Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, both Clinton-era staffers on the National Security Council, have a short, sharp, sensible op-ed in the New York Times today. They make a good point—that the CIA should be more involved in the special-operations business—but they also self-servingly distort history along the way.
Benjamin and Simon point to the chronic difficulties the U.S. military has created for itself in mounting commando raids against terrorist targets. The occasion for their piece is the revelations now coming out about an aborted 2005 operation against a terrorist haven in Pakistan’s lawless tribal region to capture or kill Ayman al-Zawahri, al Qaeda’s No. 2 leader.
The Pentagon, they note, through its bureaucratic processes, “added large numbers of troops to conduct additional intelligence, force protection, communications and extraction work. At that point, as one senior intelligence official told [the Times], ‘The whole thing turned into the invasion of Pakistan,’ and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pulled the plug.”
This episode, Benjamin and Simon tell us, is reminiscent of trouble faced by the Clinton administration. “The Clinton White House repeatedly requested options involving ground forces that could hunt and destroy terrorists in Afghanistan.” But repeatedly, they write, “senior military officials declared such a mission ‘would be Desert One,’ referring to the disastrous 1980 effort to free American hostages in Iran. When the Pentagon finally delivered a plan, the deployment envisioned would have been sufficient to take and hold Kabul but not to surprise and pin down a handful of terrorists.”
This is true. But it is also false. It provides only half the picture. For, even as the Clinton administration was contemplating military action against al-Qaeda safe havens, it was also planning much narrower commando operations, conceived and planned by the CIA, to seize Osama bin Laden—precisely the kind of raid Benjamin and Simon are recommending now.