Well it’s (expletive deleted) about time! That is both my analytical and emotional bottom line on the raid that killed Osama bin Laden yesterday, on May 1, 2011. It is embarrassing, even humiliating, that it took the US government, notably the CIA, nearly a decade to chase down and take out of play this horrible man. We spend well in excess of $45 billion a year on intelligence, and it’s hard not to conclude that much of this money is not well spent, particularly that portion that does not go to directly support our warfighters.One could even make the case that most of the US national security tragedies of the past decade and beyond have been in the main the fault of the CIA. The CIA played a part, if not perhaps the major part, in allowing the September 11 attacks to succeed in the first place, and that it was the CIA, notwithstanding its brilliant successes at the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, that allowed bin Laden, Zawarhiri and most of the rest of Al Qaeda’s top leadership to escape at the battle of Tora Bora. Let us not forget, as well, that CIA’s mishandling of the weapons-of-mass-destruction portfolio in Iraq is largely to blame for that war. Had there not been a national security case based on the potential leakage of Iraqi nuclear weapons or fissile materials, there probably would not have been sufficient support for a war even amid the other, lesser arguments that some Administration officials made for one. Rarely noted, too, the CIA also either did not have or failed to communicate a sophisticated analysis of what a post-Ba’athi situation would look like in Iraq. This was a failure that did nothing to help Phase IV planning, such as it was. The CIA seems also to have completely ignored the question of what a Shi’a government in Baghdad would mean in the longer term for regional politics, and this was not a second-order, but rather a first-order question that somebody should have asked. The blame for all this does not lie on the CIA alone, of course. The problem with American intelligence is complex and the blame for it is widely shared. But it is a huge problem. David Petraeus will really have his hands full if he understands the full measure of the challenge that he apparently has agreed to undertake.
* *One of the most interesting questions about the context of yesterday’s raid is the role that Pakistan has played in all of this. There are essentially three ways to interpret the Pakistani role. One way is to believe that neither the government, the army, nor the ISI knew where bin Laden was. The second way is to believe that at least the ISI knew where he was but, for reasons of its own, decided not to tell anybody. Third is to believe the second, but add that for some reason, not too hard to guess, the ISI, with the army leadership most likely, decided that this was a good time to trade bin Laden to the United States in return for something they want in the context of what is today a very roiled relationship. Maybe what they want is a free hand in Afghanistan after we leave, and maybe they think that this will contribute to that in some way. I am not privy to the discussions on this point lately, so I simply do not have the raw data to connect the dots. Whatever turns out to be true of Pakistani foreknowledge of bin Laden’s whereabouts, it is quite possible that this event will have a major effect on US relations with Pakistan. If it turns out that they have been diddling us all along—hardly a far-fetched possibility—then one consequence may be to ignore Pakistani concerns and go directly after Mullah Omar and the rest of the Quetta shura. One large “daisy cutter”, properly placed, might just do the trick. If it turns out that Pakistan has been more part of the problem in tracking down bin Laden than part of the solution—if, in other words, this has been part of Pakistan’s double game all along—then it reflects backward on a comment I made just days after 9/11. I was very struck by President Bush’s call for “moral clarity” just after the attacks. And my reply to this at the time was that moral clarity is all very nice, but in this case it would be very hard to achieve. In President Bush’s “us versus them” world, the world in which one was either for us or against us—reminding us old enough of John Foster Dulles’ similar locution—he apparently had not reckoned with the fact that the sources of the 9/11 attack came most proximately from three countries that we counted as allies: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan. It was Saudi Arabia that brewed the radical stew in its Wahhabi schools, Egypt whose repression helped produce and then push out Ayman Zawahiri and his cohorts into bin Laden’s arms, and Pakistan that had helped create the Taliban regime in its effort to keep its hand firmly on the collar of Afghan politics. Moral clarity is hard to achieve when three of your closest regional allies are in fact responsible for the problem you are trying to solve in the first place. What do things look like now, 10 years out? We’ll see about Pakistan. As for Egypt, it is now in flux, true, but its army is still capable of brutal repression against Islamist opposition should the need for brutality arise, and it could have the same exportive effect in the future that it has had in the past. As for Saudi Arabia, if you look at Saudi textbooks a dozen years ago and look at them today, you will see that very little if anything is changed. The Saudis are still stirring the stew. So while bin Laden is dead, the contributions of these three so-called allies remain much too similar to what they were before 9/11. We are more vigilant today than we were then, but it would be too much to say that the sources of those attacks have gone away. President Obama was nice enough to say last night that Pakistani intelligence was useful in the unfolding of this event, but it was also clear that we did not inform the Pakistani government or any other government of exactly what we were about to do and that Pakistani forces did not contribute in any way to the actual operation. One does this—or in this case one does not do this—for two possible reasons. One reason is that one does not want to implicate Pakistan in the operation in order to lessen its potential cost of participation at the hands of its domestic foes; this is a reason one chooses if one wishes to act like a faithful ally. A second reason is that we did not want the plan to leak and thus fail. (It would not have been the first time.) This is a reason one chooses out of sheer self-interested prudence. I’d be willing to bet that reason number two took pride of place in the run-up to yesterday’s raid.
* *Speaking of leaks and intelligence matters generally, one of the things our government should be and no doubt is doing right now is to assess what, if any, additional intelligence can be gathered from the house where bin Laden was living and from those left alive from the raid. It would be nice, certainly, if there were an intelligence windfall from all this. If there is, it should look both backward and forward. It should look backward to assemble a timeline of where bin Laden has been since escaping at the battle of Tora Bora. It’s important for us to know why we have had such trouble finding him. It will help us re-examine our sources and methods against the future. More important, perhaps, if we can find out where other senior al-Qaeda figures are hiding out, we will need to act very quickly on whatever intelligence we have before they move. So we should be watching the news cycle for the next 72 hours or so to see if any immediate benefit from the intelligence haul is to be had. Looking further into the future, there is a question about how important bin Laden’s death will be for what used to be called the war on terror. Notwithstanding the problem we still have with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan, it could be very important. Symbols matter, and they matter in a special way in the Middle East, where politics are at the same time highly “us-versus-them” polarized and personalized, and where oaths of loyalty are taken seriously. It is also a place where conspiracy theories are very popular, and one of those theories has had it in recent years that if the omnipotent United States wanted bin Laden dead, he would be dead; so that if he isn’t dead, the Americans must be up to something dark and sneaky. This is in almost every respect unhelpful thinking, and so the fewer pretexts there are for it the better. Some observers have claimed that the Bush Administration, in its second term, de-emphasized the search for bin Laden and other senior al-Qaeda leaders. I don’t know if this is true, but if it is it was a mistake. If it is true, and if the Obama Administration reversed that judgment upon assuming office, then good for it, and it deserves to take political credit for yesterday’s success. Finally for now, it seems fairly obvious that closing the book on bin Laden will make it easier for the White House to withdraw maximum numbers of US forces from Afghanistan before the next presidential election. In my view, this policy has been foreordained by American politics and the President’s personal interest in it. But this success will certainly help politically in every way. President Obama did say, of course, that taking bin Laden out does not mean we are finished with the task of protecting the country from Islamist terrorists. It is good he said that. But that does not change the raid’s proximate political impact on the war in Afghanistan: It makes withdrawal easier.