First reports from the battlefield are notoriously inaccurate, and it’s to be expected that they will be confusing and contradictory – and, considering that “sources and methods” and Pakistani sensibilities are fairly important in this case, probably intentionally misleading. The initial stories about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden may not stand the test of time. But here are some pertinent operational and tactical questions:
- What did the Pakistanis know, and when did they know it? Abbottabad is a long way from Afghanistan by helicopter, and the raid team is supposed to have been in four choppers, one of which went down. Marc Ambinder, a reporter well-wired into the Obama administration, reports that the raid was staged from Ghazi air base in Pakistan, which means the Pakistani military aided and abetted the operation, even if Pakistan’s president Asi ali Zardari was in the dark.
- How was the intelligence “operationalized?” It was one thing to find Osama bin Laden and track him, quite another to figure out how and when to strike. It will have involved extremely meticulous planning and rehearsal, and it’s a good bet there’s a mock-up of the bin Laden complex that was built some place.
- What were the “eyes on target?” This is not an operation that would have been launched, or not aborted at the last moment, without being sure that Osama bin Laden was at home. The compound is in a built-up, urban environment, about 300 meters from a Pakistani military academy. There may well have been some very small team of watchers plus a lot of overhead surveillance, verifying the situation on the ground before inserting the raiding party.
- Tell me, again, exactly the distinction between “counterterrorism” and “counterinsurgency?” Let’s not miss the forest for the trees. The raid is part of a much larger geopolitical effort to create a decent order in those parts of the Muslim world that have been such a danger to U.S. and international security interests, and indeed to Muslims themselves.
The largest lesson of the raid is not the virtues of the dogged counterterrorism experts, however. The ability to generate the intelligence and conduct the raid is the product of years of effort, not just by the intelligence and special operations communities but by the entire American military, diplomatic corps, and political leadership. It’s the result of persistence, not just inspiration. The opportunity would never have come about but for the continuity of U.S. policy from the Bush to Obama administrations, by the sacrifices of Americans in uniform and across the government, of our allies – most especially our Muslim allies.
The temptation to declare victory in the “global war on terror” is, a decade after 9/11, very strong. But Osama bin Laden was only a part of the problem of the “greater Middle East,” and even among the constantly metastasizing forms of al Qaeda. And all Americans can share in the feeling of justice done to an extremely evil enemy. But the so-called “Long War” will continue. A good strategist instinctively reinforces success rather than using it as a cover for retreat.