The Boundaries of the Battlefield

by Michael W. Lewis

A busy week of grading prevented me from addressing Ken’s May 6 post on battlefield geography along with the May 6 news that the US conducted a drone attack in Yemen any sooner, but there should be an important take away on the boundaries of the battlefield from the bin Laden operation.

An often heard complaint about the US conduct of the “war on terror” is that it treats “the whole world as a battlefield.” Many contend that such a conception of the battlefield, particularly in the context of a NIAC, violates international law. Mary Ellen O’Connell is perhaps most readily identified with the position that if the NIAC threshold is not met within the geographical boundaries of a specific state then the use of the tools of armed conflict on that state’s territory is impermissible, even with that state’s permission. However many others have taken similar positions with regard to the Aulaqi case or other possible uses of US force outside of Afghanistan (see e.g. my January debate with Ben Wizner of the ACLU on the Aulaqi case).

In analyzing the bin Laden operation Kevin expressed his belief that there is currently a NIAC between the US and “original” al Qaeda, a group to which bin Laden clearly belonged. Although there is not sufficient violence taking place within Pakistan to say that there is currently a NIAC occurring on Pakistani territory, that fact did not prohibit the use of armed force in Pakistan when a participant in the NIAC between the US and al Qaeda could be found there. Likewise, if bin Laden were in Yemen, the same outcome would have been reached, the tools of armed conflict could be employed against bin Laden in Yemen (under certain circumstances) because he was a participant in the NIAC with the US.

The normative reason for this conclusion is that any other reading of IHL with respect to the boundaries of the battlefield would essentially turn IHL on its head. One of IHL’s principal goals is to spare the civilian population and members of the military that are hors de combat from the ravages of warfare. To this end it insists on proportionality and military necessity for all attacks, it requires the acceptance of surrender, it ties the availability of the combatants’ privilege to organizational respect for IHL, and it removes civilian immunity from those participating in an armed conflict either temporarily for such time as they directly participate in hostilities (DPH) or more permanently for those who continuously perform a combat function (CCF). Members of al Qaeda are targetable when they are engaged in attacks (DPH), and leadership (like bin Laden) that is consistently engaged in the planning and direction of operations is targetable at all times (CCF). IHL rewards organizations that enforce the laws of war by allowing members of those orgainzations the combatants’ privilege. IHL discourages terrorist organizations like al Qaeda that target civilians and blend in with the civilian population (thereby placing them at greater risk) by denying them the combatants’ privilege and removing civilian immunity from its members.

However, if IHL is read to prohibit the use of the tools of armed conflict outside of certain geographically defined areas it would be conferring a tremendous strategic advantage upon these same terrorist organizations that it disfavors. By limiting the use of the tools of armed conflict to territory on which the threshold of violence for a NIAC is currently occurring, IHL would effectively create sanctuaries for terrorist organizations in any state in which law enforcement is known to be ineffective (like Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and the FATA area of Pakistan). This reading of IHL would thereby cede the initiative in the NIAC between a state actor that abides by IHL and a non-state terrorist organization (which IHL disfavors in every other way because of its conduct during an armed conflict) to the terrorist organization. The disfavored terrorist organization would get to decide when, where and how the war is to be fought because they would be immune from targeting based purely on geography. That cannot be how IHL should be read when considering the boundaries of the battlefield.

This does not mean that IHL does not offer a number of other challenges to strikes in Yemen or elsewhere. Has the NIAC threshold been met just for al Qaeda, or are other organizations such as AQAP properly part of that NIAC? Do the strikes comport with military necessity and proportionality? What sort of positive identification procedures are required before such strikes take place? Is some form of independent post-strike review required? Is host state permission required? If not, (in the self-defense paradigm) has the host state shown itself to be unwilling and/or unable to apprehend the targeted individuals? What is the standard that should be used to make the unwilling/unable determination? All of these are legitimate questions that may call into question some, most or all of the US’ drone strikes outside of Afghanistan (depending upon how you choose to answer them).

But the question of whether IHL provides a geographically-based immunity for participants in a NIAC should be answered in the negative once and for all.

Killing Bin Laden (and Sovereignty?): How Not to Argue Legal Basis for Killing OBL

by Chris Borgen

Parag Khanna of the New America Foundation has an essay at which gave me cognitive whiplash. He tries to set out an argument that the killing of Bin Laden signifies an important evolution in the rule of law. Khanna, however, seems to like the idea of the rule of law without actually wanting to deal with the details of legal rules.

Khanna starts by arguing that

the narrative of the [killing of Bin Laden] must be dramatically shifted away from rhetorical overtones about a “war of ideas” or “struggle for soul of Islam” towards a more neutral and universal appeal to a global rule of law.

But then what Khanna does with the idea of the “rule of law” makes my head snap back. As he sees it, the legal significance of the killing is in part because it was Americans acting in Pakistan:

That it was American counterterrorism operatives who conducted the assassination on the sovereign soil of a foreign country is an even more important marker. Many see the assassination of rogue individuals as a violation of sovereign immunity and even “playing God,” a right that no nation can arrogate to itself. This is false. It is a powerful symbol of our collective evolution that individual perpetrators are targeted for their crimes rather than entire societies punished in wars.

He then criticizes international law for being too, well, legalistic and saying that what is important about the killing is that it wipes away some old notions of sovereignty:

Over the past decade, international law has evolved in such a way as to justify such direct interventions, if only we could act more quickly on the thicket of protocols and deliberations we have invented. The International Criminal Court which oversaw the trial of Serbian war criminal Slobodan Milosevic, has indicted sitting heads of state such as Omar Bashir of Sudan. The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, ratified in 2005 by the United Nations General Assembly in 2005, sets forth a process for determining whether the international community can be obligated to intervene to prevent crimes against humanity.

The core principle behind these institutions and treaties is that sovereignty is a responsibility, not a privilege. This applies not only to dictators and terrorist fugitives, but to the governments that give them safe harbor.

Let’s set aside for the moment that R2P is anything but settled in terms of either process or content and that General Assembly resolutions are not binding. A bigger problem is trying to tie together the killing of Bin Laden, the ICTY (not the ICC), and the NATO bombing in Kosovo in a single normative package. This brings together examples with more disparities than commonalities.

And when it comes to applying legal principles, details and distinctions matter. Consider this statement:

The arguments against political assassinations hinge on an overly legalistic commitment to sovereignty and a misplaced fear of retribution. It is precisely the accretion of a body of international humanitarian law that justifies interventions from Kosovo to East Timor and assassinations of figures like Osama bin Laden.

That sounds like the work of someone looking for a “big think” tagline and misunderstanding the law regarding assassination and targeted killing along the way. Lawyers try not to overturn old paradigms when current rules are perfectly adequate. In this case, Khanna was just looking at the wrong rules. I much prefer Jordan Paust’s  argument, set out in a brief comment to the post in this link (and at greater length in this article):

As international law experts, we should recall that the killing of bin Laden was permissible under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, which allows the U.S. to target the leader of al Qaeda in self-defense in response to ongoing armed attacks on U.S. military personnel and other nationals in Afghanistan across the porous border areas with Pakistan. The U.S. does not need the consent of Pakistan in order to engage in self-defense actions against those in charge of attacking U.S. nationals, but apparently had consent in this instance. This was not simplistically a “law enforcement” operation, but a self-defense and law of war operation, especially since the de facto theater of war has migrated to parts of Pakistan and to the very spot where bin Laden had been directing attacks through his couriers.

Greg Mc Neal points to a similar argument made by John Bellinger, with the added point of Pakistani consent.

No need to proclaim the end of sovereignty or the rise of some new paradigm. Just mind the details and do the legal analysis.

That’s more than enough.

A Hallmark Day on the Calendar of History

by Roger Alford

The best lines in President Obama’s speech last night were at the beginning:

It was nearly 10 years ago that a bright September day was darkened by the worst attack on the American people in our history. The images of 9/11 are seared into our national memory — hijacked planes cutting through a cloudless September sky; the Twin Towers collapsing to the ground; black smoke billowing up from the Pentagon; the wreckage of Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where the actions of heroic citizens saved even more heartbreak and destruction.

And yet we know that the worst images are those that were unseen to the world. The empty seat at the dinner table. Children who were forced to grow up without their mother or their father. Parents who would never know the feeling of their child’s embrace. Nearly 3,000 citizens taken from us, leaving a gaping hole in our hearts.

On September 11, 2001, in our time of grief, the American people came together. We offered our neighbors a hand, and we offered the wounded our blood. We reaffirmed our ties to each other, and our love of community and country. On that day, no matter where we came from, what God we prayed to, or what race or ethnicity we were, we were united as one American family.

Try to remember where you were on September 11, 2001. I was in Geneva during the attack, sitting across the table from Iraqis at an oral argument before the United Nations Compensation Commission. It was several days before I could get back home. My flight on September 13, 2001 was one of the first transatlantic flights allowed after the terrorist attacks. As soon as I landed, I could feel it. There was a palpable sense of patriotism and unity. I had never felt anything like it in my life. Americans were truly one. It’s been 9 years, 7 months, and 21 days since that day.

Today we are closing a chapter in history. There are moments in history that should never be forgotten. February 1, 1979. November 9, 1989. September 11, 2001. May 2, 2011. We know that Bin Laden’s demise will not end the war on terror. But now we know how the war on terror will end.

The Middle East is in upheaval, and Bin Laden has long since lost his appeal. Tyranny and terrorism needed each other. Tyranny fuels the anger that gives rise to terrorism, and terrorism becomes a justification for continued tyranny.

We do not know what the new chapter in the Middle East will bring. Perhaps it will be like the velvet revolution of 1989, the brief Prague spring of 1968, or the tumultuous French revolution of 1848. What we do know is that the Middle East revolution of 2011 will not mirror the Iranian revolution of 1979. Bin Laden’s dream of a militant Islamic revolution is over. Today is the closing of a chapter in the Middle East. It’s the closing of a chapter in American history as well.

May 2, 2011 is a hallmark day on the calendar of history.

Guantanamo Interrogations Reportedly Led to Bin Laden

by Greg McNeal

Over at Lawfare Ben Wittes aks Will Bin Laden’s Death Reignite the Interrogation Debate? I think there is little doubt that it will.

Consider this recent post by Marc Thiessen over at The American Enterprise blog.  Thiessen writes:

“So Guantanamo detainees provided the key intelligence that allowed the CIA to track down bin Laden. But not just any Guantanamo detainees. It turns out the detainees in question were KSM and Abu Faraj al-Libi…Before coming to Gitmo, both were held by the CIA as part of the agency’s enhanced interrogation program, and provided the information that led to bin Laden’s death after undergoing interrogation by the CIA. In other words, the crowning achievement of Obama’s presidency came as a direct result of the CIA interrogation program he has denigrated and shut down.”

His source?  A New York Times report that notes:

As Obama administration officials described it, the real breakthrough came when they finally figured out the name and location of Bin Laden’s most trusted courier, whom the Qaeda chief appeared to rely on to maintain contacts with the outside world.

Detainees at the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, had given the courier’s pseudonym to American interrogators and said that the man was a protégé o Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the confessed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.

American intelligence officials said Sunday night that they finally learned the courier’s real name four years ago, but that it took another two years for them to learn the general region where he operated.

Cross posted at LawandTerrorism


Impact of OBL’s Demise

by Michael W. Lewis

It is interesting comparing this mornings posts. Ken’s sober, philosophical reflection on all that has gone on since 9/11, Kevin’s reflexive response to view events through a political lens, and Greg’s operationally-minded quest for figuring out “who’s next, and when will we get him?”

My reaction contained elements of all three. Having friends that died in Afghanistan trying to accomplish the task that the SEALs completed yesterday, my first thoughts were of them and their families. There is a deep satisfaction in having this search ended.

But, like Greg, I found it hard not to move on to the question “what does this mean?” For the triumphalists out there, I would point out that neither the capture nor the execution of Saddam Hussein significantly changed our fortunes in Iraq. Unless OBL’s killing is the first in a rapid succession of operations against top leadership throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan it is hard to imagine that this will significantly affect Taliban/al Qaeda operations in the region. So operationally it may not have much impact.

On the other hand, when the question “how will this ‘war’ ever end?” has been raised, whether in the detainee context or in the legal debate about whether operations against al Qaeda should be characterized as law enforcement or as an armed conflict, I have always thought that OBL’s capture or killing was a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition of conflict termination. There will be a new #1, whether Zawahiri or another, but no one whose incapacitation would be required before saying “it is over.” In light of this success, and barring any successful attack on the United States in the next few months, the Obama administration is likely to start publicly discussing Afghan withdrawals and the “end of the conflict” as spring turns to summer.

Lastly, of course this improves Obama’s re-election chances, but the election is 18 months away and today is not the time to be talking about such things.

Pocket Litter, Intel and the Ground Operation

by Greg McNeal

Beyond confirming that Bin Laden was actually the person killed in Abottabad, what is the significance of troops being on the ground to conduct the Bin Laden Operation?  Can their presence lead us to the new #1 in al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri?

In the coming days we will likely hear about the gathering of “pocket litter” and other exploitable intelligence and there will probably be some speculation about where that intelligence may lead us.  Given that the U.S. has surveilled the Bin Laden compound for a few months, we likely know quite a bit about the comings and goings of couriers and others who may lead us to Zawahiri.  Moreover, unless this operation was time sensitive (which it doesn’t sound like) we can expect that U.S. forces would not have conducted the operation without already planning for the next operation — the one leading to Zawahiri.  Of course, if we knew where Zawahiri was we would have conducted simultaneous operations.  The fact that we didn’t likely means that we were hoping to exploit intelligence to be found inside the Bin Laden compound.  The value of that intelligence gathered on the objective will determine whether Zawahiri’s days are best measured in weeks, months, or longer.

Some Preliminary Thoughts on the Bin Laden Operation

by Greg McNeal

Thanks to OJ for allowing me to guest blog for a bit.  I’m a law professor at Pepperdine, specializing in national security law and policy.

First off, there is a lot of talk about this operation being a “human operation” involving special operations forces.  Some readers may assume that this meant there were no air assets involved (e.g. no Predators and no bombs dropped).  This is highly unlikely.  What probably occurred was that ground troops staged outside of wherever Bin Laden was housed, called in air strikes, then moved-in to exploit the objective.  This is not inconsistent with the idea that a firefight took place, it’s just a more likely and more complete description of how things probably played out.  This is especially likely given reports that Bin Laden was killed in a heavily fortified compound with 12-18 foot high walls with a significant security presence.  We will hear more about this in the coming days, but I’m guessing there was airpower in support of the ground operation.

Second, the fact that this took place in Abottabad, Pakistan tells us something about the credibility of the Pakistani government’s repeated claims that Bin Laden was not in Pakistan.

Third, Peter Bergen just said on CNN that killing Bin Laden is “The end of the war on terror.”  I’m skeptical of this claim and imagine that one year from now we will still be employing armed forces around the world in search of al Qaeda members.

I’ll have some more detailed thoughts once the speculation dies down.