recovery. Indeed, the world had risen in sympathy with the US on 9/11 and had condemned the terrorist attacks. But instead of participating in a global democratic campaign against terrorism and addressing the roots of alienation of the Muslim youth, the US chose a path of unilateral wars joined by some of its allies. The entire world became a theatre of this confrontation between terrorism and counterterrorism. Today the incidence of violence and curbs on human rights are far greater in the world than they were 10 years ago even though the US has not experienced any major attack of large proportions. Instead of a sober reflection on the experience of the past decade and using the vast resources that the US possessed for peace and development, the US has unleashed an almost unstoppable stream of militarisation of life and society all over the world. The hope that Obama will usher in a new phase in the US history, contributing to the making of a democratic, peaceful and equitable world abandoning the failed projects of hegemony which reached their peak during the Bush era, has been belied. The symbolic shift from “war on terror” to “war on terrorism” under Obama has meant little on the ground.

The Issue of Justice

President Obama claimed that with the killing of Osama “justice had been done”. It turned out that Osama was unarmed when he was shot dead by the commandos. Contrary to the first version of the operation given by the president according to which he was killed in “the firefight”, the later accounts released by the US government said only one of the persons living in the compound opened fire and that person was immediately shot dead. The surviving members of the Abbottabad household, including Osama’s injured daughter, are now a source of more information which had started coming out. After the initial “firefight” there was no resistance during the 40-minute operation. The initial version had also said that Osama had put a woman as a shield while the later versions said that a woman put herself in the line of fire. In the operation, besides Osama, others who were killed were his son, two men who owned the house, one of whom was the courier known as Abu Ahmad al Kuwaiti whose telephone call exposed the lead to the trail, and a woman, perhaps the wife of the courier. In the entire operation none of the commandos

– reportedly numbering 39 – suffered any injury indicating that there was no armed resistance. It became clear that the commandos were clearly told to kill Osama. Asked under what law this was done, US attorney general Eric Holder told a congressional committee on 3 May, “It was justified as an act of national self-defence”. In other words, even though it was possible to capture Osama bin Laden and put him on trial for his crimes, the US did not have the confidence in its legal-political capacity to pursue due process of law. As Soli Sorabji put it in a television discussion, it was a form of primitive justice and a violation of basic human rights even for a person accused of mass murder. The emotionally charged Americans thought other wise. The long-standing demand that bin Laden be put on trial in the International Criminal Court or a Tribunal since nationals of 80 countries were killed in the attack on the World Trade Centre did not cut much ice with the US government.

The decision to throw Osama’s body into the Arabian Sea and call it “burial in sea after performing the appropriate Islamic rites” has shown how nervous the US regime was about the treatment of Osam a’s mortal remains. The US officials explained that as per Islamic custom the body had to be given a burial within 24 hours and no country agreed to offer its territory for the purpose. Hence they chose this option. The fear that any burial place will be regarded as a shrine for his followers was the reason which most analysts admitted to be the real consideration behind this oceanic rite. To claim that neither Saudi Arabia, the country of Osama’s origin nor Afghanistan the country of his fight – both are client states of the US – could not be persuaded to provide a place for his burial is not very convincing. By the unusual act of sea burial the US has not only provided additional ammunition to the followers who would be infuriated by the treatment given to their leader’s remain s, but has also unnecessarily enhanced the mystique surrounding this long elusive figure. An early statement released on 3 May by Al Qaida mourning the death of their leader had asked for handing over the remains to the family, unaware of the sea burial that had already taken place. The hasty disposal of the body just looks clumsy and disgusting to most decent huma n beings. Bin Laden’s sons have strongly protested against this humiliating treatment.

Now that Al Qaida itself has confirmed the death of Osama bin Laden there is no room for doubt over this fact. But the US president’s decision not to release the photo graphs of the operation including those of the assassinated Osama is still bound to raise controversies. The fear that the graphic details of a dead bin Laden would be used for propaganda purposes has weighed heavily behind this decision. President Obama put it thus, claiming a high moral ground, “That’s not what we are, you know, we don’t trot out this stuff as trophies”. But the US government, continuing the media offensive, has released selected videos recovered from Osama’s room to convey to the world that the old man with the grey beard was indeed the operational leader of Al Qaida till the very end.

Pakistan and the US

The fact that bin Laden was found in Pakistan where he was apparently living for nearly five years has been at the centre of much discussion. The US authorities declared that they had not informed Pakistan about this operation because they could not trust the Pakistani forces that this information would not be leaked to Osama. Commenting on the fact that bin Laden was living in a garrison town in the vicinity of Pakistan’s top military academy, Obama’s counterterrorism advisor John Brennan said that it showed either “incompetence or complicity” of Pakistani authorities. In the US Congress some members demanded that the US reduce or cut off aid to Pakistan, which is estimated to be up to about $20 billion during the past decade. After a round of strong words against Pakistan, opinion in the US

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government gradually settled down to a level of maintaining the strategic relationship, as they realised that the US needed Pakistan for its counterterrorism operations in the region, especially in Afghanistan, while Pakistan needed US aid for its military and development needs.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Geelani has described the American accusations as “absurd”. Obama’s national security advisor has admitted that, thus far, they had no evidence to suggest that Pakistani authorities had a hand in sheltering bin Laden for all these years. And it is well known that Pakistan’s military, police and the civilian population have been victims of numerous terrorist attacks during the past decade. Besides the killing of Benazir Bhutto, an estimated 30,000 people are estimated to have lost lives, including 3,000 security personnel.

Yet the debates in Pakistan have some important messages. Pakistani civil society has demanded an investigation into how bin Laden managed to stay in the garrison town and whether there were elements in the security forces who helped him in this. People have wondered as to how the US helicopters could land, conduct the midnight raid and return to their base in Afghanistan without being detected by the Pakistani air force. The transgression of Pakistan’s sovereignty has been a subject of much anger in Pakistan and has further escalated the already wide spread anti-American sentiments there. Geelani’s statement that it was a failure of the intelligence agencies of the world cannot be dismissed easily because the CIA itself is believed to have a deep operational network in Pakistan since the days of the anti-Soviet Afghan war and a vastly expanded presence since 2001. As a result of their intelligence collaboration several terrorists have been captured in Pakistan including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the planner of 9/11 attacks now in Guantanamo prison. Pakistan has suffered immensely as having been the staging zone of US-led military operations, first during the anti-Soviet war and then against Al Qaida and Taliban, and its people have been subjected to not only terrorist attacks but also US drone attacks. That has kept the Pakistani army and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in tight control of the state. The support for the Kashmir movement continued to put the army in a critical role. But the civil society movement that saw the departure of general Musharraf is now groping for ways to build a democratic state where the army remains subordinate to civilian authority, the fundamentalists are isolated and where issues of livelihood, dignity and development are addressed. The US and the world need to appreciate the dilemmas that Pakistani society faces, rather than continuing to push them to be dependent on the military and American aid for the sake of fulfilling American interests in the region.

The Indian government regarded the US operation as a major achievement in the campaign against terrorism and reminded the US that they had always warned about the continuing havens for terrorists in Pakistan. Some hawks once again shouted that India should have considered similar strikes on terrorist training camps in Pakistan after the Mumbai attacks in November 2008. Such views were strongly rebutted by thinking Indians as provocative warmongering. India too has been a victim of terrorism, cross-border as well as homegrown. Unfortunately, the Indian official thinking on counterterrorism has been aligned with the American since the Bush era. However, like in Pakistan, democratic voices in India plead for joint Indo-Pak initiatives in seeking comprehensive political responses to the phenomenon which would require addressing all the outstanding issues in the region.

Challenges for Democratic Forces

For the forces of peace and democracy there are new challenges as the US works out its post-Osama strategy. Firstly, despite this apparent success seen in the killing of the world’s most prominent terrorist it is important to keep questioning the militaristic approach to fight terrorism and try to direct focus on the roots of terrorism. Governments must be pressurised to respond positively to the struggles for self-determination in different parts of the world. The US must reconsider its pro-Israel i policy and support the cause of an independent state of Palestine and the return of the land occupied by Israel since 1967. India and Pakistan must allow the people of Jammu

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and Kashmir to enter into dialogue with each other and with their governments and devise steps to fulfil their political aspirations. China’s policy in Xinjiang and Russia’s policy in Chechny a must accordingly change. There are also issues of poverty, unemployment and deprivation which have given rise to terrorism. There are many cases in different parts of the world causing the alienation of the youth pushing them into the path of violence. No doubt the effort to break the terrorist network and its infrastructure is necessary. But despite the massive American capacity for modern intelligence and operational strike, it must be asserted that terrorism can only be effectively com bated in the long run by eliminating its root causes.

Second, the campaign for demanding the withdrawal of US and allied troops from Afghanistan and Iraq must be intensified further. This is not only because they were ill-advised interventions to begin with and are unpopular within the US, but because they go against the global trend of people’s self-determination. The era of superpowers shaping the course of world history is past. Third, the message from the democratic upsurges in the Arab world is clearly for rejecting the autocratic order built and nurtured by the US for long to protect Israel, control oil resources of west Asia and consolidate a power base to counter China and Russia, and since the 1990s to counter terrorism. They are building new zones of autonomy and selfgovernance with control over local resources. The Arab revolt is a challenge to dictatorships, US hegemony as well as the Al Qaida brand of terrorism. Fourth, the days following the killing of bin Laden saw the return of the religious discourse including the perverse thesis of the “clash of civilisations”. Bin Laden’s war against the US was a political challenge pursued as a cosmic battle of jihad just as many other struggles had been waged in the past. The democratic forces must reaffirm the political character of this challenge so that Islamophobia does not assume ugly proportions once again.

America’s Geronimo may then become a milestone with a different meaning for the struggle for peace and self-determination as, after all, that is what the name of the American Indian hero invokes.

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