Sunday, October 16, 2011

Obama and Osama

Three years ago this month, a woman at a Presidential Debate in Tennessee asked Barack Obama whether he would pursue Al Qaeda leaders into Pakistan.

Although Pakistan was a sovereign nation and an ally, Obama replied that "If we have Osama bin Laden in our sights" and Pakistan would not act, "then I think we have to act. . . .we will kill bin Laden." Republican candidate John McCain called this answer "foolish."

I recalled that exchange when President Obama’s orders led to bin Laden’s death in Abbottabad, Pakistan – and, more recently, looking over the field of potential challengers to the President.

Obama was personally involved in key decisions regarding the raid. He didn’t meddle in logistical details; but at several moments when uncertainty prevailed, Obama had to make decisions. He made the right ones.
First, just a few months after taking office, Obama reviewed the programs for tracking bin Laden he’d inherited from the previous administration. He found them inadequate, and requested a more detailed plan and increased effort.

(On August 6, 2001, when Obama’s predecessor received a briefing titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S," the family-newspaper version of his response was "All, right, you’ve covered your butt now." To be fair to Bush, the threat probably sounded somewhat unlikely; no one knows how a more "hands-on" President might have reacted; perhaps nothing could have prevented 9/11; but it was more clearly ominous than Bush’s advisors later claimed. The briefer said, "An Egyptian Islamic Jihad operative told an [redacted] service . . . that Bin Laden was planning to exploit the operative’s access to the U.S. to mount a terrorist strike," and mentioned many aspects of the strike that occurred five weeks later, including use of hijacked airliners.)

In the fall of 2010, analysts learned that bin Laden might be in a compound in Abbottabad. Observations strengthened their belief that he was.

They weren’t certain. As late as a week before the raid, according to a New Yorker article citing an unnamed counter-terrorism official, when a dozen CIA analysts were asked their levels of confidence bin Laden was really there, the answers ranged from 40% to more than 90%. Some officials urged Obama to wait for stronger confirmation – which would have risked a leak and the possibility that bin Laden might move again.

Obama’s military advisors also differed as to the best form of attack. The Washington Post called them "sharply divided." Several feared that an operation inside Pakistan was too risky. About six weeks before the raid, some wanted to await more intelligence, some wanted the helicopter raid, and some favored a B-2 bombing. Holdover Defense Secretary Robert Gates argued vigorously for an air strike, recalling the failed 1980 attempt to rescue hostages in Iran. Such a strike would have required a huge blast equivalent to an earthquake in Abbottabad. Obama rejected the plan, noting that it might flatten much of the city – and that it would leave uncertainty that bin Laden had really been killed.

Then Obama made a key adjustment when military planners briefed him on details of the planned raid: to the two Blackhawks that would go to bin Laden’s compound, he added four Chinooks. Forty-five minutes after the Blackhawks took off, the Chinooks followed. Two landed just before the border, in Afghanistan, ready to assist if needed; and two continued into Pakistan, loaded with SEALs, and one also carried extra gas in case the Blackhawks needed it.

The first Blackhawk, which was to hover above the compound while the SEAL’s fast-roped down to the ground, got caught in its own rotor wash. (Detailed simulations had used chain-link fencing to simulate the high walls of the compound, and the fences didn’t create the same kind of heat when the helicopter dropped down between them.)

The pilot made a sort of crash landing and the men rushed out into the compound. But the Blackhawk was destroyed. Had a Chinook not been waiting within range, and had there been no extra gas, it is questionable whether everyone would have returned safely to Afghanistan.

Obama consulted intelligently with the military, raised a couple of critical questions, made the necessary decisions, then left them alone to do their jobs, though he watched the entire raid as it happened. Maybe he was lucky, but he applied his considerable intelligence in a way that made a positive difference: amping up the search effort, not waiting for absolute certainty that bin Laden was there, choosing the helicopter raid over an air strike, and adding the Chinooks as a precaution. This doesn’t detract from one’s respect for the military officers who planned the details of the operation, practiced intensely, and carried it out. They did it skillfully and well, including many details other officers might easily have overlooked, and they deserve credit.

Afterward, Obama met with the SEALs, who gave him a detailed briefing and answered his questions – and expressed their appreciation. Obama, said to be "in awe of these guys," praised them and gave them medals. They gave him a framed flag from one of the Chinooks. As one observer put it, "They knew he had staked his Presidency on this. He knew they staked their lives on it."

When Obama learned a dog had been on board, and that the dog – muzzled – was in a nearby room, he insisted on meeting the dog, too. One of the SEALs joked that the President had better take some treats in with him. Cairo was kept muzzled. The President petted him, but there is no record of what, if anything, he said to the dog.

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, 16 October.]

        A more intellectually interesting column might discuss the legality of the killing of Osama bin Laden by the United States.  

I know how it feels.  It feels right, although some of the more excessive celebrations by folks here at home were pretty tasteless.   I have to feel that if someone killed a few of my cousins then hid out in someone else's house -- or, say, a church, claiming sanctuary -- while threatening to kill my sister and kids next week, I'd be right in going after him, whatever the law might say.  It ain't like Osama was denying responsibility for the attack, so there wouldn't have been much to try in court.  (I have a hard time envisioning him trying an insanity defense.)  And since he was still doing what he was doing, the killing wasn't merely punitive, but may have saved lives. 

But was it right as a matter of law?  That's something I'm curious about, but haven't gotten around to researching or reasoning out. 

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