It's a year since the daring Navy SEAL raid that took down Osama bin Laden. (The al Qaeda leader was killed around 1 a.m. on May 2 in Pakistan, but it was mid-day to early afternoon on May 1 in the U.S.)
It was a triumph of American arms, satisfying retribution for al Qaeda's attacks on New York and Washington, and a major blow to the global jihadist network. But it points up the many mistakes we've made and continue to make in the wake of 9/11, and reminds that even the surgical use of military force provides only part of a solution.
* The raid into Abbottabad was a great success.
Sending the SEALs into Pakistan to get bin Laden, less than a mile from Pakistan's equivalent to West Point, was a bold move by President Barack Obama. It was 1:22 p.m. Eastern Time on May Day when then CIA Director Leon Panetta, at Obama's direction, ordered Admiral William McRaven in Afghanistan to send his SEALs across the border into Pakistan. Things could easily have gone sour, just as they did for another president facing a challenging re-election campaign, Jimmy Carter, in 1980 when he sent the then new Delta Force into Iran to rescue the American hostages only to run afoul of helicopter failure at the Desert One staging area.
In fact, they nearly did go sour for Obama and the U.S., with the failure of another helicopter, this one a finicky stealth model, in the thin, warmer than expected air just above bin Laden's compound. But the Navy commandos adjusted, moved forward, and accomplished their mission nearly 10 years after then President George W. Bush made his hollow pledge that bin Laden could run, but he couldn't hide.
* In contrast, there was Tora Bora.
Less than a month after 9/11, the U.S. and U.K. moved against the Taliban regime which sheltered bin Laden in Afghanistan, using air power and small numbers of special operations and intelligence personnel to disrupt al Qaeda's base there and help Afghan proxy forces unseat the government. By December 2001, bin Laden and al Qaeda were very much on the run, with the jihadist icon taking refuge in his mountain fastness of Tora Bora along the Afghan border with Pakistan.
But rather than move U.S. forces in to catch the man behind the biggest attack on America since Pearl Harbor, the Bush/Cheney White House decided to rely on Pakistani border guards and Afghan warlords instead.
At the critical moment in the battle, Pakistani militants attacked the Indian Parliament, nearly leading to war between Pakistan and India and leading the Pakistanis to shift forces from the border with Afghanistan to the border with India.
And, at the same time, the Bush/Cheney administration had Central Command chief General Tommy Franks and his staff scrambling to draw up plans not to to take down bin Laden, who did attack America on 9/11, but to invade Iraq, which had nothing to do with it! As Peter Bergen, who interviewed bin Laden in the late '90s, recounted in "The Battle for Tora Bora" in The New Republic, it was, at best, a comedy of errors.
Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden was pinned down in Tora Bora by U.S. air strikes. But not for long.
* All things have consequences.
The bin Laden raid brought the very shaky alliance with Pakistan into dramatic relief. Things have gone downhill since between the U.S. and Pakistan.
But did the raid, which embarrassed and angered the Pakistanis, make things worse? Or simply shine a light on a very bad situation?
I tend to think the latter. But the big mess of it all coming to light in the wake of the bin Laden raid is a clear consequence of the raid.
* The debacle that is AfPak strategy.
I've written a lot since 2009 about the highly problematic nature of what Obama is doing in Afghanistan. It's only gotten worse in the last three years. Much worse.
Invading Iraq in the wake of 9/11 was an obvious non sequitur. The ongoing Afghan War isn't as illogical as that. But it doesn't make much sense, and it isn't working.
* Counter-terrorism, yes. Counter-insurgency, no.
In contrast to the success in not only getting bin Laden but also many of his key colleagues, gravely disrupting if not finishing al Qaeda as an organization, through counter-terrorism action, there is the Brobdingnagian ongoing debacle in Afghanistan.
The core mission of running al Qaeda out of their bases in Afghanistan morphed into a huge nation-building exercise, one which is failing. Transnational terrorists can operate from anywhere.
The core Al Qaeda organization is at a very low ebb. Despite threats of retaliation for the death of bin Laden, it hasn't been able to react. At this point, the danger from al Qaeda seems not so much from the organization per se but from the idea of it, from lone wolf operators and franchisees who've adopted the brand. They may be more apt to arise from anger over a huge long-term American role in the Islamic world.
* The success of the bin Laden raid is a big problem for Mitt Romney.
Romney is running as a super-hawk. He's accused Obama of "appeasement." Conveniently a Mormon missionary in France (France? Hardly prime territory for Mormon recruitment.) during the Vietnam War, Romney never wore the uniform but makes plenty of bellicose sounds. An advocate of the invasion of Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11, he sounds like he wants war with Iran, which also had nothing to do with 9/11. (But may be trying to develop nuclear weapons, not that Romney has any idea of how an extraordinarily risky war with Iran would actually work.)
Romney criticized Obama during Obama's first campaign for advocating anti-al Qaeda raids inside Pakistan, as you see in the linked Reuters story from August 2007 and derided the hunt for bin Laden as a mistake. Romney was joined in his criticism of candidate Obama for pushing the raids by John McCain (who says now that Obama is politicizing his success), George W. Bush, and Dick Cheney.
"I do not concur in the words of Barack Obama in a plan to enter an ally of ours. I don't think those kinds of comments help in this effort to draw more friends to our effort," Romney told reporters at the time.
In other words, Romney was for the invasion of Iraq, which was a failure, and against the policy that led to success with bin Laden.
It all adds up to a big political oops for Romney.
* A bigger picture: The old energy economy and the new.
The contagion of jihadism is a constant. Religious fundamentalism is heavily proselytized as a response to the complex challenges of the modern world, positing an anti-modernist theocracy in its stead. But it can be a low-grade fever rather than something of raging virulence.
It's simplistic to say that America is responsible for the 9/11 attacks. That's the stance of knee-jerk anti-America thinking. But it is also simplistic to imagine that we can't and don't inflame the situation.
We certainly did that with the invasion of Iraq. We're doing that with the war in Afghanistan. We do that with a heavy-handed big presence in the Islamic world, in which counter-insurgency becomes nation-building becomes development of client states.
Even counter-terrorist activities have to be carefully calibrated. At a certain point, stirring up anger outweighs the effectiveness of yet another drone strike. The trick is figuring that out.
Absent our addiction to the old energy economy of petroleum, of course, much of this, maybe most of it, wouldn't be happening.
To his credit, Obama is also focusing on the new energy economy. For decades, many of us have pushed for renewable energy, conservation, energy efficiency, and new vehicles and transportation alternatives to move America off its fossil fuel addiction which so fatefully affects the climate, causes health problems, and leads national leaders to place our military into harm's way. ("Drill, baby, drill," by the way, the Palinesque simpleton solution, is a pretty irrelevant strategy absent nationalization of the oil industry. Oil is a global market. Even though U.S. oil production is way up, there's no real impact on the price, which is set in global markets as I show every day on New West Notes.)
But he hasn't made enough progress to remove us from our oily morass. There are many reasons why that's so. Only some of them have much to do with the man in the Oval Office. More have to do with an easily distracted society that won't focus strongly enough on the central question.
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