Many perspectives, 1 simple etiquette

Was It Worth It: Failing to Quickly Eliminate bin Laden

Author: David Yee
Created: 18 December, 2014
Updated: 15 October, 2022
7 min read
On a top secret mission on May 1, 2011 (UTC), Navy SEALs crossed deep into Pakistani territory to attack a compound suspected to be occupied by Osama bin Laden in Abottabad, Pakistan.

Since 2004, American forces had attacked targets in Pakistan, but almost exclusively operated in rural northwest Pakistan just inside the border from Afghanistan. The justification being that this semi-autonomous, rural area lacked proper control by the Pakistani authorities -- cross border raids were too big of a threat to American security.

This attack was different; it was deep inside of Pakistan's northeast region, in a major metropolitan area (more than 1 million residents), and had political stability from the military and national government.

SEALs stormed the compound, killing 5 people including bin Laden -- with no loss of American life.

But what took so long? What are the long term geopolitical effects of our midnight raid?

Was it worth it? Waiting for almost 10 years to attack bin Laden when we clearly had him on the run in 2002?

Early Attempts to Assassinate bin Laden

As early as 1991, the CIA had been keeping tabs on Osama bin Laden in Sudan as a potential national security threat.

George Tenet, a former CIA director, noted in his memoirs that "as early as 1993, had declared bin Laden to be a significant financier backer of Islamic terrorist movements. We knew he was funding paramilitary training of Arab religious militants in such far-flung places as Bosnia, Egypt, Kashmir, Jordan, Tunisia, Algeria, and Yemen.”

In 1996, bin Laden moved his base of operations from Sudan to Afghanistan. The Sudanese government saw bin Laden as a liability and expelled him and 150 others from the country. From Afghanistan, bin Laden created an ideal haven for terrorist training grounds, command structure, and bases of operation.

As a result of solid American intelligence, it was discovered that bin Laden was directing al-Qaeda actives using a satellite phone. This knowledge allowed the CIA and NSA to track bin Laden's movements and identify high ranking al-Qaeda members. The CIA was able to capitalize on this mistake until 1998 when al-Qaeda became privy to the intercepts.

By 1998, there was no doubt in the State Department or American intelligence agencies that bin Laden posed a significant threat to the United States. The embassy bombings of August 1998 only further confirmed that al-Qaeda was seeking larger targets and becoming more sophisticated in its attacks.

In an eerie foreshadowing of events, former-President Bill Clinton discussed his angst over not assassinating bin Laden in 1998 with the media just a few short hours before the 9/11 attacks. Clinton stated that he wanted to assassinate bin Laden, but could not justify the cost to civilian lives (estimated at over 300 casualties).

We knew bin Laden was growing bolder and more aggressive -- was concern over 300 civilian casualties worth the combined deaths of 9/11?

Post 9/11: The Shift Away from Hunting bin Laden

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, President George W. Bush repeatedly stated that capturing or killing bin Laden was America's top priority.

Yet, by March 2002, Bush would criticize those who were still focusing on bin Laden:

Deep in my heart I know the man is on the run, if he's alive at all. Who knows if he's hiding in some cave or not; we haven't heard from him in a long time. And the idea of focusing on one person is -- really indicates to me people don't understand the scope of the mission. Terror is bigger than one person. And he's just -- he's a person who's now been marginalized. His network, his host government has been destroyed.

In fairness, Bush was proven correct in that no further major attacks would be attributed to bin Laden. But the change in strategy and focus allowed al-Qaeda to redistribute forces (namely to Iraq) and eventually to rebrand itself into the Islamic State (ISIL/ISIS).

But Bush was also correct that the problem was bigger than one man. In 2002, the American-led forces had al-Qaeda forces on the run. The change in strategy not only kept us from capturing/killing bin Laden, but it also kept us from completely destroying the al-Qaeda terrorism network in Afghanistan -- and that continues to haunt American foreign policy, even today.

Two Foreign Policy Disasters: Iraq and Pakistan

Easing pressure on al-Qaeda gave the organization two avenues for escape --following us into Iraq and establishing operations in the semi-autonomous, tribal-regions of northwest Pakistan. Both Iraq and Pakistan gave al-Qaeda the chance to regroup and to re-engage American-led forces, who were in much better shape than the full-retreat and confusion that existed in the early weeks of the attack.

A large book could be written about the foreign policy complications in Iraq, but Pakistan is much more simple and direct, and resulted in damaging relations with a long time ally and secular government in the region.

American relations with Pakistan have been "hot and cold" since its founding after WWII. Since WWII, Pakistan's military has been heavily dependent on American technology. Pakistan was forced to reassess this dependency during the late 1980s and early 1990s because of an American policy (the Pressler Amendment) requiring certification of Pakistan's non-nuclear status.

While Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush both largely ignored the Pressler Amendment, Pakistan began diversifying its military spending with large purchases from France (mainly naval technology) and joint ventures with China (mainly in the form of aircraft development).

The importance of this: by 9/11, Pakistan was already taking large proactive steps to ween itself from American military hardware and aid.

Immediately following the military coup in 1999, American policy was typically one of non-comment toward the ousting of a democratically elected government. Once needed to assist in our objectives in Afghanistan, America paid a substantial aid package (estimated at over $30 billion over ten years) to gain Pakistan's cooperation, giving de facto legitimacy to the military government.

While early stages of the deal were seen as beneficial to the United States, Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters began using areas in Pakistan under tribal rule as safe havens. With the inability or reluctance of Pakistan's government to destroy them, American forces began a substantial drone campaign.

At between 250-400 missions, civilian loss of life has been estimated by several watchdog groups to be between 300-1,200 lives.

The long-term effects on foreign policy:

  • We had already alienated Pakistan through the Pressler Amendments (and earlier trade/aid policies tied to uranium enrichment);
  • They had already found other means of military development by the time of the coup and then 9/11;
  • They accepted the aid package and alliance to legitimize their coup and consolidate control;
  • They were put into a social and political no-win situation with the insurgent use of semi-autonomous tribal lands (as noted by recent events, Pakistan deals with its own insurgency problems independent of ours);
  • Our drone strikes violated their sovereignty and portrayed their military as helpless;
  • They tried to downplay drone strikes as border incursions;
  • The attack on bin Laden's compound was seen as far more than a border incursion and uncovered embarrassing information on the Pakistani government's knowledge of bin Laden's whereabouts;
  • American aid to Pakistan sharply increases as political tensions worsen--even though our own forces were already drawing down;
  • Widespread allegations of fraud and abuse of American aid given to Pakistan emerge--including allegations of military aid being used to shore up civilian budgets;
  • From 2011-2014, American aid peaks, then sharply falls to levels lower than 2002 levels; and
  • Pakistan continues to strengthen military and economic ties with China -- instead of the aid packages being seen as a measure of long-term goodwill, they were seen (probably by both sides) as payment for the "insult" to national sovereignty.

So in effect, we paid $30 billion to use their airspace for the initial attack on Afghanistan, and then for "political payment" for insulting their national sovereignty with drone attacks, with little to no gain in a long-term restored relationship with Pakistan.

Was it worth it?

Beginning in 1992, on at least four occasions, the CIA developed plans for assassinating bin Laden -- all rejected without much policy debate. That is the real failure of not assassinating him sooner.

I'm definitely not for a government that wildly goes around the world assassinating world leaders, but we had very clear intelligence that "connected the dots" of bin Laden's plans well in advance of his attacks on 9/11. The problem was, there was no inter-agency debate and sharing of information with the executive branch or congressional oversight committees -- no one agency held all of the "dots" to connect.

While Bush tried to combat this with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, there is little to no evidence that the policy debate and information sharing has really increased. Realizing that good intelligence work is often never publicly known, the DHS has kept America on a constant level of "elevated to high" risk (regardless of the system employed) since 9/11 with really no objective evidence as to why.

Poor/incomplete intelligence causes intelligence leaders to make wrong choices. Indecision only delays the problem for another day.

We need a government that reacts to real threats, in meaningful ways--that maximizes public engagement while maintaining national security and secrecy. I'm not sure we've learned this lesson.

Photo Credit: Mr Pics / Shutterstock.com