International Relations, National Security

The Death of Usama Bin Laden Part 3

This is the third, and last posting about the killing of Usama Bin Laden (UBL) for a while (hopefully) before I return to more theoretical questions about arms races and modeling.  Continuing my earlier posting, I believe there are many significant and complex issues that are just coming into focus and many more on the horizon regarding what comes next in US/Pakistan relations, the deterrence of terrorists, and the future of US strategy.

US Intelligence Collection and Analysis

Before considering the future of the US/Pakistan relationship, deterrence, and US strategy, the intelligence issues surround the SEALs assault warrant attention.

The details surrounding the detection, observation, and ultimate assault on UBL’s compound reveal the painful truth about intelligence – it is a slow process requiring years of collection and analysis, only to produce uncertain information that can inform decision-makers, but rarely eliminate their doubts or make their choices risk-free.  After years of analysis, it appears that Obama received conflicting guidance from those closest to him, and his own characterization of the decision suggests that no one knew with great confidence who or what they would find in the compound.  Despite careful and persistent observation of the compound, including those who entered and left its premises, the identity of its primary occupant remained uncertain.

I’ve tried to ponder some of the questions facing the intelligence community and they are really tough to think through.  For example:  How long could the CIA watch this facility without being detected by its occupants, the Pakistani military, or the ISI, and what would happen to their ability to operate inside Pakistan given the deteriorating relationship between the two countries?  What if the target discovered that he was being observed and escaped or destroyed critical information in his possession?  What if the target was not UBL or a senior AQ or Taliban figure, but someone else who wanted to avoid detection?  Could the compound’s resident be a decoy intended to distract us, or even an elaborate counterintelligence operation intended to expose our sources, methods, and personnel (some reports have stated that Pakistan brought the compound to our attention in the first place)?  What was the opportunity cost of spending all that time watching a facility whose importance might have been nil, and how would we know?  What additional information could be gained given the precautions of the resident?

Fortunately, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that the resident was UBL and that our intelligence collectors and analysts had successfully located their primary target.

I’m incredibly surprised that the CIA safe house from where the compound was observed, and several aspects of AQ tradecraft, such as their use/non-use of cell phones, has been made public.  On the one hand, it reveals the efforts of the agency and its commitment to the mission, while it also embarrasses Pakistan, which supposedly failed to notice that UBL was living amongst their military elite outside of the capital.  At the same time, it restores the CIA’s image in its counterterrorism campaign, at a time when its leadership is changing and by many accounts its incoming director, General Patraeus, has been frustrated by its operations and analysis.

Vali Nasr posted a very intriguing piece in the Washington Post this week regarding Pakistan’s secrets and the prospects that the US intelligence community has now developed a deep understanding of Pakistan’s military, intelligence and political organization and capabilities.  His argument is that Pakistan must now fear the US ability to operate autonomously in Pakistan.  If US dependence on Pakistan is in decline, then so is the need to prop up a central government that may have been overplaying its weakness and insecurity in order to extract economic and military aid.  I don’t know if Nasr is correct, but his op-ed did provide a window into the challenges and successes of US intelligence.  These activities take years to come to fruition, require a high tolerance for ambiguity, and demand committed and patient leadership.  For example, I suspect the desire to reallocate resources devoted to an uncertain target far from the border and tribal areas was intense given the in-going assumptions of where UBL was believed to be hiding.  It makes me wish that kind of determination, seriousness and commitment was applied to other issues that we face closer to home.  Recent reports that Pakistani officials have released the name of the CIA Chief of Station suggests that Nasr may be onto something, and that an concerted counterintelligence campaign against the CIA may be starting with the goal of reducing its ability to operate independently within the country.

I’m shocked by the extent of reporting on the findings from UBL’s compound.  I can understand the release of the some of the videos of UBL, further establishing the fact that we are now in possession of his belongings and that he is in fact dead.  However, the details on the quantity of information, and its sources such as laptops, hard drives, and thumb drives are surprising to me.  Indeed, discussions about the quantity of the materials taken from the compound suggest that it is the largest single find of the decade long war.  In thinking about the need to gather and pack up the materials, collect UBL’s body, and search the house for hidden compartments, it becomes clear that the actual assault on the house and subsequent firefight was likely very fast, with the vast majority of the 38 min operation devoted to searching for and packing up data, documenting the findings, and identifying the body.

Finally, new reporting that UBL appeared to be more active in the operational details of AQ planning is surprising and suggests that his killing was as important as ever despite earlier claims that diminished his role in the organization.  UBL’s proximity to Islamabad may have afforded him greater opportunities to play a guiding hand in AQ operations, a point I saw attributed to Brian Jenkins, and many of the materials that have been found are suggestive of continued planning.  On the other hand, it could turn out that he was the ‘crazy old guy’ dreaming up wild and impractical schemes locked in his hidden fortress, who was honored by a younger generation of recruits but essentially ignored on operational matters.  It may take a long time to sort out what actual schemes were indicative of real plans that could have been executed, and what were mere fantasies.

The reaction to the findings, and the rush to get information out on its significance reminds me of my undergrad thesis long ago where I explored the prospect of drowning adversaries in junk data to get them to burn up their resources and attention processing information and countering threats that weren’t real.  I suspect that as analysts get more familiar with the materials that have been gathered, a deeper appreciation for UBL’s role in AQ will emerge, and a better sense of its operational plans, strategy, and capabilities will be gained.

As a basic rule, the heads of large, complex organizations can easily find themselves in bubbles of unreality, surrounded by sycophants that only report good news and exaggerate their successes.  It would not surprise me in the least if the final judgment of UBL’s post-9/11 years is characterized by such a narrative.

I hope that at some point the materials will be translated and made publically available for scholars to use, just as many of Saddam’s records and archives have become available.

The US, Money and Pakistan

Lawrence Wright provided a thoughtful piece in the New Yorker that explored the history of US/Pakistan relations that asked why did the country that we pumped so much money into turn into our enemy while the one that we ignored become a multi-cultural capitalist democracy (India)?  A common theme in foreign policy is the way small, weak, regional states can capture the policies of great powers.  By convincing great powers that they are the last and best hope for protecting and advancing the great power’s interests, small, fragile and weak states develop disproportionate leverage over their stronger sponsors that have global concerns and little time and attention for regional disputes that don’t blow-up into full-blown crises.

There is however another point that is more cultural than political in orientation with respect to the issue and challenge of money in foreign policy.  It is natural for Americans to think that we are ‘buying’ friendship, influence, and control through lavish aid programs – and that in such transactions the buyer, as the customer, is always right.

However, from another perspective our funds may be seen as simply paying ‘tribute’ to others, establishing the primacy of the recipient.  This is less of a contract with a tit-for-tat or quid-pro-quo exchange at its core, and more reflective of paying protection money to a gang of thugs.  From this perspective, much of our security and aid assistance may in fact be encouraging the very instability that we are combating.  As Wright noted, if the hunt for  terrorists and UBL provided Pakistan leverage to acquire arms and aid from the US, allowing the military to extend its reach into the domestic economy, government, and arm against Pakistan, why exactly would they want us to find UBL and turn off the faucet?  Pakistani policy towards the US may be less about the accomplishment of shared goals, and more about creating the conditions that bind us together and make them indispensable.

The critical questions now facing US-Pakistan relations revolve around whether Pakistan was complacent or incompetent.  I think there is more to this question, and that it is loaded with assumptions about the unity of government and the civilian control over the military.  I believe that the US has been particularly blessed with its history of civil military relations, and as a result, we have a rather benign and naïve view of the state and the role of the military in it.  My guess is that the military and intelligence services may not have known where UBL was, but also may have chosen to remain ignorant.  Often we don’t ask questions we don’t really want to know the answers to, and given the strength of the assumptions/assertions that UBL was in the tribal or border regions I can imagine a scenario where no one in the Pakistani government wanted to challenge that assumption on the grounds they wouldn’t like the answer.

Returning to Nasr’s piece on the CIA in Pakistan, and the recent outing of the CIA station chief, the prospects of an intelligence war should be considered.  If an intelligence war starts between the CIA and the ISI, it may not be long before official diplomatic relations sour and get even worse than they are.  It would not be inconceivable if the relationship were to break, aid and military assistance to be cut, and then the real drama would begin as contingency plans would be made on both sides over how to handle many of the thorny issues confronting the region.  For example, would the US seek to eliminate or gain control over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons in order to prevent their use or distribution?  Would Pakistan distribute their nuclear weapons to the Taliban or other non-state actors for use against India, the US, or others out of the fear that the US might deny them control over their arsenal and facilities?

It doesn’t seem too far-fetched to believe that the US and Pakistan could part company and even turn hostile towards one another over the next few years.  If the nascent democratic regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan collapse after the withdrawal of US forces, and the wave of revolutions and counterrevolutions in the Arab states result in the further distancing of relations with the US, we could see a remarkable transformation of the Middle East and Central Asia that leaves the US on the outside looking in.  While this might be an unlikely scenario, it would be a sad outcome that is likely closer to UBL’s desired vision of the future than the one that the US has been fighting for.


Many people have said that we have now proven that there is no hiding from the US and that this should deter future terrorist attacks.  I think the euphoria of the successful raid on UBL may be overwhelming better judgment.

I would be shocked if UBL ever expected to die of old age.  AQ’s leadership have committed themselves to a life of violence, and while I suspect that they have no desire to die in foolish and unproductive operations, if they could guarantee themselves a meaningful death that advanced their cause, I suspect they would go willingly.  Thus, I fail to see how killing UBL will have a great deterrent effect on preventing future attacks.

The public details of the SEAL’s assault on UBL’s compound suggest that outside of security measures designed to protect the primary occupant’s identity, there was little there to win a firefight.  Some small arms, and indications of escape plans (phone numbers and cash sewn into clothing), but no traps, explosives, etc. have been reported.  Secrecy and privacy, not firepower, appears to have been UBL’s primary defense, and I suspect that he knew that it would not last forever.

It is important to ask some difficult questions about the long-term consequences of UBL’s death, particularly the way it occurred.  Perhaps, UBL chose a location in the heart of Pakistan, near a military facility because he was protected by individuals within the government.  However, he may have chosen a location based on where a unilateral action by the US would maximize the embarrassment to the Pakistani government and create a rift between the two states.  What if UBL’s hope was that his death would result in the severing of relations between the US and Pakistan, the collapse of the Pakistani regime, and the widening of the Afghan war to include Pakistan as an enemy?  My suspicion is that he believed his death would have had a greater impact on the Arab world, which, luckily, seems to have moved on and increasingly views UBL and AQ as no longer relevant to their political and social circumstances.  But it might be the case that his death sinks US-Pakistan relations – an outcome that would have been more likely attributed to the killing of Mullah Omar and the senior leaders of the Afghan Taliban.

Strategic Redirection in US National Security Policy

I have long been under the impression that the killing or capturing of UBL would be of little strategic consequence in the evolving conflict between AQ, the US, and its allies.  I am now of the belief that I was wrong for a variety of reasons.  Some reasons are fairly obvious, such as the future of US/Pakistan relations, while others are conditional, such as AQ succession in light of the prospect that UBL remained more active than suggested.  The psychological sense of accomplishment and confidence within the US was something that I underestimated.

Given the desire to establish a functional central government in Afghanistan, prevent the return of the Taliban to power, and deny AQ safe-haven, I’m surprised that so many are suddenly ready to declare “mission accomplished” and end the longest war in US history.  There was a growing sentiment that the Afghan war should be brought to a conclusion, and the killing of UBL seems to have brought more people over to this side.  I have my own doubts about the continuation of the Afghan war, and also strong concerns about withdrawal.  What I never did consider was how UBL would reemerge as a central figure in the narrative of the Afghan war having grown accustomed to thinking that it was predominantly a conflict first and foremost with the Taliban given AQ’s global reach and dispersion.

What has my attention, however, was not the specifics of the Afghan campaign, but the sense of accomplishment that has created an opportunity to call into question the last decade of foreign policy.  I believed that the Bush administration had effectively locked-in their successors, regardless of political party, by leaving behind a set of policies and commitments, e.g. GITMO and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the complex coalition machinery to support their prosecution.  The killing of UBL may provide an opportunity to break from the past, and press a reset button with respect to spending priorities, engagement with foreign countries, domestic surveillance, etc.  I’m surprised by, and encouraged by, the sense that new directions are possible although none of that assumes that US policy-makers will make wise choices.

Many of the stories related to the points discussed above are listed in the posting here.  Additional links of interest are:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *