The Long Arm of American Military Power

Osama bin Laden’s death shows that the United States still possess the world’s most capable military force.

In recent days, the United States government has exposed more details of the Navy SEAL raid deep inside Pakistan that netted Osama bin Laden. It looks like some of the White House’s earlier remarks about the operation were actually false, including the allegation that bin Laden was armed and deliberately used his wife as human shield.

In hindsight, some of those details should have been taken with a grain of salt anyway. With such big news, the Obama Administration was intent on providing information to the country as fast as possible. The fact that a large part of the original narrative was proven false, or at least inaccurate, is not all that surprising.

What is surprising, however, are the military options that were drafted before the bin Laden operation was given the green light by the president.

Upon turning on CNN and hearing the news of bin Laden’s death, I must confess that I immediately believed that a drone strike had ventured into Pakistani territory to take him out. The use of the pilotless aircraft has been a central tenant of the Obama Administration’s counterterrorism policy over the past two years, particularly inside the Pakistani tribal regions, which are beyond the reach of American ground troops. Since bin Laden was located in a city not too far from the capital of Islamabad, that assumption was eventually thrown out. Yet it turns out that airstrikes, in addition to a few other contingencies, were available to the president in case he wished to take a more conventional approach.

Before the mission was executed, three options were sitting on the president’s desk that the Joint Special Forces Command recommended. First on that list was an aerial attack on bin Laden’s compound, conducted by a B-52 bombing run, that would have literally destroyed the facility beyond recognition.

Although this would have been the safest option for American personnel and perhaps the best chance at making sure the terrorist leader was killed, a B-52 strike in the heart of Pakistan could very well have been seen by the Pakistani people as an attack upon their country. The site of a destroyed mansion and the prospect of civilian casualties, probably including women and children, would have further inflamed the Muslim world by poisoning a successful military operation into a public affairs disaster. And however strange it may sound, a failed strike against the compound might have inflamed bin Laden’s legacy as an individual immune from American military power. He was, after all, quite skillful at dodging American airstrikes over the past twelve years — first in Afghanistan in 1998 and then in Tora Bora in 2001.

The second option drawn up would have included a covert raid with the direct participation of the Pakistani Intelligence Directorate. Having the Pakistanis on board would have allowed the United States to claim some sort of Muslim collusion in the action. A joint operation would also have marginally improved American-Pakistani relations, which have been struggling lately.

Washington has relied upon Pakistani intelligence for many of their terrorism tips, the most significant being the capture of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammad in 2003. Unfortunately, the ISI doesn’t exactly have a good track record when it comes to fighting terrorism in an indiscriminate fashion — Pakistan’s military retains ties to the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network which have been indispensable to the Pakistanis over the last fifteen years. (Both the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network promote Pakistani foreign policy interests by checking Indian influence inside Afghanistan.)

In a raid so important to the United States, both in symbolic as well as operational terms, the American intelligence community was understandably skeptical of soliciting help from the outside.

The third and final option was precisely the tact taken last Sunday — a unilateral and clandestine American mission executed by its most preeminent Special Operations Forces branch. A team of US Navy SEALs flew deep into Pakistan in the middle of the night, stormed bin Laden’s compound after extensive intelligence work dating back to last August, and took out the world’s most wanted criminal.

The successful killing of Osama bin Laden may not translate into much of a gain against the Al Qaeda organization in the long run. It was widely believed between American and European intelligence agencies that bin Laden gave up his operational status long ago and rebranded himself as the group’s most public spokesman and spiritual figure. But for the United States, whose military capabilities have been called into question since the struggles in Afghanistan and Iraq, the fact that bin Laden is no longer on this earth reminds us all that the American military — and intelligence community — still boasts the world’s most talented and dedicated team of defenders.