The day after Obama declared victory (sort of) in Iraq, the Administration announced a whole package of sanctions against the Pakistani Taliban, Tehrik-e Taliban. The sanctions:
- Designate TTP as a Foreign Terrorist Organization
- Designate TTP as a Special Designated Global Terrorist Organization
- Designate TTP’s two leaders, Hakimullah Mehsud and Wali Ur Rehman, as Special Designated Global Terrorists
- Offer of $5 million reward leading to Mehsud or Rehman’s arrest
- Charge Mehsud in connection with the Khost killings
Forgive me if I dismiss what are real measures against a genuinely dangerous organization. But I can’t help but suspect this lays the ground work to ensure we have a war against terror to fight (and with it, expanded executive powers) beyond July 2011.
Charging a formerly dead guy
Perhaps my favorite comment on the criminal charges came from reporter James Gordon Meek:
Presumably, Meek is referring to claims a US drone strike killed Mehsud in January, a claim the CIA once judged to have a 90% likelihood of being correct. There’s not much point in arresting Mehsud if he’s been dead nine months.
But the mention of CIA’s drone campaign in Pakistan raises a bunch more problems with DOJ’s charges. For starters, Mehsud’s wife–a civilian–was reportedly killed in that January drone strike too. Both the uncertainty the CIA has about its purportedly scalpel-like use of drones and the civilian deaths they’ve caused illustrate the problem with drones in the first place. Civilians–CIA officers–are using them in circumstances with significant collateral damage. It would be generous to call the use of drones in such situations an act of war; some legal experts have said the CIA officers targeting the drones are as much illegal combatants as al Qaeda fighters themselves.
The affidavit describing the evidence to charge Mehsud doesn’t say it, but underlying his alleged crime is the potential US crime of having civilians target non-combatants in situations that cannot be described as imminently defensive.
Charging someone for revenge on CIA’s illegal killing
Which leads us to the crimes for which they’re charging Mehsud: conspiracy to murder and conspiracy to use a WMD (bombs) against a US national while outside of the United States. Basically, DOJ is charging Mehsud with conspiring with Humam Khalil Mulal al-Balawi, the Jordanian doctor who committed the suicide bombing at Khost that killed 7 CIA officers and contractors.
Now, there’s not much doubt that Mehsud did conspire with al-Balawi. I just doubt whether it could be fairly called a crime. The affidavit describes two videos in which Mehsud stands side by side with al-Bawali. In one, both al-Balawi and Mehsud describe the upcoming attack as revenge for killings in the drone program–most importantly, of Mehsud’s brother Baitullah Mehsud from a CIA drone strike in August 2009.
Al-Balawi then continues alone: “This itishhadi [martyrdom-seeking attack] will be the first of the revenge against the Americans.” After additional declarations of revenge by al-Balawi, MEHSUD resumes speaking in Pashtu, explaining the motive for the upcoming suicide attack by al-Balawi, that is the death of the former emir of the TTP, Baitullah Meshud [sic] which MESHUD [sic] attributes to the Americans.
Remember, too, that al-Balawi was a double agent. The Americans believed he was helping them target people, people just like Mehsud. That means al-Balawi (and presumably through him, Mehsud) knew he was specifically targeting those behind the earlier killings in Pakistan when he killed them.
So al-Balawi successfully killed people who were either civilians, in which case their own strikes at Baitullah Mehsud and others may be illegal, or people who were acting as soldiers, in which case the attack on their base was presumably legal under the law of war. And for helping al-Balawi, DOJ is now charging Mehsud with conspiracy.