Afghanistan, Abu Bakr, and the presumption of guilt
“Something very big has happened!” wrote the President of the United States on twitter. The next day, he announced what that “very big” thing was:
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead. He was the founder and leader of ISIS, the most ruthless and violent terror organization anywhere in the world. The United States has been searching for Baghdadi for many years….U.S. Special Operations forces executed a dangerous and daring nighttime raid in northwestern Syria and accomplished their mission in grand style.
For the second time in roughly two months, the United States has carried out a mission abroad to slay a high-ranking, wanted terrorist. While some conspiracy theories about the success of the operation have emerged, four days after Trump’s announcement, the Islamic State confirmed al-Baghdadi’s death and named a replacement leader. Al-Baghdadi is, in fact, dead.
During his announcement, Trump boasted that the US special forces “brought the world’s №1 terrorist leader to justice,” extolling the fact that “the world is a much safer place” as a result of the mission.
There’s much to dissect from Trump’s 40-minute long, graphic, almost freudian monologue about the operation. But I’d like to call attention to two lines that many have taken at face value, ones that appear harmless while actually highlighting the distorted perspective of US war hawks.
Both of these lines are problematic for similar reasons. The first is the claim that al-Baghdadi was “the world’s №1 terrorist leader,” the other that his death has made the world “a much safer place.”
Because I think if one were to survey global citizens outside the borders of the United States, they may have a different view of who “the world’s” number one terrorist is. Take, for instance, a recent Human Rights Watch report which
documents 14 cases in which CIA-backed Afghan strike forces committed serious abuses between late 2017 and mid-2019. They are illustrative of a larger pattern of serious laws-of-war violations — some amounting to war crimes.
“These are not isolated cases,” the report warns. Among the atrocities in which these US-backed forces engaged are “extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances and attacks on healthcare facilities.” These troops targeted civilians, executed health care practitioners, and bombed villages — leaving one unfortunate soul to deal with the loss of twelve family members, including his wife and children.
Is this a description of actions which make the world safer? Indeed not. And perhaps worse, this is but one of an innumerable number of US-sanctioned war crimes committed as of late. In fact, in the first half of 2019, the United States killed more civilians through air strikes alone than did the Taliban as a whole.
Just a few months after this slaughter (or what we know of it) ended, Trump announced his decision to withdraw troops from Syria, essentially giving Turkey permission to move in and massacre the Kurds. A seemingly unjustifiable move, nobody to this day is quite sure why, despite bipartisan criticism, Trump decided to abandon the very allies in the region who were helping us locate al-Baghdadi. The result, as I wrote weeks ago, was chaos:
Turkey immediately engaged in an offensive operation to remove the Kurdish people from the region. The Kurds, desperate for assistance and aware that the US would not lend its support, struck a deal with Bashar al-Assad of Syria, allowing Assad to deploy troops along the border and protect the Kurds from the Turkish offensive.
Our national ego won’t allow us to admit that for decades, this has been the norm. Yes, the United States may boast the world’s mightiest military, strongest economy, and largest sphere of influence —indeed, we are undoubtedly a global hegemon. But we didn’t achieve that status accidentally. Decades of unnecessary military operations and destabilizing actions have allowed us to achieve our personal goals, often at the expense of foreign lives.
It’s almost comical, in light of all this, that a President whose foreign policy has caused nothing but bloodshed and pain can even consider claiming that he has, in the pursuit of his own interests, made the word safer. And for an administration which uses our unmatched military power to carry out war crimes, his categorization of al-Baghdadi as “the world’s №1 terrorist” raises the question of what exactly he means by “the world.”
Noam Chomsky wrote about this in Who Rules the World?. Terrorists Americans claim are “wanted the world over,” like al-Baghdadi, rarely cross the minds of, say, the innocent Afghanis we’re slaughtering abroad. To them, we are the terrorists wanted “the world over.”
I don’t mean to draw a false equivalency here. But until we dispel with the fictitious narrative that all US intervention makes the world better off, our leaders will continue to receive praise for murdering suspected terrorists without capture or a fair, constitutionally-guaranteed trial.
It’s time we stop pretending that the United States is innocent of atrocities on the global stage. We need to demand that our leaders stop exploiting, for political purposes, the vulnerability of those abroad. If all lives really do matter, then so do the Afghanis. And so do the Kurds. We have, as I said previously, unmatched military power. Perhaps we should start using it for good.