So said Michael Corleone in the movie, The Godfather, to convince his brother and Mafia associates that it was okay to assassinate a corrupt police captain. This week, within the span of a few days, first NATO and then the United States conducted strikes that killed hostile leadership targets. For NATO it was one of Gaddafi’s sons and, tragically, several of his children, during an attack on one of the Libyan leaders’ residences. United States Navy Seals conducted a nighttime raid on a compound in Pakistan that resulted in the death of the most wanted terrorist in the world, Osama bin Laden. In both instances, the attacks were directed specifically to kill or capture enemy leaders.
In both instances, officials claim that the attacks were not assassinations but strikes on legitimate command and control targets. As is well known after conflicts in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, U.S. forces are forbidden by a presidential directive from directly and deliberately targeting foreign leaders. But past U.S. air campaigns have blurred the line between attacking functions, command and control, and attacking individuals who direct hostile military or terrorist organizations. For many of this country’s enemies, command and control is vested in the person of the adversary leader and not in facilities or communications systems. Operation Iraqi Freedom began with a massive air strike on the Dora Farm, believed at the time to be Saddam Hussein’s hiding place.
U.S. and European leaders have repeatedly said that Gaddafi must leave but offered no credible way out. This declaration is based on the recognition that control of the Libyan government and the leadership of Libyan military forces is vested completely in Gaddafi and his family. Absent Gaddafi and the war against the rebels would collapse. Wherever Gaddafi may be, he is the command and control center for the Libyan military and, hence, a legitimate military target.
When it comes to terrorist groups, there are no restrictions on attacking leadership. The U.S. has chosen to provide captured terrorists with Geneva Convention protections. This prohibits attacking innocents but not terrorists unless they are wounded or have already surrendered. So bin Laden was a legitimate and even necessary target.
According to reports, bin Laden was killed when he rejected a request to surrender. Allegedly this is in keeping with his commitment not to be taken alive. But it also solved an enormous problem for the administration. A captured bin Laden would have been a martyr. Imagine the circus around his trial. As a prisoner, his presence would have guaranteed Guantanamo remaining open for decades to come, with the world’s attention constantly focused on it. An interesting insight from current reports is that interrogations of Gitmo detainees as much as four years ago helped identify the individuals associated with the compound where bin Laden was found. There was always uncertainty about what information bin Laden might reveal during interrogation, such as ongoing ties to Pakistani military and government leaders. His death is a relief to an administration that badly needed a win in the war on terrorism.
Attacking hostile leaders involved in the conduct of military and terrorist operations against the United States is a legitimate tactic in war. Going after the leadership of terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda is a necessity. It’s a matter of business, nothing personal. Okay, when it came to bin Laden it was also personal.
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