What does Osama Bin Laden have in common with a Sierra Leonean amputee?

03/05/2011 § 2 Comments

The news of Osama’s death hits you in two waves. First, satisfaction that it is done; second, breathtaking astonishment that he was living within small-arms range of the Pakistani army’s staff college. One assumes that they can’t have been scoring too highly on the reconnaissance test.

A lot of people would infer from this that there are parts of the Pakistani intelligence services/ army/ government who were protecting Bin Laden. Keeping him safe, so he could continue his work without the intrusions of American imperialists and unbelievers. Conclusion – a large part of Pakistan is on the other side of the war against terror.

But this makes me think of a decidedly unpleasant story, told by the Dutch journalist Linda Polman. She worked in Sierra Leone in the late nineties, when the self-proclaimed Revolutionary United Front was busy burning villages and cutting the hands off of civilians. When the peacekeepers had restored a measure of order, she travelled into the bush to meet with the rebel commanders. One particular story contains a slice of evil rationality that should make any economist’s blood run cold.

In the end, [the commander] claimed, the R.U.F. had escalated the horror of the war (and provoked the government, too, to escalate it) by deploying special “cut-hands gangs” to lop off civilian limbs. “It was only when you saw ever more amputees that you started paying attention to our fate,” he said. “Without the amputee factor, you people wouldn’t have come.” … The old rebel believed that, instead of being vilified for the mutilations, he and his comrades should be thanked for rescuing their country.

There’s a beautiful sense to this, if you can ignore the screaming. Aid is worth billions and can be ‘taxed’ the moment it arrives in the country. It’s a simple way to make money without lifting a finger. All you need to do is increase the urgency with which aid is required. Polman points to other countries, notably Sudan, where she argues humanitarian crisis is used as a regular tactic to fill up government coffers.

If the urge to save lives is great, the urge to kill terrorists is greater. The rewards are commensurate. In the three years before 9/11 the Pakistani army got $9 million in military aid. In the three years after, it got $4.2 billion. The increase is larger than the GDP of 25 of the world’s smaller countries. It’s the kind of money that you’d associate with corporations like Intel and Google, and amounts to about a third of the Pakistani defence budget.

So if you’re a sensible Pakistani general, you want this to continue. Especially if you’re the kind who has spent years fed up with large chunks of the country being controlled by fundamentalist bandits. Billions of dollars of military aid lets you take the fight to them, at last. But the worst thing that could happen is for that money to disappear. Regardless of whether you want it to retake the Swat valley, funnel to the Mujahedeen or buy a new Mercedes, you can all agree it must continue.

So it’s vital to make sure the reason for sending the money persists. What do the Americans want most? Revenge. They’ll settle for victory, but they’d prefer revenge; a great moment of national euphoria that closes the wound left on 9/11. If they got that, there’s a good risk they’d leave, so it must be prevented at all costs.

So, if the Pakistani military ever did stumble across Bin Laden, they had a choice. They could kill him and turn him in for a $25m reward. Or, alternatively, They could hold on to him and carry on receiving a billion and a half dollars a year, basically forever. If the situation arose, the logical thing to do (regardless of your loyalties) was to put Bin Laden somewhere very safe, very close, in a place no one would ever look for him.

Very clever. If you can ignore the screaming.

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§ 2 Responses to What does Osama Bin Laden have in common with a Sierra Leonean amputee?

  • stwl says:

    That does raise the question of whether it suffices the hypothetical general to keep OBL in a convenient box, or whether it’s also necessary to have him plotting terror attacks in order to keep him in the public consciousness. If it’s just a matter of keeping him alive and quiet, so as not to destabilise the place too badly, the analogy with the Sierra Leone situation might be too critical…

  • Rupert says:

    “without lifting a finger” is perhaps a little inaccurate in the specific case you mention….

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