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September 11, 2012 9:30 AM Reclaiming the Raid: The Death of Osama bin Laden

By Ximena Ortiz

The just released book about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden provides some lead-pumping, anatomically graphic details about the al-Qaeda’s leaders last moments on earth. It is no surprise that such a description of American lethality, delivered in the no-holds-barred sense, would titillate. But amid the macabre jubilee, it bears remembering that the bin Laden raid was a real anomaly, in terms of how American power is usually executed.

In his memoir, No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama bin Laden,Matt Bissonnette makes the sensational claim that bin Laden was gunned down unnarmed. If true, that action would pose some important moral and legal questions. But of more paramount importance is the fact that, in broad strokes, the raid showcased a new, circumscribed approach to dealing out justice abroad. The mission therefore opens policy possibilities.

The bin Laden operation showcased a singular and heretofore unproven type of U.S. global reach. When put against the admittedly more delicate but still high profile failures of the Iran hostage crisis of 1980 and the 1993 fiasco in Mogadishu, it looks particularly remarkable. In short, the mission was a revelation.

How powerful does America look when it can swoop into a remote and highly hostile foreign country, in the midst of a foreign army garrison, and leave swiftly with its target? How agile does America prove to be when it can complete such a phenomenal mission with so few people involved? And how surgical and proportionate did American power appear when it zeroed in on its highest value human target, and caused such minimal collateral fatalities?

Although America had made most of its victories robotically from the sky via drones, the bin Laden mission asserted that America’s human, special-operations’ capabilities are every bit as advanced as its technological hardware. It also proved that there is no quarter of the world closed to American penetration, and that America will make its own invitation, if need be.

The operation was distinct from other manhunts supported by intelligence operations. It did not occur in a country under U.S.-led occupation. It did not occur in a Western country. It occurred in one of the most inhospitable human terrains on earth.

Compare that show of U.S. force to the revelations of the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The wars have wreaked profound fiscal damage, even to a superpower. They have illustrated America’s willingness to use blunt instruments of war and thereby undermine its image of calibrated superpower. In short, the wars have exposed a host of weaknesses.

And so a natural question emerges from the bin Laden operation: can the United States perform missions like the bin Laden mission, without the need for massive troop deployments and occupation? According to W. Patrick Lang (former head of human intelligence collection and Middle East intelligence at the Defense Intelligence Agency), it is possible to do one without the other.

The occupation of Afghanistan, Lang said, has been based on the precepts of Obama’s Counter Insurgency strategy, known as COIN, which is really “armed nation building.” At the same time, the United States has been running Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which joins the intelligence community with elite special forces, to find the terrorists. Although the U.S. has run both COIN and JSOC simultaneously, Lang believes that COIN can be executed independent of JSOC and that the two should not be conflated:

In fact, if you have a base, you can recruit people to spy upon the enemy out of the countryside, in what we would call a denied area, even in a country where there is no significant troop presence.

Such a streamlined response to 9/11would have eventually vindicated American power, just as it was vindicated by the bin Laden raid. Some foreign policy experts contend that applying the COIN lessons of Vietnam to Afghanistan makes for a false comparison. They are right. The human terrain in Afghanistan is more challenging. As Lang puts it:

Even though [COIN] was a very hard thing to do in South Vietnam, we actually didn’t do badly. But the cost is just enormous. I mean you just go on forever in all these little villages, and this was a relatively benign environment. I lived for a year in a village on the border with Cambodia that was completely surrounded by enemy troops, and I used to walk around at night in the village and go to see people at their homes and go to barber shops and have the guy shave me, and things like that. And nobody ever made a hostile move at me. And you can just imagine doing something like that in Afghanistan? I mean, you’d be dead in about 10 minutes.

Of course, there are no guarantees with JSOC missions—just as there are no guarantees with war. And importantly, America must keep a sharp focus in regards to JSOC. It must focus on any plotters that might be left associated with 9/11, or those currently planning to attack the United States. The JSOC community should not be put in the business of assassinating influential Islamists because they say they hate America, or some Pashtun warlord because he says he so admired bin Laden, or a Talib sympathizer because he says he wants to establish a caliphate.

In short, JSOC should mete out justice in an upfront and personal manner, and thereby protect Americans from active plots to kill them. It is not a global police force. It should not be engaged in missions that are hoped to yield speculative policy gains or could cause considerable civilian casualties and incalculable blowback.

The massive military mobilization of the world’s only superpower catapulted Osama bin Laden to super-celeb-jihadidom. America in May 2011 awakened to the killing of a diminished man—and to a viable U.S. tool in reckoning with threats abroad, even in the most hostile territory imaginable.

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Ximena Ortiz covered American politics and foreign policy as executive editor of The National Interest.