By Clare Maxwell
Did you know that the CIA operation to find and kill Osama Bin Laden severely hampered efforts to eradicate Polio in Pakistan? According to investigations by National Geographic, a Pashto doctor who was hired to run a Hepatitis-B vaccination drive in Abbottabad also led to the CIA confirming Bin Laden’s presence in the city. While the staff on the ground didn’t know it, the DNA collected from their syringes was analyzed in order to confirm the suspected presence of the al Qaeda leader in the city. The team ended up discovering DNA and phone evidence that confirmed the CIA’s suspicions. The immediate result was simple: the 2011 raid on the villa where Bin Laden lived, an assassination, and the declaration of a great victory in the war on terror. The long term effects were more complicated, as pre-existing distrust of foreign-funded health workers was confirmed. In the following years, the Taliban published propaganda urging attacks on public health campaigners, and attacks on WHO vaccination drives. Because Pakistan and Afghanistan are some of the last countries in the world with Polio, major public health initiatives in the 2010’s were geared towards inoculating young children against the crippling virus. The aftermath of the Abbottabad raid led to a serious resurgence of Polio, and the violent deaths of dozens of healthcare workers and their patients.
This story came out in 2015, but I happened to stumble across it recently, and I think it deserves new attention in the context of 2021. The past few months have seen the end of the bloody, protracted, and ultimately pointless U.S. war in Afghanistan, the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, the increasingly stark and bitter divides between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, and finally the emergence of yet another highly transmissible COVID strain that might have been prevented if vaccinations were equally accessible in all parts of the world. Reading the story of the duplicitous Abbottabad vaccine drive in these moments reveals morals deeper than “don’t use public health campaigns as a smoke screen for counterterrorism.” It’s a true cautionary tale of what happens when governments mix up a wartime mentality with public health, or any other aspect of governance for that matter. Applying the mentality of winning and losing and suggesting that justice serves whoever comes out on top, are seductive strategies and rhetorical paths, but the places these ideas lead to are dark.
In the aftermath of the pullout from Aghanistan, and the anniversary of the September 11th attacks, countless articles cropped up with headlines that ask some variation of “Who Won the War on Terror?” Despite the atrocious, click-bait, nature of the headlines, most of the writers come to similar conclusions. The War on Terror is unwinnable in any traditional sense, the War on Terror has often catalyzed violent extremism of various types. This phase of geopolitical history has cost an astronomical number of human lives and an impossibly huge amount of cash. Governments have big decisions to make as to whether to continue with the same strategies of counterterrorism or redirect their resources elsewhere. Overall, there seems to be a growing consensus that trying to address terrorism as a “war” and thus merely a matter of military intervention and intelligence agency meddling, with a clear victor and vanquished, is a laughably inadequate paradigm, and a strategy that is destined to fail. Articles like these are somber, but it gives me hope that, after decades, we may have arrived at the point where we can finally assess the “War on Terror” with clear eyes.
However, a few clicks away, another war is in full swing. The term “Vaccines Wars” has been used to describe a range of phenomena. They started as a way to describe the race between pharmaceutical companies to produce a vaccine. Then it was the fights between and within countries to secure and distribute doses, and conflicts over who will be eligible to get the vaccines when they finally roll out. Then, there was the “war” between various pundits and public officials to convince populations of the vaccine’s efficacy or potential harm. Finally, there are the ongoing fights between friends and families on opposite sides of the divide as they try to navigate a world where public and political spaces are increasingly demarcated by who has got the jab and who has not. While these are all deeply complex problems to solve, the war time lens has often reduced debates to a matter of which “side” one is one when it comes to mask and vaccine mandates. One you have a side, callousness and even cruelty towards those who don’t agree with you is easily justified. While I firmly stand that the side of the vaccinated is the sane one, it’s hard for me to say that camp vaccinated doesn’t come without its own share of cruelty and satisfied self-righteousness.
This cruelty can be seen when wealthy, western countries shut their doors to travelers from Southern African states, as a knee-jerk policy reaction against the spread of the Omicron COVID variant, even as citizens of Europe and North are lining up to get a third vaccine shot. Meanwhile, no country in Sub-Saharan Africa has vaccinated more than a quarter of its population. While the exact origin of the strain is unknown, it seems painfully clear to public health officials that equal access to vaccines could likely have prevented the new mutation altogether. The news of the Omicron mutation comes as countries are once again upping their restrictions, or even entering third, fourth, and fifth waves of lockdowns. I have to wonder, would we be in this situation if our political rhetoric, our media, and our popular framing of so many phenomena weren’t focused on war, having sides, and someone needing to lose?
Might we not have much more equal access to vaccines, and much more willingness to take them if we lived in a world where many politicians, pundits, or business leaders didn’t frame public health through the lens of war? Couldn’t the good faith efforts of health officials at every step of the pandemic have been made easier if their words and actions weren’t interpreted by other public figures as being hostile? Would there be greater willingness to take vaccines if the public didn’t have to combat the narrative that the vaccinated and unvaccinated are on different sides of an ideological battle? I think the answer to all of these questions is yes, but in order to get to that point, we need to have a public reckoning with the fact that public health has been used a guise for violent action in the war on terror. Since the Abbottabad raid, the U.S. has banned the use of vaccination campaigns in counterterrorism and espionage, but the memory of using vaccinations to disguise ulterior motives lives on.
Osama bin Laden was responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, I don’t write this with even a drop of sympathy for him. But at the time of his death, he was hidden away, a fugitive figurehead of an organization that had lost most of its capacity to conduct its terrorist activities. The methods used to track him down have led to a resurgence in a devastating disease, and instigated attacks against medical workers. When we look at the ongoing consequences on public health, can we really call what happened in Abbottabad justice, or victory?
If we want to see greater cooperation in vaccine distribution, and greater willingness to step up and get the vaccine for our communities sake, we need to be more clear about what is war and what is health. We need to acknowledge the times when our leaders blurred those boundaries, and all the damage that it caused. Because when we conflate the two, we necessitate the existence of an enemy, or at the very least a competitor that we are morally obliged to beat. This is the very goal of terrorism, the art form perfected by the Bin Ladens of the world to draw people into unwinnable wars, and to see everyone around you as a potential threat. When we think this way, we lose our ability to collaborate, and when it comes to public health, collaboration saves lives.
For my part, I’m refusing to engage any more with the framework of “The War on X.” Whether its about terrorism, COVID, or any other issues that’s been oversimplified and molded into this way of thinking, I’m out. No matter how much I dislike or oppose the proposed object of our enmity. I hope that’s a lesson that everyone is learning too.
Clare Maxwell is a 2nd year MDev student from the U.S. She has a journalistic background reporting on grassroots political movements in the Middle East. You can find her on Instagram as @ClareThinksThoughts
Picture from Pixabay