ASCF Report | 1.2.13
By Alan W. Dowd
The nationwide release this month of the film “Zero Dark
Thirty,” which chronicles the hunt for Osama bin Laden, gives us a chance to
revisit some of the lessons of what SEAL Team 6 accomplished in May 2011—and
perhaps to recalibrate the campaign of campaigns once known as the “global war
I. Pakistan is not an ally
After 9/11, there was a debate in
Washington over the dysfunctional Pakistani government, with one side arguing
that Islamabad was doing its best to rein in its unwieldy intelligence service
and military, the other that Islamabad was complicit in what its intelligence
operatives did and what its military didn’t do.
That debate was settled by SEAL
Team 6. After all, bin Laden was hiding in plain sight, in a mansion just
outside Pakistan’s capital, in a
city that hosts Pakistan’s military
academy and serves as a retirement destination for Pakistan’s military brass. Pakistani government officials had to know the most
wanted man on earth was living next door.
Sadly, this wasn’t the first or
last time Pakistan let its American
allies down since 9/11. Islamabad has ceded vast stretches of the country’s
laughably misnamed Federally Administered Tribal Areas to enemy forces.
Pakistani troops have fired on NATO helicopters operating along the
Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier. Terrorists trained in Pakistan have launched
attacks in Afghanistan and India. After the bin Laden strike, Pakistan expelled two-thirds of the U.S. military personnel assigned to
training the Pakistani army. Worse, a
Pakistani court found the man who was instrumental in helping the CIA confirm
the whereabouts of bin Laden guilty of treason. For doing what Islamabad should
have done, he was sentenced to 33 years in prison.
What more can we expect from a government that either knowingly allowed bin
Laden to live among its military elite, or was totally oblivious to bin Laden’s
whereabouts? (Neither alternative is reassuring, especially given Pakistan’s
nuclear arsenal.) Adm. Mike Mullen never bought Islamabad’s
defense, concluding that “Support of terrorism is part of their national
At some point, winning the broader
war will demand tough decisions in Islamabad—or
recognition in Washington that Pakistan is part of the problem. If
the best we can hope for is a transactional relationship with Islamabad, then
someone needs to ask—amid Pakistan’s treatment of informants, sheltering of bin
Laden, aiding of the Haqqani network and Taliban, blockading of NATO equipment,
firing on U.S. forces—what exactly the United States is getting in the transaction.
II. Unilateralism has its place and
to the media mantras, President George W. Bush did not “go it alone” in Iraq or Afghanistan. But President
Barack Obama did in Pakistan, and he was right to do so.
Still, it’s ironic that Obama chose this course of action. After
all, the Bush administration was roundly criticized for acting unilaterally,
alienating allies and launching military operations without UN permission. Yet
the bin Laden strike failed to meet any of these standards:
- It was not authorized by the UN. In fact, some observers
in Europe and the Middle East condemned it as illegal.
- It not only alienated the Pakistanis; it humiliated
them. Recall that Islamabad was notified of the operation only after U.S.
forces had left Pakistani airspace.
- It was completely unilateral. Pakistani forces didn’t
even participate in the operation. In fact, contingencies were in place
for the U.S. strike team to fight its way out of Pakistan,
presumably against the Pakistani military.
This is not to
criticize the operation, but rather to highlight an important truth: Sometimes
the only way to address a threat is through unilateral action. In this
instance, the exigencies of speed and timing made UN pre-approval impossible;
Pakistan’s duplicity made involving the Pakistani military and intelligence
services risky; and the U.S. military’s unique capabilities made allied
the U.S. should work in conjunction with partners, but when necessary it
must act alone. Leading from behind is not an option with the likes of al
III. Winning will take time
for bin Laden began in 1996, when the CIA created a special unit devoted solely
to tracking the terror mastermind. Two years later—after the embassy bombings
in East Africa—Washington officially declared war on terror. Noting that bin
Laden had “publicly vowed to wage a terrorist war against America,” President
Bill Clinton launched scores of cruise missiles at bin Laden’s bases in
Afghanistan and at facilities with purported links to al Qaeda in Sudan. “Our
battle against terrorism,” Clinton predicted, “will be a long, ongoing
How long? Already, the struggle
against al Qaeda and its kind has spanned three presidencies and nearly two
decades. Indeed, if the experts are right, it will be measured in decades: In 2001,
Admiral Michael Boyce, then-Chief of the British Defense Staff, concluded that
the post-9/11 campaign of campaigns “may last 50 years.” In 2004, the 9/11
Commission warned that those inspired by bin Laden and his al Qaeda network
“will menace Americans and American interests long after Osama bin Laden and
his cohorts are killed or captured.”
Yet the president’s 2012 campaign rhetoric was sprinkled
with assertions that “the tide of war is receding” and “al Qaeda is on the run,” suggesting
that the killing of bin Laden marked the beginning of the end of the fight
against al Qaeda. But to borrow a phrase from
Churchill, we are much closer to the end of the beginning than the beginning of
the end. As Adm. Eric Olson, former commander of Special Operations Command, puts it,
“al Qaeda version 1.0 is nearing its end but I’m
concerned what al Qaeda version 2.0 will be.”
Although al Qaeda 2.0 hasn’t successfully hit America, it has come very close,
with near misses in the skies over Detroit and in New York City. “The cancer has metastasized to other parts of
the global body,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta explains, sounding a much more
realistic tone than the president.
IV. The front is shifting
SEAL Team 6
found bin Laden in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. To get a sense of how diffuse al
Qaeda 2.0 is, consider these items:
- The most powerful wing of al Qaeda 2.0—al Qaeda
in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP)—has seized large swaths of Yemen. The U.S. has
answered with an array of military responses. Killer drones take off 16 times a
day from Djibouti, many bound for Yemen. A squadron of F-15Es has been deployed
to Djibouti to conduct operations in Yemen. And the CIA has an airbase dedicated
to launching hunter drones against AQAP.
- U.S. forces have conducted and/or supported
numerous operations in Somalia, where the al Shabaab movement merged with al
Qaeda in 2011. The architect
of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings was killed in Somalia in 2011.
- Ansar Dine, a group linked to al Qaeda in the
Islamic Maghreb, claims a vast swath of northern Mali. The WashingtonPostreported in October 2012 that the White House was studying a “broad military,
political and humanitarian intervention” to blunt the jihadist surge in Mali.
The operative word is “studying.”
- In Libya, where an al Qaeda
hit squad murdered a U.S. ambassador, the Pentagon is reallocating funds
from Pakistan to assist Tripoli in creating an anti-terror commando force.
- Boko Haram, with assistance from al Qaeda
operatives, is trying to carve out an Islamist state in Nigeria and has
launched hundreds of bloody attacks toward that end.
- After being decimated by U.S. surge forces in
2007-09, al Qaeda in Iraq now numbers 2,500 and is carrying out 140 attacks per
- The Syrian civil war, like Iraq before it, has
drawn hundreds of al Qaeda fighters. They won’t go away once the fighting
stops. In fact, they are recruiting
and radicalizing disaffected Syrian Sunnis.
Again, Panetta’s words are compelling: “If we turn away from these
critical regions of the world, we risk undoing the significant gains [we] have
made. That would make us all less safe over the long-term.”
V. The war on terror really is a war
administration used the term “global war on terrorism” as an umbrella for post-9/11
military operations. But the phrase was always imperfect. We cannot defeat
terrorism, the critics countered, because it is a tactic or a method. Hence, they
argued that a war on terrorism is a misnomer at best and would be futile at
worst. Perhaps persuaded by this view, the Obama administration jettisoned the term
from official pronouncements.
However, the civilized world has defeated or otherwise
marginalized uncivilized behavior and methods. In his book “Surprise, Security
and the American Experience,” John Lewis Gaddis points to slavery, piracy and
genocide. So, a war on terrorism is not necessarily a futile enterprise.
The Bush administration wrestled internally
with what to call the post-9/11 campaign. Three years after 9/11, then-Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asked, “Are we fighting a global war on terror? Or
are we witnessing a global civil war within the Muslim religion…Or are we
engaged in a global insurgency?” The answer to each question is yes, which
means the language of war is appropriate. As the 9/11 Commission concluded, “Calling
this struggle a war accurately describes the use of American and allied armed
forces to find and destroy terrorist groups and their allies in the field.” Tellingly,
Obama used the word “war” eight times in announcing the strike on bin Laden.
This debate over what to call the
post-9/11 campaign has historical precedent. At the beginning of the Cold War,
the authors of NSC-68, the pivotal national-security document that provided a
roadmap for fighting Soviet communism, argued that success depends on
recognition that this “is in fact a real war in which the survival of the free
world is at stake.”
To be sure, the war on terror
enfolds far more than military operations. Intelligence, law enforcement, development
and diplomacy play important parts. However, these are supporting parts because
al Qaeda and its kind have defined this as a war: In 1996, bin Laden directed
his followers to focus on “destroying, fighting and killing the enemy until…it
is completely defeated.” In 1998, he called on his followers “to kill the
Americans and their allies…do not differentiate between those dressed in
military uniforms and civilians; they are all targets.”
That became clear on 9/11, when
al Qaeda’s war reached our shores. Those who accept al Qaeda’s creed have
proven that they are tenacious military adversaries who seek our defeat. They are
not drug dealers, mobsters or scofflaws. Hence, repackaging this as something other than war—or trying to fight global terrorism with lawyers rather
than warriors—is counterproductive. It pays to recall
that indictments didn’t stop bin Laden from waging war on America. But SEAL Team 6 did.
*Dowd is a senior fellow with the American Security Council Foundation, where he writes The Dowd Report, a monthly review of international events and their impact on U.S. national security.