The Skeptics

What Not to Learn from bin Laden’s Killing

We should avoid drawing sweeping conclusions about our counterterrorism policies from Osama bin Laden’s death. We typically overgeneralize about important events. After the September 11 attacks, for example, even defense analysts tended to interpret al-Qaeda’s capability largely through the purview of that plot, rather than treating it as a particularly important data point in al-Qaeda’s history. The myopic take made al-Qaeda seem far more capable than it was. With that in mind, here are several things that bin Laden’s death either cannot tell us much about or will not tell us much about until more information surfaces.

1. The war in Afghanistan. There are many reasons we should draw down in Afghanistan, but the bin Laden raid offers little intellectual ammunition for either side of the war debate. The intelligence that led to Abbottabad came years ago, from prisoners outside Afghanistan and collection in Pakistan. The helicopters flew from a base in Afghanistan, but it didn’t take a decade of war and a massive ground force to get that. The fact that bin Laden was living in an area of Pakistan where the state was relatively strong does nothing to support the idea that we should fight wars trying to build authority in ungoverned regions lest terrorists gain haven there.

But just because Sunday’s events do not help pro-war arguments, it does not mean, logically, that they much help the other side, which is mine. The pro-war argument, flawed as it is, depends on other claims (i.e. terrorists will gain haven in Afghanistan if we draw down) that bin Laden’s death does not affect. That something is not an orange does little to tell you whether it’s a pear. Hopefully, however, bin Laden’s death may make it easier, politically to get out of Afghanistan.

2. Torture. Some intelligence used to find bin Laden came from prisoners, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, that were subject to coercive interrogation methods like waterboarding, but it remains unclear whether any of that useful intelligence came via waterboarding. Either way, we can learn little about the efficacy of that and other coercive interrogation methods from this experience. Only the most hackish arguments against torture pretend that it never produces useful intelligence. The real argument against torture’s efficacy is that non-coercive techniques work as well or better. Because you do not know what these guys would have said under standard interrogation—in scientific terms, you have no control—it is hard to draw valid inferences about how well coercion worked.

3. Defense spending. Hawks are already arguing that this raid would not have succeeded given a smaller defense budget. That is silly, obviously. The capability needed to conduct this raid would be intact after the deep defense cuts I favor, let alone the slowdown in defense spending growth that the president is pushing. The budgets of our intelligence agencies and special operations command together account for roughly fifteen percent of U.S. defense spending. Only a portion of that fraction concerns counterterrorism.

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