Monday, May 2, 2011

Bin Laden

It is a very good thing that Osama bin Laden was finally caught and killed. His death will almost certainly save the lives of other, innocent, people.

All day I've been thinking about the subject (as have many people, I would imagine) and have reflected on how poor most of the mainstream media coverage of this gigantic story has been. There have a few flashes of coherence or insight, but most of the coverage has run the gamut from obvious to irrelevant to wrong.

Before I get into that, however, I wanted to share this link:
Although I understand the emotional reaction to the death of bin Laden, I didn't participate in it. I'm objectively encouraged by the outcome because I think it is a good thing for humanity, but it seems there ultimately is no point in celebrating anyone's death, even the death of someone without whom the world is a markedly better place.

The big thing about this event is the opportunity to exploit bin Laden's elimination to advance the overall campaign against al Qaeda. While the elimination of OBL represents a major blow to the organization, it is not destroyed and remains dangerous. We need to act fast to exploit and act on information collected from the compound in Pakistan and seek to interdict, capture, or kill the remainder of "Tier 0", especially Dr. Zawahiri and Anwar al-Awlaqi, who are the most prominent remaining leaders. By necessity the raid team had to rapidly egress the objective area, but had several minutes (around 30) to exploit the house. They should have been able to gather up essentially all media present there in that time, and that media should provide a treasure trove of information about al Qaeda.

There is essentially no possibility that Osama was living within sight of the Pakistani Military Academy, in a former ISI safehouse, without the knowledge and complicity of the ISI and the Pakistani Army. Some of the best insight I've heard today (from Ralph Peters) was that Osama essentially had to be under ISI "house arrest", held in a (fairly comfortable) jail cell to keep him out of the way as an "ace in the hole" to keep the US $$ flowing and to try to cover up Pakistani complicity in terrorism. Realpolitik does not explain why they would do this - it has to be Islam, and in fact a very specific, extreme form of Islam that would motivate the Pakistani security establishment to ally themselves with al Qaeda. That's a subject for another day.

The CIA probably deserves a lot of credit for the success of this effort. I believe many in the military believed (based on speculation) that bin Laden was dead at various points over the years, including after Tora Bora and again after his rather strange video message in 2007, when his beard appeared dyed, or else the video was made much earlier, and his lips didn't move when he talked. But the CIA, it would seem, kept focused on finding bin Laden when the military seemed to be losing interest or focus on the HVT hunt, in favor of the much more maintream counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A few people have said that we "clearly assassinated" bin Laden, with the implication that this was a Bad Thing. It was not. Reportedly the US team offered bin Laden the chance to surrender and he resisted and was shot. While a better argument could be made that UAV Hellfire strikes (I guess they're also dropping JDAMs these days as well) are properly classified as assassination, this raid most certainly was not. It's a somewhat screwy argument anyway. There is an Executive prohibition on assassination (EO12333) but the President can break his own rules (or those of his predecessors) and since 9/11, Presidents have not been terribly squeamish about using assassination. I wish they would amend or replace EO12333, which was signed by President Ford in response to the Church Committee's expose of the CIA in the 1970s.

There have been many occasions over the years when there was an opportunity to use counterterrorism forces to execute this type of "surgical raid" to interdict some dangerous target - including Osama himself on more than one occasion before 9/11, I believe. But in almost every instance in the past, political decision makers have lacked the will or fortitude to give the final "execute order", and in many cases, badness ensued (President Clinton passed on several opportunities to get Osama before 9/11, I believe). Two previous Presidents have preferred to use the seemingly anonymous and low-risk, but somewhat imprecise UAVs to do their dirty work, rather than "doing it manually". President Obama deserves quite a bit of credit for making the ballsy call on using SEALs vs cruise missiles or precision bombs to get Osama, resulting in a positive ID and more worthwhile outcome, with a probable rich intelligence haul in addition to elimination of bin Laden.

I didn't quite get the emphasis on making a big public point about giving bin Laden a semi-pious Muslim burial (I say semi-pious because I've heard burial at sea is not very Islamic, although I don't really know.) I probably would have said nothing about disposal of his body but characterized him as not a legitimate Muslim, and therefore not entitled to a Muslim burial, because he was a mass murderer. Then I would have conducted an exhaustive autopsy to exploit his body for intelligence about where he's been and what he's been up to for the last few years. The big emphasis on burying him as a Muslim gave him a lot more legitimacy in death than he deserved and highlighted his (improper) status as a martyr.

This operation highlighted the value of Special Operations forces in contending with fourth generation warfare. Although JSOC has a pretty big budget and tend to be major prima donnas, they are still way cheaper than the high-dollar conventional acquisition programs that don't have much relevance to the wars we're fighting lately and seem to usually fail in recent years anyway. The Chinese refer to the fusion of special operations and information operations as "sixth generation warfare" and it was JSOC and CIA's only-recently-learned 6GW tactics that led to the elimination of fourth-generation adversary bin Laden. I don't think they use that term and even fourth generation warfare is a dirty word in the (second generation) conventional US military, but, like many events since 9/11, this one has illustrated the fundamental changes in the nature of society and warfare that have been underway in modern times.