Killing and Trying Hakimullah Mehsud

U.S. prosecutors have filed charges against Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, or TTP, for his involvement in the bombing at Camp Chapman last year that killed seven CIA operatives. Mehsud was charged with conspiracy to kill Americans overseas and conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction.

Here's the thing: this makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. For starters, the CIA and the TTP are, in a practical sense, at war with each other. Alleged CIA assets inside Pakistan are routinely executed by the TTP; in response, the CIA has orchestrated a massive bombing campaign by remotely piloted drones -- one of which killed the TTPs original leader, Baitullah Mehsud, months before the Chapman attack.

Here's the other thing: there isn't much evidence the TTP had targeted Americans in Afghanistan before the CIA began bombing their compounds sometime in 2004 (Nek Muhammed, Baitullah Mehsud's predecessor, was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan that year). Granted, many Pakitani Taliban, including Muhammad and the Mehsuds, had claimed allegiance to the cause of Al Qaeda, and had bragged of providing refuge to Taliban fighters returning from Afghanistan... but until very recently they had not directly meddled in a significant way in the war in Afghanistan.

Of course, the U.S. has declared war on anyone who helps al Qaeda. I'm not going to argue that the U.S. should not go after these terrorists, since the world will be a better place with them gone. I'm just puzzled at the indictment of Hakimullah. Ever since Baitullah Mehsud's death at the hands of the CIA -- the Camp Chapman attack was supposedly in retaliation for it -- Hakimullah has narrowly avoided being killed in several drone strikes on housing compounds where he was staying. Considering the role the CIA has already had in trying to kill him, it would make sense that he'd try to strike back.

Which brings us to this criminal charge: conspiracy to kill Americans and using a weapon of mass destruction. The latter charge is fundamentally stupid, the result of the U.S. government defining down the idea of "WMD" so that anything that goes boom is now a weapon of mass destruction, rather than the normal idea of WMD as chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons designed to inflict mass casualties. The former is difficult to square with how warfare works: in essence, the Department of Justice is making it a crime to resist offensive military operations in your own homeland.

It might seem a semantic distinction, especially given the massive campaign to assassinate Hakimullah, but it's really not. The U.S. has made it a crime to fight in a war -- not to commit specific atrocities, the way one would normally define a crime or a war crime, but to attack spies conducting an assassination campaign in a war. Despite the terrible loss of intelligence agents, that is war. It is violent, and you do not enjoy specific immunities from reprisal if you choose to participate in it. The CIA is an armed actor in the war in Afghanistan, and it is one of the only American agencies actively participating in the war in Pakistan. It is not exempt, in a legal sense, from its targets fighting back.

In a manner of speaking, this also highlights some of the bizarre angles to the idea of the war on terror. The U.S. seemingly can't make up its mind about how it should go after militants. It wants to kill some, capture others, and exclude still more. It wants to reconcile some, but won't say how or under what conditions. It tries to assassinate leaders, killing their families in the process, but then charges them with conspiracy to commit murder when they hit back. The whole thing's a mess, with overlapping initiatives and contradictory objectives.

Then again, I suppose that's a reasonable summary of the War On Terror anyway.

Reader Comments (2)

Are you saying that the Camp Chapman bombing was "blowback" for the drone war?

Sep 3, 2010 at 16:01 | Unregistered CommenterAmerican Delight

Sadly, this is nothing new. I've been following the ongoing travesty of the Omar Khadr case, involving a young man accused of the heinous crime of throwing a grenade at a U.S. Special Forces soldier engaged in trying to capture or kill him. Laying aside the extreme flimsiness of the evidence that Khadr actually did this, the fact that evidence obtained under "enhanced interrogation" has been admitted against him, and the fact that he was a child at the time of the alleged incident -- the "crime" with which he has been charged is not even an actual crime. He is simply accused of being a combatant.

Sep 3, 2010 at 19:04 | Unregistered CommenterEvan Harper

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