Before Osama bin Laden’s body was even cold—or wet, depending upon how quickly it was committed to the Arabian Sea—the debate over the significance of his demise at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALs was underway. Some suggest he will prove irreplaceable to al Qaeda, a uniquely inspiring leader and fundraiser without whom the terrorist organization will succumb to centripetal forces. Others argue that because he had been in hiding for so long—ever since fleeing Afghanistan in late 2001—bin Laden had become operationally and strategically irrelevant, and that “Al Qaeda Central” had been eclipsed by dangerous franchises like Anwar al-Awlaki’s Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
History can shed some light on this discussion. When President George W. Bush declared he wanted bin Laden “dead or alive” in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, it was not the first time the United States had targeted an individual. Long before Washington offered $25 million for information on bin Laden’s whereabouts, the House of Representatives in May 1886 offered a reward of $25,000 for information leading to the capture or killing of Geronimo. In fact, the United States has deployed forces abroad to kill or capture one man to achieve a strategic objective almost a dozen times. Taken together, these campaigns show that there are three likely outcomes for a strategic manhunt.
• The target escapes, but we achieve our strategic objective. In 1916, 10,000 U.S. troops under General John J. Pershing invaded Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa, who had launched a deadly cross-border raid on Columbus, New Mexico. Although the “Punitive Expedition” failed to apprehend Villa, he was forced into hiding, and his operational capacity was degraded enough that cross-border incursions from Mexico were never again a significant threat to the United States.
Similarly, from 1927 to 1933, U.S. Marines pursued the Nicaraguan insurgent leader Augusto Sandino. Although Sandino was never captured, the U.S. presence led to the establishment of a stable, pro-American government.
• We capture or kill the target, but fail to achieve our broader objectives. In 1901 an American expedition led by Frederick Funston captured Filipino insurgent leader Emilio Aguinaldo. Fighting continued for nearly a decade, however, and the most brutal phase of the counter-insurgency campaign occurred after Aguinaldo swore a loyalty oath to the United States.
In the same way, U.S. intelligence assets and Delta Force assisted Colombian police in tracking and eventually killing drug lord Pablo Escobar, yet the nexus of cocaine trafficking from Colombia merely shifted from Medellín to Cali.
And U.S. forces captured Saddam Hussein and killed Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, but neither success marked the turning point in defeating the Iraqi insurgency.
• We capture or kill the target, and achieve our strategic objective. In 1886, Geronimo surrendered to U.S. forces at Skeleton Canyon, marking the effective end of the Apache Wars which had once led General William Tecumseh Sherman to propose abandoning the Arizona Territory altogether.
In 1967, the capture and execution of Che Guevara by U.S.-trained (and clandestinely advised) Bolivian Army rangers ended the hemispheric threat of Cuban-exported Communist revolution.
And in 1989, the invasion of Panama and arrest of Manuel Noriega allowed that country to make a successful transition to democracy.
Thus, in the majority of cases, the success or failure in apprehending the targeted individual does not correlate with success or failure in achieving the broader strategic objective. An obvious exception is the failure to snare Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid and that country’s descent into its present Hobbesian nightmare. In retrospect, U.S. interests would probably have been better served by elevating Aidid to strongman than hunting him.
The reason for the disparity between the outcome of a manhunt and the achievement of our objective is simple: Pursuing an individual and forcing him to go to ground renders him strategically ineffective and creates space for other actors to step to the fore. From a strategic standpoint, the successful targeting of an individual is usually less important than the successful targeting of the network that either supports him or will carry on the struggle in his absence.
This explains the strategic success of the Geronimo campaign, the Che manhunt, and Operation Just Cause in Panama. In August 1886 the United States cruelly exiled all Chiricahua and White Springs Apaches, denying Geronimo potential sanctuary and recruits and leading him to surrender. The operation that captured Che Guevara was part of the Bolivian Army’s broader counterinsurgency campaign. And, recognizing the difficulty of targeting a dictator who specialized in counterintelligence, U.S. planners intentionally sought to neutralize key units of the Panamanian Defense Forces to render Noriega a general without an army once he evaded the initial snatch operation.
Which category will best describe bin Laden? The ultimate strategic significance of bin Laden’s killing depends on several questions about al Qaeda, the answers to which will become apparent only with time.
Was bin Laden strategically irrelevant by the time of the SEALs’ raid, or will the computers seized from the Abbottabad compound show that he still exerted operational control over al Qaeda and its affiliates? Will another charismatic leader emerge to unify the al Qaeda franchises that have grown up over the past decade? Are these groups more dangerous as a decentralized network, or will the lack of a common strategy undermine their effectiveness? Is “bin Ladenism” an ideology gone viral that cannot be suppressed, or will the Arab Spring blunt its violent appeal?
Bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. forces was an important moment for American morale in the broader struggle against al Qaeda and its affiliates, and it represents a triumph of justice over evil. Whether it turns out to be a strategically significant turning point depends in part on choices the United States makes as it continues to prosecute the war.
Benjamin Runkle is a former official of the National Security Council and the author of Wanted Dead or Alive: Manhunts from Geronimo to Bin Laden (forthcoming August 2 from Palgrave Macmillan).