If we catch bin Laden, then what?


NEWPORT, R.I. -- Osama bin Laden reportedly has declared that he will not be taken alive. We can only hope that on this point, at least, he can be taken at his word. But the possibility exists that he may fall into American hands.

The United States has probably been fortunate that bin Laden so far has eluded capture or death.

If the Taliban had turned over their most famous "guest" before the U.S. air assault began, the war on terror probably would have ended before it had begun.

But as long as he is on the run, the coalition has a clear objective. And as long as the Taliban remain defiant, their regime is a legitimate target.

This has worked to the coalition's advantage.

Attention in this country and around the world is focused to an unhealthy degree on the person of bin Laden. In fact, his capture or death will not be a final victory in the war on terror.

It is only by removing the Taliban from power and eradicating al-Qaida's bases and infrastructure in Afghanistan that the country will cease to be a sanctuary for terrorist groups.

And even that will not represent a final victory, because the terrorists have other sanctuaries in the region. Taking Afghanistan permanently off that list is, however, a very good start.

There is still little to be gained by the immediate capture of bin Laden. Global support for military operations against the Taliban could crumble if he were suddenly taken into custody.

And even if our principal coalition partners remained firm, his apprehension would generate increasing international pressure to call off military strikes aimed at purging terrorist elements from that country.

A decade ago, it seemed that Saddam Hussein would lose his grip on power to rival groups within Iraq, but his regime displayed a surprising post-defeat resilience. We must not repeat the mistake of assuming that a battered and unpopular regime such as the Taliban cannot sustain itself in power following a major military defeat.

As we move toward an end-game in Afghanistan, our leaders must remember that they have declared war on global terrorism, not just on bin Laden. But what do we do with him if he falls into our hands, despite his best efforts to go down fighting?

History provides many inventive solutions to this problem.

Perhaps the most famous was the decision to send Napoleon into lifelong captivity on the remote island of St. Helena. But this solution is unlikely to satisfy the American public.

President Bush needs to isolate and eliminate bin Laden as a source of terrorism while reassuring Americans that justice will be done to the terrorists.

His proposal to employ a military tribunal is not a perfect solution, but it would solve many of the practical problems that would arise if bin Laden were captured.

The administration will probably find that military tribunals like the Nuremberg trials in Germany will serve its interests best.

After 55 years, what is remembered most about Nuremberg is that Nazi leaders got a fair trial, certainly a fairer one than they had any right to expect. In the end, justice was served, however imperfect the legal process might have been.

But the debate over how to try bin Laden is probably moot.

Just as death saved Hitler from prosecution at Nuremberg, it will probably save bin Laden and his lieutenants from a U.S. military tribunal now.

In the end, it will be al-Qaida's middle management and foot soldiers who are most likely to be taken into captivity.

The real challenge facing us is how to deal with the hundreds -- if not thousands -- of terrorists and fellow-travelers who will fall into the hands of the post-Taliban government in Kabul.

As in post-1945 Germany, the coalition must be prepared to work closely with Afghanistan's new government to prosecute the criminals.

Christopher Bell and Bruce Elleman are associate professors in the Strategic Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College. Their opinions do not necessarily reflect the thinking of the U.S. Navy.

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