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America gathers little return from its long war on terror

Twelve years after September 11, 2001, the United States has to decide whether it is better off in terms of security.

Last Saturday, American Delta Force commandos abducted a Libyan, Nazih Abd Al Hamed Al Ruqai, known as Abu Anas Al Libi, in Tripoli. This came hours after Navy Seals sought to capture a leader of the Al Shabab movement in Somalia, an operation that was called off in the face of resistance by Al Shabab militants.

Both operations cast fresh light on the American antiterrorism strategy after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. Only nine days after that, George W Bush declared a global war on terror, a term that his successor Barack Obama discarded.

And yet the war continues with no apparent end in sight, since wars have a finality to them and conclude with either a victory for one side or a truce, and in the war against terrorism neither is likely to happen.

The American focus on terrorism, while entirely understandable, has led to negative consequences with which the United States is still wrestling: the formulation of a questionable legal framework for dealing with terrorist suspects, the abuse of human rights, the expansion of, at best, loosely accountable military and surveillance programmes, and a growing reliance on assassinations, often at the expense of sustained political initiatives.

The Bush administration created a rod for its own back by creating a special legal framework for captured terrorists. It refused to recognise them as foreign combatants, denying them the protections of the Geneva conventions, while many in Congress opposed giving them American legal protections. Instead, the US has referred to captured suspects as “unlawful combatants”, placing them in a legal vacuum that persists to this day, delaying the closing of Guantanamo prison.

Ironically, Mr Al Libi is in no such predicament. He was indicted by an American court for the bombings in 1998 of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. This means he will not enter into the network of often secret prisons controlled by the CIA or the Joint Special Operations Command that prevailed during the Bush years, because he will have to be brought to trial fairly quickly.

Nor will he be tortured as were many of his alleged former comrades, since that is unlawful in the US and would taint any evidence prosecutors might bring to court. Mr Obama, even as he pursued and expanded Mr Bush’s policy, also sought to do away with the previous administration’s very loose definition of torture, which had provoked so much condemnation of the United States.

That many of the anti-terrorist military or intelligence activities in the war on terror were shrouded in secrecy also meant that oversight was, at best, imperfect, even as their scope expanded to new levels.

For instance, the recent scandal over National Security Agency data collection on Americans and non-Americans has yet to die down. The NSA and the Obama administration affirmed that the proper safeguards were in place to protect Americans. But for a time it seemed that every day brought new revelations undermining that defence. And many foreign allies of America remain angry that they were, and probably remain, the targets of surveillance efforts.  

The most controversial facet of the war against terrorism has been the American assassination campaign, usually using drones. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have claimed great success, yet the potential consequences are less commendable. First, international law and justice benefits little from a normalisation of assassination, especially if other countries begin doing the same thing.

Assassinations, whether using drones or special operations forces, have also often been substituted for politics, giving American officials a false sense that they were resolving problems they were only exacerbating. Targeted killings have not shifted the balance in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, and have heightened resentment of the US by killing innocent civilians, bolstering America’s enemies.

Most disturbingly, assassinations have undermined the very principles upon which the US system is based. The separate killings of Anwar Al Awlaki and his son Abd Al Rahman, both American citizens, denied both men their constitutional right to due process, and were severely condemned by many in America.

The growing backlash against the wantonness of drone attacks may have made the Obama administration decide to capture Abu Anas Al Libi and the Al Shabab official, Abd Al Kadir Mohammed Abd Al Kadir, rather than kill them. In spring, the Obama administration tightened guidelines on the use of lethal force, after congressional pressure on the administration to publish its legal justifications for targeted killings, especially of Americans.

And yet Mr Obama will continue to face displeasure with his pursuit of the war on terror, however he labels it. The Libyans, at least officially, resented the abduction of a citizen in their capital, with no apparent effort made by the Americans to have Abu Anas arrested by Libya. The perception internationally that a separate set of laws governs US behaviour is not something Mr Obama will readily dispel, despite making international law a principle of his foreign policy.  

Mr Al Libi’s abduction also raises a question about whether it was possible to arrest Osama bin Laden. Certainly, his assassination eliminated the headache of having to detain him. But even if bin Laden merited no compassion, detractors will say that America’s propensity for killing mirrors that of the terrorists they are fighting.

Mr Obama was one of the sharper critics of the Bush administration while in the Senate. For him, the war on terror will effectively end when its most egregious manifestations end. He may be right, but meanwhile America must begin assessing whether it will come out of the 12-year experience better or worse off.

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

On Twitter @BeirutCalling.

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