The news of Usama Bin Laden’s (UBL) death as a result of US military operations casts light on the successes, failures, and uncertainties in the War on Terror, Long War, or whatever names that people choose to attach to US military engagements in the aftermath of the 9/11/ attacks.
To think that UBL and the actions of a small group of supporters (all of whom are far from the “mean” individual with respect to their political views and willingness to take violent action) could define more than 10 years of US security policy, first covertly after the USS Cole and embassy bombings, and then overtly after 9/11, is a testament to the power that the smallest actors can wield.
The details that have started to emerge on the special forces operation are fascinating and quite complex. Below are some of the more interesting details in my opinion:
SEAL Team 6 was operating inside of Pakistan without the prior knowledge of the Pakistani government and under CIA authorities. This may reflect why Patraeus is moving to CIA. The CIA does not operate under the same rules as the military and maintains much greater freedom of action. I suspect units operating under SOCOM or CENTCOM authority would not have been able to execute this mission based on legal obligations to inform the host country, jeopardizing OPSEC and the ability to keep the mission secret, and the particular details of their rules of engagement.
The presence of local community members tweeting the presence of the helicopters is absolutely astounding. While this wasn’t far outside of the urban capital, to think that UBL was hiding in a community full of Pakistani IT professionals, shows a certain irony of how the world works and the global penetration of personal communications technology. It’s increasingly difficult to imagine a future where secret operations have much of a chance of remaining secret. The time it took to find Saddam, UBL, and the fact that Mullah Omar is still at large, along with other senior AQ officials suggest that our success in this case will be tough to replicate. What would have happened if UBL had monitored local twitter traffic and what could have been understood in real-time by monitoring it? I suspect that the tweeter who posted that Obama’s speech was likely related to the helicopters he heard may have been a guess where people tend to see themselves and their surroundings as the center of the universe, but it was correct in this case, and the locals certainly understood that they were in an extended war zone based on their real-time analysis.
The location of the incident is fascinating. While speculation consistently placed UBL in Pakistan or Afghanistan, the assumptions were always that he was in an area under Taliban control or far from the reach of the central government. Instead, we now know that he was in a facility specifically constructed to house a High Value Target (HVT) not far from the capital. It is not surprising that UBL was able to hide in plain sight, but the fact that he was able to do so in a custom built facility, designed and constructed during the height of the War on Terror is. That UBL was not in Afghanistan or the border area also complicates the logic of continuing the war in Afghanistan, since many believe that we need to remain in Afghanistan to prevent it from becoming a safe-haven and base of operations for AQ again. It is likely that UBL’s compound proves that this is a flawed assumption. Absent getting UBL, there remains the problem of the Taliban itself, Mullah Omar, Pakistan’s stability, and commitments to those who have helped us that would be left behind when we depart. I don’t know what is worth pursuing, but the AQ sanctuary argument has been removed.
The burial at sea was a brilliant conclusion to the incredibly difficult problem of what to do with UBL’s body. Reports are that his body was handled according to Islamic customs, and that the decision to bury him at sea means that there is no shrine or tomb to inspire his followers. Several people have asked about the need to provide public proof, but I think that the television images of Saddam’s sons may have done more harm than good. Moreover, I’m glad that his body wasn’t strung up like Mussolini’s or dragged through the streets of Islamabad or New York like a trophy. UBL deserved his death, and no one thinks that he wasn’t a legitimate military target, but that doesn’t mean that his body wasn’t worthy of being treated according to the traditions and customs of his faith – however twisted his particular version of it was.
The killing of UBL in a raid dodges an extremely difficult and complex question of what would have happened if we took him alive or he surrendered? What if he demanded a trial? Current policy suggests that a military tribunal would be held, but I suspect that New York and Washington would have wanted a trial, despite the fact that they avoided holding one for Khalid Sheik Muhammad. My opinion is that the lack of civilian trials is problematic in the long run, and that we will look back at our decisions about Guantanamo and military tribunals as fearful and expedient deviations from our norms and values, rather than as part of an evolving set of security protocols that kept us safe. Ultimately, history will be the judge.
The fact that the operation was conducted outside of the knowledge of the Pakistani government creates a real challenge for those who insist on the importance of international cooperation as the basis of effective counterterrorism action. Indeed, recent reporting suggests that Pakistani and US relations have been strained by unilateral US counterterrorism operations, while President Obama went to great lengths to stress the importance of Pakistani and US cooperation in the build up to this operation. While generalizing from a single case is a big mistake, the notion that we need local support and bargains with unsavory characters to pursue less savory characters may be cast into doubt.