"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Anniversaries and Justice

Anniversaries don't mean too much to me, at least analytically.  We have a tendency to grasp at round numbers, imbuing them with a significance they don't really possess.  There is an emotional importance to them, of course- and I am an emotional guy- but we always tend to put meaning on certain days, and get excited in the lead-up to them, and then ignore any lessons the day after.  After all, there is no longer a definite magic to a ten-year, two-day memory. 

I bring this up because, as you know, today is the 10-year mark of the attack on the USS Cole in the port of Aden, a major early blow by al-Qaeda.  Today is good to remember those who were killed, to honor their memory, and to stand in humble awe at their sacrifice.  Before that day, we didn't really know we were at war, and it wasn't until almost a year later that we as a nation really grasped that.  After all, there was an intense and annoying election coming up.  In popular memory, the tumult of the last decade started with the Florida debacle, but the roots of the waste can be tracked back to those beautiful, then red-tided waters.

There is both good and bad in the emotion of an anniversary.  There is a clarification of time, and in this case it provides an outlet for sick horror and shock at the idea of a decade going by without the instigators of this massacre being brought to justice.  This is the thrust of former FBI agent Ali Soufan's NYTimes editorial today, "Closing the Case on the Cole".  In this wretched decade, Soufan was consistently one of the good guys, maybe one of the heroes.  His investigation of the Cole attack, his doggedness in chasing actual justice, and his courageous stance against torture make him a figure to admire.   Soufan points out the Yemeni idea of justice, and then has some ideas of what we should do with Yemen.

For example, Fahd al-Quso, who had confessed to his role in the Cole attack and was sent to prison, is now out; earlier this year he gave press interviews and was featured in a Qaeda video threatening the United States. Jamal al-Badawi, who confessed to being Mr. Quso’s boss and received a death sentence, has gone through a cycle of “escaping” from prison, receiving clemency and allegedly being rearrested. (blogger's note: there is controversy about Qusa's whereabouts and his status among the living; Greg continues to look at it over at Waq al-Waq.)
Meanwhile, the security situation in Yemen has deteriorated. Freed operatives and the availability of safe havens arguably make Yemen an even better base for Al Qaeda than Afghanistan or Pakistan, as does the fact that the government is distracted by a rebellion in the north and a secessionist movement in the south. Not surprisingly, Al Qaeda’s Saudi branch recently moved to Yemen and merged with the local faction to form Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

In response, Washington is considering increasing military aid to Yemen, to as much as $1.2 billion over six years, up from $155 million in 2010. But it should do so only if it wins from Yemen a guarantee that it will be consistent in its fight against Al Qaeda.
An important test of that commitment should be how Yemen responds to a long-overdue request that Mr. Badawi and Mr. Quso be handed over to American officials to be properly prosecuted. Extraditing the two men would also help with another problem connected to the Cole attack: the case against Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the plot’s alleged mastermind, who has been in American custody for almost eight years.
It is at the end that I begin to (very respectfully) disagree, though I don't feel particularly good doing so.  Ignoring that al-Qusa may not be in Yemen, or even be alive, extradition might not be the best way to help with Yemen's stability.   If these men aren't exactly heroes, they have protection, and their protection is something Salih can't afford to mess with, nor to tamper with any deals he might have made (although it is clear one way or the other that al-Qusa is still involved with jihad).

As this blog has irritatingly, and others have more eloquently, argued, so much in Yemen is negotiation.  It is frustrating, but for people to be peeled off AQAP there needs to be an element of trust, and being turned over to the US would violate that trust.  Bad people need to be let go- provided there isn't recidivism- in order to convince other bad people to stop being terrorists.  It clearly isn't a fool-proof system, and it fails as often not, but 50% is still a better percentage than zero.   Even 5% is. 

So then the question is: which is more important: justice?  Or victory?  I would love to see these men in jail, sitting idly in a federal supermax for the rest of their stunted and brutal lives.  But forcing Salih to choose between appeasing the US and local needs will destroy even our tentative and unreliable relationship, and make it much harder to help produce a relatively good outcome in Yemen.  Of course, the odds of that outcome being good are small, so why sacrifice justice for that? 

I don't have an answer; even the question makes my head hurt.  But these are the questions we need to ask ourselves.  These wars, or this war, or this action, or whatever it is, do not allow for easy and comforting answers.  Right or wrong are silly and unrealistic options.  Ten years on, I don't think we've figured out the ugly truths of this struggle.  

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