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Reflections on the Death of bin Laden

The death of Osama bin Laden—richly deserved, long delayed—is certainly cause for celebration. But let’s not get carried away. The organization he built, al Qaeda, is likely resilient enough to continue without him. Certainly many of its regional affiliates, from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, operated largely independently of their titular leader and will continue to do so. Then there are the numerous other Islamist terrorist organizations, such as Lashkar e Taiba and the Pakistani Taliban, which did not pledge even formal allegiance to “Emir” Osama. His death is an important symbolic blow against the Islamist terrorist network but not a fatal one; at most it might lead to the decline of Al Qaeda and the rise of other, competing organizations.

Some other thoughts on the Big News:

•  The raid shows the importance of U.S. bases in Afghanistan—not only for keeping that country out of the clutches of the Taliban and other Al Qaeda allies, but also for projecting U.S. power into Pakistan which, despite bin Laden’s death, will remain a hotbed of radical Islamist activity. If it were not for the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, how could Seal Team Six have reached bin Laden’s compound deep in the heart of Pakistan? According to news accounts, they were using Chinook and Blackhawk helicopters, presumably the variants specially modified for special operations. But modified or not helicopters are short-range aircraft. Thus having guaranteed access to bases in Afghanistan is crucial to the success of such missions—as they are for Predator strikes and various intelligence-gathering activities which the CIA and other agencies undertake to monitor the situation in Pakistan.

The fact that bin Laden was able to live within sixty miles of Islamabad, and in a town where many retired Pakistani officers make their homes, shows how deep the rot has spread in Pakistan. The fallout from the raid, with U.S. troops operating in Pakistan without the permission of the government, may further radicalize Pakistan’s politics. That makes it all the  more essential that we keep a significant force presence nearby. If not in Afghanistan, where? Unfortunately the Russians have done a good job of making Central Asia less hospitable to an American presence than it used to be. Hence the continuing importance of Afghanistan as a regional hub for American operations.

•  Don’t assume that with bin Laden gone, the rationale for the war effort in Afghanistan also disappears. President Obama made a tactical mistake in premising our presence in Afghanistan so heavily on the threat from Al Qaeda. In reality we are there to keep Afghanistan from falling to a constellation of Islamist groups, such as the Taliban and the Haqqani network, all of which are closely aligned with Al Qaeda but not formally part of the organization. As noted above, the threat from the larger Islamist movement remains strong, especially in Pakistan and Afghanistan, no matter the fate of Al Qaeda Central. Even with bin Laden dead, it would be a strategic disaster of the first magnitude for Afghanistan to fall to his ideological fellow-travelers who are, alas, supported by Pakistan’s own Inter-Services Intelligence.

• One of the less-noticed aspects of the post-9/11 war on terror—or whatever we’re calling it this week—is the high degree of proficiency attained by the U.S. armed forces and in particular the Special Operations Forces. Remember Operation Eagle Claw? That was the hostage-rescue mission in 1980 that ended in ignominious failure in the Iranian desert (at a rendezvous spot codenamed Desert One). That setback led to the formation of the Joint Special Operations Command, the umbrella organization for Tier 1 Special Operations Forces (e.g., the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy’s SEALs) and its parent, the U.S. Special Operations Command. Those organizations were able to provide much better training, equipment, doctrine, and command-and-control for carrying out the riskiest types of commando raids.

But it was not until 9/11 that the Special Operations Forces were unleashed with few limits on their operations. First in Iraq and now in Afghanistan they have achieved amazing results. Especially impressive has been the development of the Joint Special Operations Command, formerly led by Gen. Stanley McChrystal and now under the command of Vice Admiral (soon to be Admiral) Stanley McRaven. JSOC operatives go out every night under cover of darkness to capture or kill insurgent leaders with little publicity but great success. Many of these operations are conducted with no shots being fired—a sign of how surprised the targets are. Detainees are swiftly interrogated and any intelligence they provide used to feed more operations, sometimes that very night.

The raid that killed bin Laden was extraordinary for its impact but little different from numerous other such operations that have become almost routine over the years. Yet no other nation—not even Special Forces stalwarts such as Israel, Britain, and Australia—has forces that are capable of doing, what their American counterparts do routinely, at least not on a comparable scale.

• The fact that President Obama did not, by all accounts, flinch from authorizing a high-risk mission (high risk politically if not tactically) shows how much the strategic and political environment has changed since 9/11. In the 1990s, recall, Bill Clinton’s administration nixed various proposals to capture or kill bin Laden, preferring to send cruise missiles flying—a low-risk, low-reward approach. Our leaders’ willingness to take more risks in fighting Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups obviously increased after 9/11 and has remained relatively high, notwithstanding all that criticisms that Obama lodged during the campaign of Bush’s “war on terror.” Indeed Obama has vanquished the very phrase “war on terror” but he has kept much of the practice the same. This is a triumph for continuity in American politics, displaying the high degree of bipartisan consensus on how to fight terror.

Those, at least, are my preliminary reflections. I am sure I will have more thoughts to offer as more news emerges about the background and impact of the bin Laden operation.



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