The Skeptics

Thoughts on the Killing of Bin Laden

 I fired off a quick blog post at Cato last night, and have since had a chance to ponder some of the relevant facts that have emerged in the wee hours of the morning. Some of these thoughts are in the form of questions, and I'm sure that there will a flurry of similar postings by others, both here at TNI and elsewhere in the blogosphere.

President Obama's statement was both concise and eloquent, a rare combination. I hope that everyone reads or watches it, as many were probably asleep when the president appeared live on television. In a moment like this, it is important to offer a few key details that will give credibility to the claims that bin Laden was, in fact, dead, and that U.S. personnel killed him. It is also important to provide some context, which the president did, reminding Americans—as George W. Bush did—that we are not engaged in war with Islam, that bin Laden and his followers have killed thousands of Muslims, and that "his demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity."

Many are explaining, correctly, that Osama bin Laden's death does not mean the end of al-Qaeda, nor the end of our counterterrorism efforts. True enough. But what, if anything, would signal that al-Qaeda no longer posed a serious threat to U.S. national security? The organization has been under enormous pressure, especially since 9/11. It used up some of its most experienced and committed killers on that date, and operations similar to that which killed bin Laden have delivered other senior AQ figures to American jailers. Drone strikes have killed a number of other AQ leaders. At what point do we admit that AQ is a shadow of its former self? And when do we seriously consider that at least some of the enormous resources that we have dedicated to hunting it might be redirected elsewhere?

This episode demonstrates that the government still can keep secrets, even from Pakistani officials who learned of the raid only after it was over. The Wikileaks imbroglio might have convinced some people that such secrecy is impossible.  This should put that to rest, at least for a while. Much of the secrecy surrounding U.S. counterterrorism operations is unnecessary, but not all of it. As I noted last night, it is a credit to the prowess and professionalism of our military, and our intelligence and law enforcement officials, that this operation went off without a single American killed, and with no harm to anyone outside of the compound. That can be explained, in part, by the operational security that was maintained throughout the long period when this location was under surveillance, and as the operation was nearing execution.

Pakistan. I'm going to leave it to my Cato colleague and fellow Skeptics blogger Malou Innocent to speculate on what this means for U.S.-Pakistani relations. The relationship has been strained by the Raymond Davis case, anger over U.S. drone strikes, and now resentment that U.S. taxpayers don't provide enough aid—or do so with too many strings attached. Needless to say, this is a ripe discussion.

Finally, the operation, and bin Laden's whereabouts for, perhaps, nearly six years (the house was built in 2005), calls into question anew two related myths that have taken hold since 9/11.

Myth #1: Terrorists thrive in failed states, especially in places where the established government does not have full control of its territory (e.g. the tribal areas of Pakistan; most of Afghanistan), or where there is no government at all (e.g. Somalia). Numerous studies have challenged this claim; add this very important episode to the list. I'll confess that I had never heard of Abbottabad until last night, but it is a modern city, and the bin Laden compound is apparently a short walk away from a major military academy. Pakistan might have some of the markings of a failed state, and parts of Pakistan might be failing, but Abbottabad isn't one of them.

Myth #2: Successful counterterrorism depends upon large numbers of troops stationed indefinitely in foreign lands. We are told that such military operations, directed at rebuilding failed states, or propping up those that are failing, are essential to acquiring actionable intelligence, and to convincing the locals to cooperate with U.S. officials. Nothing that has emerged so far changes my mind that this is false. 

Someday, hopefully soon, the details surrounding bin Laden's capture will raise new questions about the nature and purpose of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. What portion of the $100+ billion that we spent last year contributed to the success of this mission? Might more effort and resources applied to hunting bin Laden, and less to bringing "government in a box" to Marja, have brought justice to the AQ leader in 2009 or 2010? Seems plausible to me.