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 on terror.”
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 strategy.”
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 purpose
Contrary 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 involvement unnecessary.
When possible, 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 Qaeda.
III. Winning will take time
The hunt 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 struggle.”
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 Washington Post reported 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 week.
• 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
The Bush 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.