Political Imperatives in the Bin Laden Hit

4 May 2011


Taking out Bin Laden was a political imperative in and of itself, and the operation therefore was therefore subject to subordinate political imperatives. The political whole is the sum of its constituent political parts, and if any one of those political parts had been compromised, the operation might have been more counter-productive than no operation at all.

A couple of days ago in More Questions that Answers I reviewed some of the obviously politically-motivated questions that have been asked in the wake of the Bin Laden hit. In that post I addressed the burial of the body at sea, especially in the context of the need of the US to retain the body to preemptively squelch rumors that Bin Laden had survived and escaped, as well as the need to dispose of the body in such a way to to leave no shrine, memorial, or place of pilgrimage.

These things ought to be too obvious to need to be said. And they are. The fact that they are being said despite being obvious tells us that these statements are being made in order to make a point. Firstly and most obviously, those who looked to Bin Laden as a symbol want to have a public record of the facts of the case as they see them. In future lists of grievances such “facts” can then be brought forward as being well documented. Thus one is to expect the extra-judicial nature of the killing to be emphasized, as well as the fact that the operation occurred deep within Pakistan without the approval of Pakistani authorities, the circumstances of the recovery of the body by US forces and its eventual disposal, etc.

Other questions being asked — the answers of which are blindingly obvious, indicating a question being asked for political purposes — include many questions about the possible capture and trial of Bin Laden. Even some friendly European governments publicly made the point that Bin Laden’s capture and trial would have been preferable to his being killed outright. But a plan to capture only carries risks that a plan to capture or kill does not carry.

A failed capture would have had momentous political ramifications, and probably unintended, unpredictable consequences that would follow for years or decades. The whole infrastructure of militant Jihadism, deeply compromised by ongoing US operations, could be revitalized, and a sense of triumphalism and almost superhuman resiliency would embolden elements of the movement to plan and to act. Therefore the capture could not be allowed to fail.

If the US had found Bin Laden, attacked him in his hideout, and he had escaped, this would have considerably added to the legend of Bin Laden. There would have been a widespread perception that the US had failed once again to catch him, as at Tora Bora, and that Bin Laden had triumphed again simply by not being caught. It would be better not to find him at all, and let his fate be a mystery, rather than to find him and fail to catch him. Thus arises the political imperative to achieve closure with the raid, regardless of the outcome. That means capturing Bin Laden, and killing him if he could not be captured. Since escape would mean the US would pay a very high political cost, the obvious default position is to shoot to kill if there is any question whatsoever. I assume this means in practical terms that if Bin Laden’s response had been anything other than allowing himself to be peacefully cuffed and taken away, that the soldiers were to err on the side of killing him.

Another imperative of the Bin Laden hit was not involving or engaging the Pakistani military. The SEAL team was reportedly flown in by helicopter below Pakistani radar, and the entire raid lasted about 40 minutes, which was before any official Pakistani military presence could be on the spot. I suspect this was planned and gamed repeatedly, if not obsessively. One suspects that there are few “first responders” in Abbottabad, and that they are not particularly ambitious in engaging superior forces. I suspect it would have been a rather simple affair, if it had been judged necessary, to bribe any first responders on some other pretext, just to be certain that they kept a low profile during the half hour of the commando operation.

The strained and tense relationship between Pakistan and the US is already sufficiently complex without the two attempting to work together in such a sensitive operation — or indeed for the two to work against each other. Here the default position would be to keep as much distance, practically and theoretically, between US actions and Pakistani actions (or inaction).

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Grand Strategy Annex

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