Broader Lessons of the bin Laden Strike

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Appeared in Outlook

The U.S. strike on al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden—call it V-O Day—didn’t end the war he unleashed. But it did mark an important victory in the ongoing struggle against al Qaeda, other jihadist groups, and their state patrons and partners. It also offers a number of important lessons for the broader war on terror.

Pakistan is neither friend nor foe
Since 9/11, there has been a debate in Washington over the dysfunctional Pakistani government, with one side arguing that Islamabad is doing its best to rein in its unwieldy intelligence service and military, and the other arguing that the Pakistani government is complicit in what its intelligence operatives do—and what its military won’t do.

That debate was settled by the events in Abbottabad. SEAL Team 6 did not find bin Laden hiding in some remote cave on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. In fact, he was in a mansion just outside Pakistan’s capital, in a city that serves as host to the Pakistani military academy. It’s extremely difficult to believe that Pakistani military and intelligence personnel in the area—or government officials in nearby Islamabad—were unaware that the most wanted man on earth was living next door.

Sadly, this wasn’t the first or last time Pakistan has let its American allies down since 9/11. For example, Pakistani soldiers have sometimes surrendered their own territory rather than fight the Taliban and al Qaeda. Likewise, the Pakistani government has ceded vast stretches of the country’s laughably misnamed Federally Administered Tribal Areas to enemy forces. Pakistani troops have fired on NATO helicopters operating along the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier (Anwar and Harris). After the bin Laden strike, Pakistan expelled two-thirds of the U.S. military personnel assigned to training the Pakistani army in counterinsurgency. Worse, U.S. officials recently confronted their Pakistani counterparts with evidence of cooperation between Pakistani agents and militants carrying out attacks in Afghanistan.

On the other side of the ledger, hundreds of Pakistani troops have been killed fighting the Taliban and its al Qaeda partners. Moreover, a high percentage of NATO’s equipment in Afghanistan is carried into the landlocked country via Pakistan.

In other words, Pakistan is not a black-and-white problem, but rather a gray area.

At some point, winning the broader war will demand tough decisions in Islamabad—or recognition in Washington that Pakistan is part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Afghanistan may no longer be the central front of this war
Reasonable people can and do disagree about the need to continue the nation-building effort in Afghanistan.

On one side, there is growing sentiment in Congress to declare victory and bring the troops home. With more than 1,580 American troops killed, $444 billion spent and a decade of commitment fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda, America has already made an enormous sacrifice building the institutions necessary to enable Afghanistan to resist the impulses to jihadism.

On the other side, there are those like Gen. David Petraeus who want to press the initiative. Petraeus recently reported that NATO has “inflicted enormous losses on mid-level Taliban.” He says that standing up new Afghan army units and creation of the Afghan Local Police is reintegrating “reconcilable insurgents” back into society, much like the Sons of Iraq program did during the surge he led in Iraq.

Petraeus and others wary of a rapid withdrawal are haunted by what happened the last time America lost interest in Afghanistan: When the Red Army was defeated and withdrew in 1988, America stopped caring about Afghanistan—until September 11, 2001.

Indeed, when asked this past March why the U.S. should stay the course, Petraeus bluntly replied, “Two words…nine eleven,” reminding Congress that America abandoned Afghanistan once before. “I think it would be a mistake, a big mistake, to go down that road again.”

Whether Washington declares victory sooner or later, it does seem the battlefront is shifting:

  • Osama bin laden, after all, was in Pakistan, and had been there for years. Plus, the jihadists are striking the Pakistani government at will and control parts of the country.
  • The architect of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings was killed in Somalia this June.
  • Yemen is disintegrating, and Yemen’s branch of al Qaeda is increasingly the epicenter of al Qaeda activity. As Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., warns, “We’re much more likely to be attacked in the U.S. by someone inspired by, or trained by, people in Yemen than anything that comes out of Afghanistan.”
  • With an eye on the revolts in Yemen, Egypt and Bahrain, Saudi Arabia has become a garrison state, buying up massive amounts of U.S. military equipment and working with Washington to build, equip and train a 35,000-man security force to protect Saudi oil facilities. The largest of these was targeted by al Qaeda in 2006. If the enemy hits the Saudi oil fields, we will long for the days of $4-per-gallon gas.

Winning will take time
We know that bin Laden is dead, but “bin Ladenism” is not. Those inspired by bin Laden and his al Qaeda network, as the 9/11 Commission warned in 2004, “will menace Americans and American interests long after Osama bin Laden and his cohorts are killed or captured.”

The hunt for bin Laden actually began long before 9/11. In fact, it was in 1996 that the CIA created a special unit devoted solely to tracking the terror mastermind. Two years later, after the embassy bombings in East Africa, the United States officially announced its war on bin Laden and al Qaeda. Noting that bin Laden had “publicly vowed to wage a terrorist war against America,” President Bill Clinton launched scores of cruise missiles at bin Laden’s bases in Afghanistan and at facilities with purported links to al Qaeda in Sudan. “Our battle against terrorism,” Clinton presciently predicted, “will be a long, ongoing struggle.”

How long? In 2001, Admiral Michael Boyce, then-Chief of the British Defense Staff, compared the war against terrorism to the Cold War, warning that the post-9/11 campaign of campaigns “may last 50 years.”

Just as the targets on 9/11 were symbolic to the enemy, so is the killing of bin Laden largely symbolic. It’s an important symbol, to be sure, sending a powerful message about America’s resolve, resilience and reach. But it pays to recall that the elimination of Yamamoto didn’t end World War II; the death of Stalin didn’t end the Cold War; and the end of bin Laden didn’t clear the breeding grounds of terror.

Some wonder if it is in the economic or national interests of the United States to continue this war of indeterminate length. We might find part of the answer from no less an authority on economic behavior than Adam Smith, who noted that “the first duty of the sovereign, that of protecting the society from the violence and invasion of other independent societies, can be performed only by means of a military force.”

Unilateralism has its place and purpose
Contrary to the media mantras, President George W. Bush did not “go it alone” in Iraq or Afghanistan. But President Barack Obama did in Pakistan, and he was right to do so. Obama deserves credit for ordering SEAL Team 6 to eliminate bin Laden, who was a one-man command-and-control center. However, it’s ironic that the president chose this course of action. After all, as a candidate, Obama criticized the Bush administration for acting unilaterally, alienating allies and launching military operations without UN permission. Yet the bin Laden strike failed to meet any of these standards:

  • It was not authorized by the UN. In fact, it has drawn strong criticism from some allies in Europe and the Middle East; some observers have even condemned it as illegal (Spetalnick and Der Spiegel).
  • It not only alienated the Pakistanis; it humiliated and infuriated them. Recall that Islamabad was notified of the operation only after U.S. forces had left Pakistani airspace.
  • It was completely unilateral. Pakistani forces didn’t even participate in the operation, which happened just 40 miles outside their capital city. In fact, contingencies were in place for the U.S. strike team to fight its way out of Pakistan, presumably against the Pakistani military (Walsh and Jones).

This is not to criticize the operation, but rather to highlight an important truth: Sometimes the only way to address a threat is through unilateral action. In this instance, the exigencies of speed and timing made UN pre-approval impossible; Pakistan’s duplicity made involving the Pakistani military and intelligence services risky; and the U.S. military’s unique capabilities made allied involvement unnecessary.

Whenever possible, the U.S. should work in conjunction with partners, but when necessary it must act alone. On those rare occasions when it does, unilateral action on the part of the U.S. generally serves the wider interests of the international community, as it did in the bin Laden takedown.

The war on terror really is a war
Some bristle at the “war on terrorism” phraseology. Elements in the Obama administration, for example, initially encouraged use of the phrase “overseas contingency operations” instead of the Bush administration’s “global war on terrorism” (Wilson and Kamen).

We cannot defeat “terrorism,” the critics argue, because it is a condition or method. Hence, a war on terrorism is a misnomer at best and would be futile at worst.

However, the civilized world has, in the past, defeated or marginalized uncivilized behavior and methods. As historian John Lewis Gaddis suggests, with concerted effort terrorism could “become as obsolete as slavery, piracy or genocide.” In other words, a war on terrorism is not necessarily a futile enterprise.

The debate over what to call the post-9/11 campaign is not only understandable; it has historical precedent. At the beginning of the Cold War, the authors of NSC-68, a pivotal national-security document penned in 1950 to provide a roadmap for the struggle against Soviet communism, argued that success depends on recognition by the American people and their government that this “is in fact a real war in which the survival of the free world is at stake.”

Similarly, the 9/11 Commission concluded seven years ago that “Calling this struggle a war accurately describes the use of American and allied armed forces to find and destroy terrorist groups and their allies in the field.”

Truth be told, the Bush administration itself wrestled with what to call its post-9/11 campaign. Almost three years after 9/11, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asked, “Are we fighting a global war on terror? Or are we witnessing a global civil war within the Muslim religion…Or are we engaged in a global insurgency?”

The answer to each question is yes, which means the language of war is appropriate. In fact, in his address announcing the strike on bin Laden’s compound, Obama tellingly used the word “war” eight times.

To be sure, the war on terror enfolds far more than military operations. As in the Cold War, intelligence agencies, law enforcement, trade and development, and diplomacy play important parts as well. However, these are supporting parts because al Qaeda and its kind have defined this as a war: In 1996, bin Laden called on his foot soldiers to focus on “destroying, fighting, and killing the enemy until…it is completely defeated.” In 1998, he declared, “To kill the Americans and their allies…is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it.” For good measure, he added, “We do not differentiate between those dressed in military uniforms and civilians; they are all targets.”

That became clear on 9/11, when al Qaeda’s war reached our shores. So, while we quibble about what to call the thing we’re in the midst of—a war on terror, a global guerilla war, a worldwide police action—the jihadists know they are at war with us. They are not drug dealers, mobsters or scofflaws. They are tenacious military adversaries. Hence, to approach global terrorism as a criminal matter—or to dismiss this as something short of war—is counterproductive. As former U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White has argued, “a strong and continuing military response” is essential.

If indictments and prosecutions were effective at combating this form of terrorism, the World Trade Center would still be standing. It pays to recall that bin Laden was indicted in 1998. That didn’t stop him from waging war on America, but SEAL Team 6 did.

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