As Americans debate the future of the war on terror, they might consider learning from the man who was its focus for over a decade. A chilling letter from Osama bin Laden to al-Qaeda’s top operational planner, recovered during the U.S. Special Forces raid on his Abbottabad hideout, shows that Bin Laden had an overall strategy, a clear sense of priorities and an appreciation for restraint—in other words, a discipline and coherence that America’s “long war” has lacked.
The overall strategy Bin Laden mapped out in his May 2010 letter was simple and straightforward. “The focus must be on actions that contribute to the intent of bleeding the American enemy,” he wrote. “As for actions that do not contribute to the intent of bleeding the great enemy, many of them dilute our efforts and take from our energy.”
In contrast, the most recent National Defense Strategy asserts that the winning the long war will be the “central objective of the U.S.” but says nothing about subverting other priorities to achieve this goal. Indeed, “Win the Long War” is one of five “key objectives,” the others being “Defend the Homeland,” “Promote Security,” “Deter Conflict” and “Win Our Nation’s Wars.” The Defense Department has multiple missions, of course. But when everything is a top priority, there are no priorities.
Bin Laden as Strategist
In his letter, Bin Laden unambiguously ranked objectives, declaring attacks on American soil the top priority. “Given that the difference of the impact of attacks against the foes inside or outside of America is substantial,” he wrote, “we need to confirm to the brothers that every effort that could be spent on attacks in America would not be spent outside of it.”
Bin Laden’s second priority was engaging U.S. forces in countries hostile to their presence, Afghanistan in particular. He viewed the Afghan people as “religiously devout by nature” and “extremely sensitive to the presence of foreigners in their country.” U.S. occupation is, he wrote, “a very important factor in awakening people and inciting them to continue fighting.” (In a letter just one week before his death, Bin Laden elevated missionary activities in Arab Spring countries over operations in Afghanistan.)
Third, Bin Laden proposed conducting attacks in non-Muslim countries. His rationale was threefold: killing Muslims undercuts al-Qaeda’s claim to be a protector and crusader on their behalf; authoritarian regimes like Egypt and Syria were likely to crack down severely on Islamist movements if attacked; and he sought to exploit “security laxity” in countries where al-Qaeda had not launched attacks.
Finally, Bin Laden suggested that remaining capabilities be directed at Muslim countries with minimal al-Qaeda presence. He instructed: “The overflow of the work (meaning attacks) outside of America and the work in non-Islamic countries could be spent in targeting the U.S. interests in the Islamic countries where we have no bases or partisans or Jihadist Islamic groups that could be threatened by danger.”
Compare Bin Laden’s hierarchy of initiatives to the National Defense Strategy’s approach to fighting terrorism, which comes close to calling for solutions to all the world’s problems. It includes efforts to “promote local participation in government and economic programs to spur development,” efforts to “understand and address the grievances that often lie at the heart of insurgencies,” and efforts to “foster security and aid local authorities in building effective systems of representational government.” Reading it today serves as a reminder that, if discipline is not imposed, strategy exercises become competitions in brainstorming threats rather than triaging them.
Even more novel, Bin Laden went further than ranking worthy objectives; he explicitly acknowledged what was not achievable. Recognizing that al-Qaeda was not prepared to govern effectively if given the opportunity in Yemen, he wrote: “Our goal is not to expend our energy in Yemen, to use the greater part of our strength in supplies and reserves, and to wear down and ultimately topple an apostate regime, only to establish another apostate regime.” That seems like a fitting description of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, where pervasive corruption remains an “acute challenge,” according to a recent Pentagon report.
Today, there are few examples of high-ranking U.S. officials breaking the Washington “everything-matters-most” mold, former secretary of defense Robert Gates being the exception that proves the rule. In the days leading up to the U.S.-led intervention in Libya, Gates made headlines when he declared that Libya was not “a vital interest.” In a similar vein, he warned in a February 2011 speech to West Point cadets, “Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined,' as General [Douglas] MacArthur so delicately put it.” Of course, both comments came near the end of his career.
To be sure, Bin Laden was not constrained by four-year election cycles, legislative gridlock, military-industrial relations, bureaucratic turf wars, international law or any of the other myriad factors that influence U.S. defense strategy. Perhaps more importantly, he did not have the luxury of being able to spend beyond his means, sell bonds to China and invent new debt limits.
Leaner, Meaner Counterterrorism
Having financed the war on terror entirely through borrowing, the United States must prioritize among its counterterrorism operations if the nation is to remain both financially and physically secure. U.S. efforts have severely weakened al-Qaeda, but spending on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and security measures at home have amounted to more than one-fourth of the total increase in U.S. debt during 2001–2011, according to economists Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz.
Setting clear priorities for U.S. counterterrorism operations would also better address a terrorist threat that has evolved since 9/11. An updated U.S. strategy for counterterrorism operations would likely involve scaling down U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda has been decimated, in order to focus on degrading al-Qaeda and its affiliates in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and elsewhere. U.S. policy makers might even decide that money for the long war would be better spent stabilizing Egypt and addressing other challenges that have surfaced in the wake of the Arab Spring.
And while we can learn from Bin Laden’s strategy, it would be a mistake to cast him as a Salafist Sun Tzu. Indeed, his ultimate goal of establishing an Islamic Caliphate was as far-fetched as the idea of winning a war against a tactic. Some of the directives contained in Bin Laden’s letters, like assassinating President Obama in order to put Vice President Biden in the Oval Office, border on the absurd. (His rationale: “Biden is totally unprepared for that post, which will lead the U.S. into a crisis.”)
In the end, the point is made even stronger when accounting for Bin Laden’s errors and fantasies. If the man who imagined that America’s Achilles’ heel was Joe Biden could recognize the importance of setting priorities, so should we.
Jonathan Hillman is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.