The Bin Laden Raid: Tactical Brilliance, Strategic Dissonance

By | 2017-05-15T20:27:37+00:00 May 10th, 2017|
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On May 11, 2011, the Obama Administration authorized the U.S. Navy SEAL Team Six to conduct a daring raid into the heart of Pakistan. Abbottabad, Pakistan is the home of the Pakistan military’s most prestigious academy. It also has a very posh VIP section of town where there are very large, private compounds. In one such compound resided al Qaeda leader, Osama Bin Laden. When U.S. intelligence analysts figured out that Bin Laden was living in this isolated compound, they put together a daring plan of attack.

Operation Neptune Spear, the codename for the raid that ultimately killed Bin Laden, was daring on two counts: it sent highly trained U.S. military commandos into the heart of Pakistan and it utilized highly advanced and covert stealth helicopters to transport those SEALs into battle. The raid was an unmitigated tactical success: no American lives were lost, some valuable intelligence was gleaned, and Osama Bin Laden was brought to justice. Everyone in America rightly celebrated this instance of delayed justice.

However, six years later, it is time to take a more critical assessment of the historic raid. We must ask ourselves: was the raid, as it was conducted, worth it? As you will see, on a long-term, strategic level, Neptune Spear was a borderline failure.

Indeed, Neptune Spear was hotly debated within the Obama foreign policy team. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates preferred a simple drone strike against the compound, for maximum plausible deniability. This would have been the most efficient use of U.S. military power. It also would have allowed the Pakistani government the ability to downplay the attack, as they do routinely with U.S. drone strikes in their territory. However, the raid was decided upon for what I believe to have been domestic political reasons. After all, there was a contentious presidential election looming in 2012. President Obama needed every advantage he could get. By conducting the daring raid instead of simply bombing the compound, Obama’s reelection campaign could declare, “Bin Laden is dead and GM is alive” with certainty.

The U.S. strike force utilized experimental stealth helicopters to avoid detection from Pakistan’s air defenses. Unfortunately, one of the two experimental helicopters crashed as it hovered over the compound. The SEALs had to act quickly to destroy the helicopter’s remains as best they could. As with all of their endeavors, the SEALs acted with brilliant professionalism. Through no fault of theirs, the helicopter was not fully destroyed. In fact, the helicopter’s tail section was mostly preserved. That section was left at the compound for the Pakistani authorities to find.

The Pakistanis were deeply humiliated by the raid. Whether they knew Bin Laden was living in Abbottabad or not is irrelevant. Fact is, the flagrant violation of Pakistani sovereignty placed the Pakistani government in an impossible position: ignore the U.S. attack, or cave into anti-American pressure from their radicalized population. They had to straddle a middle ground in order to avoid encouraging their radicalized population (and to keep their military from launching a coup against the civilian authorities). Ergo, in their humiliation; in their desire to placate their virulently anti-American, Islamist-sympathizing population, the Pakistani government collected whatever they could from Bin Laden’s compound—including the wreckage of the stealth helicopter. Pakistan opted to retaliate against America in the geopolitical realm.

Through no fault of theirs, the helicopter was not fully destroyed. In fact, the helicopter’s tail section was mostly preserved. That section was left at the compound for the Pakistani authorities to find.

Pakistan has been growing close with the People’s Republic of China for years. Both Pakistan and China are threatened by India’s rise. The U.S. and India have been growing closer together, as both India and the U.S. share common political systems and are both threatened by Islamic fundamentalism (as well as China’s rise). Meanwhile, Pakistan’s schizophrenic stance on the Global War on Terror has angered their U.S. partners over the years. Pakistan needs China to prevent it from being isolated by America and India on the world stage.

The Bin Laden Raid was the straw that broke the camel’s back for U.S.-Pakistani relations. Knowing that China constantly sought out access to advanced American technology—particularly military technology—Pakistan invited a team of Chinese military leaders to study the captured section of the American stealth helicopter. Due to this act, the Chinese have likely been given critical insight into a new and important U.S. helicopter that many considered to be the future of Special Operations warfare. Think about it: the ability to covertly transport Special Forces teams into hotly contested combat zones confers great power onto the already-powerful United States. China wants not only to neuter that ability, but also to possess a similar capability. By showing the Chinese the wreckage of the American helicopter, then, the Pakistanis have helped China greatly in this regard.

Pakistan invited a team of Chinese military leaders to study the captured section of the American stealth helicopter. Due to this act, the Chinese have likely been given critical insight into a new and important U.S. helicopter that many considered to be the future of Special Operations warfare.

Meanwhile, the diplomatic fallout was temporary, but critical. Despite the painful duplicity of the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, and the schizophrenic nature in which the Pakistanis conducted the Global War on Terror, Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts are essential in the fight against al Qaeda. Pakistan, like Saudi Arabia, is a troublesome partner. Vast swathes of the Pakistanis are, at the very least, sympathetic to the jihadists that the U.S. are fighting.

However, in order to stabilize Afghanistan, the United States must conduct operations against Taliban and al Qaeda elements who have taken refuge across the border in the untamed regions of the Pakistani frontier. Pakistan has allowed U.S. forces to conduct limited drone strikes there for years. After the raid, critical drone operations were halted, creating a strategic gap in the Obama Administration’s War on Terror. It should be noted that Pakistan ultimately allowed for the drone missions to resume, but they exacted heavy diplomatic costs from America.

Following the raid, the Obama Administration was desperate to tout its foreign policy success in the run up to the 2012 Presidential election. In the process of this incessant backslapping, critical sources and methods were revealed to the press. Due to this, heroic Pakistanis who risked everything to ensure Bin Laden’s location was forwarded to the United States were inadvertently revealed to the vengeful Pakistani authorities. These brave souls now languish hopelessly in a horrific Pakistani prison.

The Obama Administration’s loose lips sent a signal to anyone seeking to help the United States: you will be exposed and possibly arrested or killed for your trouble. Further, it added to the animosity felt by Pakistanis for the United States, as we sought the release of those Pakistanis who facilitated the U.S. raid in Abbottabad.

Following the raid, the Obama Administration was desperate to tout its foreign policy success in the run up to the 2012 Presidential election. In the process of this incessant backslapping, critical sources and methods were revealed to the press. Due to this, heroic Pakistanis who risked everything to ensure Bin Laden’s location was forwarded to the United States were inadvertently revealed to the vengeful Pakistani authorities.

Due to this, U.S.-Pakistani relations have been incredibly strained. While the Pakistani government continues to do business with the United States (they need U.S. military support desperately), the Pakistani people (and elements of Pakistan’s intelligence service) are increasingly hostile toward the United States. It is likely that U.S.-Pakistani relations will never be rehabilitated. This is unfortunate, especially considering that U.S.-Pakistani relations were on the mend up until the Abbottabad Raid.

As the 2012 GOP Presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, rightly pointed out: the Bin Laden Raid did little in the way of ending the Global War on Terror. In fact, it effectively cleared the decks in the jihadist community. It allowed the Taliban to distance itself from al Qaeda politically. The move also allowed for other jihadist groups, such as ISIS, to rise to prominence, spreading their particularly pernicious brand of terror across the globe.

We should honor our brave SEALs, who entered into the fray to bring to justice the murderer of thousands of innocents. At the same time, however, we should place the raid in its proper historical context. The raid was a stroke of genius at the tactical level. Yet, unfortunately, it made little strategic sense, in the long-run. America’s long-term strategic interests rest in keeping its military secrets away from China, maintaining cordial relations with unstable Pakistan, and ensuring that those who stick their necks out for the United States are protected. For, if America will not protect those who risk life and limb to help us, then others around the world will be less inclined to assist us in the future.

The Bin Laden Raid worsened America’s strategic position on all three counts. That is the true legacy of the Obama Administration’s Raid in Abbottabad. We must never forget this sad fact. And we must never lose sight of American strategic interests again. The costs are too high.

About the Author:

Brandon J. Weichert
Brandon J. Weichert is a former Republican Congressional staffer and national security expert who now runs The Weichert Report, www.theweichertreport.com, an online journal of geopolitics. He holds Master's degree in Statecraft & National Security from the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. He is also an Associate Member of New College at Oxford University and holds a B.A. in Political Science from DePaul University. He is currently completing a book on national security space policy due out next year.
  • Joel Mathis

    I believe Brandon is mistaken. It presumes that the trio of American interests he mentions are among the highest interests at work. I think that’s incorrect.

    Every military mission risks exposing the people, technology, resources, and methods used by our armed forces. Which means every helicopter that flies beyond the boundaries of a US base is at risk of falling into Chinese hands. The way to reduce those risks to zero. Do nothing. Ever.

    Some American tech was lost to the Chinese. What advantage have they been given?

    Some Pakistanis who gave information ended up in prison. I’m sorry for that, but if we’re never to use the info they provide, what’s the point of getting info from them in the first place.

    As for our relationship with the Pakistani government: Brandon notes they’re wiley, but never really delves into the question of whether that government was protecting Bin Laden in the first place. An unreliable ally is an unreliable ally. One shouldn’t be too deferential.

    Brandon’s argument is essentially an argument that there should be no war on terror. I doubt very much that’s the argument he intends to make.

    The War on Terror is not about land or, even, really, about body counts: Terror is designed to leverage a few bodies into a big scare: It’s violence as propaganda. Given that, beheading the leadership of Al Qaeda was a terrific stroke of counterpropaganda. And in the context of the war that was being fought, entirely appropriate.

    Brandon’s argument is that, basically, there were costs to the raid. Yes. That doesn’t mean those costs outweighed the benefits – not truly weighed here- or that any costs is endurable. But Brandon hasn’t proved those costs weren’t worth the effort, he mostly just lists them. In any case, I doubt most Americans would agree with his concousion.

    • Brandon Weichert

      “I believe Brandon is mistaken. It presumes that the trio of American interests he mentions are among the highest interests at work. I think that’s incorrect.”

      Fair enough. But, the GWoT is a long war that will require allies and HUMINT–both of which the raid put in jeopardy. And we mustn’t lose sight of more important geopolitics: managing China. By attacking an ally–unreliable though Pakistan is–we further pushed Pakistan away (and, ironically, ginned up the Islamist elements of Pakistani civil society and within their intelligence and military apparatus) and into the cloying arms of the Chinese, who seek to use Pakistan as a strategic lever against the far more important India. America must balance its annoyance with Pakistan with the fact that a) Pakistan isn’t going anywhere in Afghanistan and so it’s better to work alongside them than against them and b) there are larger, longer-term geostrategic concerns that we just chucked out the window for Obama’s political points.

      “Every military mission risks exposing the people, technology, resources, and methods used by our armed forces. Which means every helicopter that flies beyond the boundaries of a US base is at risk of falling into Chinese hands. The way to reduce those risks to zero. Do nothing. Ever.”

      Straw man argument. I never said or implied any of this. Quite the contrary, I’m a hawk…but I’m a hawk who believes in using American power smartly. Blundering into Baghdad or putting U.S. troops and sensitive equipment at risk to score political points at home rather than simply utilizing an airstrike is not using American power smartly. That’s the whole thrust of the essay. If we need to risk covert tech and U.S. lives, it should be for STRATEGIC reasons. For too long we’ve focused on the short term, tactical gains at the expense of long-term geostrategy. It’s why China is now more powerful and why Russia thinks they can run the table against us.

      “Some American tech was lost to the Chinese. What advantage have they been given?”

      They now have insight into a covert helicopter program that was so secretive, it was being tested exclusively at Area 51. If that doesn’t indicate to you how vital this tech was, there’s nothing I can do to convince you. Besides, even more important than the stealth tech and the way the helo maneuvered is the electronic suite that went along with that. How damaged that suite was, we will never know. Only our intel guys and the Chinese know that. It was a waste of a perfectly beautiful bird. Oh, and now photos have surfaced recently of China’s version of this chopper. So, whether it was a mock up or not remains in question, but the fact that the Chinese had it under a tarp when it was being transported should indicate that it was likely not a mock up.

      “As for our relationship with the Pakistani government: Brandon notes they’re wiley, but never really delves into the question of whether that government was protecting Bin Laden in the first place. An unreliable ally is an unreliable ally. One shouldn’t be too deferential.”

      You really should be somewhat deferential, when that ally holds the marbles for America’s victory. Remember, the point of war is ultimately political. There can be no political solution in Afghanistan without neighboring Pakistan. And, as I’ve written in 2 other articles at AmGreatness, the Pakistanis do not share our end-goal in Afghanistan. Thus, there can be no political solution until we can come to a consensus with the Paks as to what that political end goal should be. Similar arguments were made about not being too deferential to Egypt during the Arab Spring. It allowed for the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, the mothership Islamist terror organization in the world. And, it also distanced the future al-Sisi government away from American orbit and closer to Russia’s. Great. Oh, and similar arguments were made about South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. It did nothing to help America achieve victory there. I’m not morally defending these regimes, I’m simply speaking to the reality that we face. It’d be nice if our policymakers would do that more often, especially since most Americans are left holding the bag long after those policymakers retire to K Street and start making $500,000+-a-year lobbying for foreign governments.

      “Brandon’s argument is essentially an argument that there should be no war on terror. I doubt very much that’s the argument he intends to make.”

      That’s not my argument at all. I never made that argument either. I believe in fighting jihadists…but doing so smartly and without jeopardizing America’s position at the head of the international order.

      “The War on Terror is not about land or, even, really, about body counts: Terror is designed to leverage a few bodies into a big scare: It’s violence as propaganda. Given that, beheading the leadership of Al Qaeda was a terrific stroke of counterpropaganda. And in the context of the war that was being fought, entirely appropriate.”

      Agreed with the first half of this statement. Where I disagree is that it was a “terrific stroke of counter propaganda.” In the short term, yes, it was. But, considering it was followed on by NO SIGNIFICANT victory, it actually did nothing to further the larger strategic goal which is to defeat jihadist terror networks and allow for America to draw down the bulk of its forces away from places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. In fact, ISIS seems to have missed the message of the counter-propaganda “victory” entirely. So, we disagree there. Had Obama actually focused on fighting terror, we might be having a different conversation today. But, he was too busy on doing just enough to prevent attacks during his reign (which is a mixed record, to say the least) so that he could focus on his fundamental transformation of American society. Thanks, but no thanks.

      “Brandon’s argument is that, basically, there were costs to the raid. Yes. That doesn’t mean those costs outweighed the benefits – not truly weighed here- or that any costs is endurable.”

      I did, though. The U.S.-Pakistani relationship remains in the toilet; Bin Laden’s death was more of a cathartic victory than it was an actual, political victory. Point in fact, I currently have family and friends deployed overseas fighting the war that Bin Laden’s death, according to you, ended. Furthermore, America burned its diplomatic bridges with Pakistan (thank God they still want our military tech otherwise we’d be totally screwed), meaning that Pakistan is happy to keep us bogged down in neighboring Afghanistan, while they fund the Taliban and other networks in the country, buddy up to China, and start sticking it to India. All of this is bad. Very bad. Oh, yeah, and Pakistan sold 19 nuclear warheads to Saudi Arabia in 2009. The Saudis were prevented from accepting delivery by the CIA. However, those nukes remain on hold in Pakistan. The sale would have never been made had it not been for the deteriorating relationship between the U.S. and its Muslim partners, such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The Bin Laden raid worsened that relationship. Long-term, strategic costs have thus far outweighed the benefits.

      “But Brandon hasn’t proved those costs weren’t worth the effort, he mostly just lists them.”

      The fact that al Qaeda remains, the Taliban remain, and the U.S. continues to be bogged down in Afghanistan–with no end in sight–is all the proof that I need.

      “In any case, I doubt most Americans would agree with his concousion.”

      Several Special Forces guys wrote an OpEd (which is linked in my article) chastising Obama for having used them as a prop in his political theater for his 2012 reelection campaign. And whether or not a majority of Americans agree with me is utterly irrelevant. I’m a writer and foreign policy analyst, not a politician. I have little concern for how my views comport with popular opinion. So long as my views are based in fact (which they are), I am happy to see those views published.

      Thanks for the read though. Have a good day.

    • Whiskey Sam

      That’s not what I got from this article at all. He clearly lays out alternatives like using a drone strike to accomplish the same result with less problems attached due to the embarrassing of the Pakistanis and the resulting boon for China. Regardless of the tactic used, exposing the informants to retaliation was not a necessary result of taking action. The action could have been taken with successful results without harming those who risked their own safety to aid us.

  • steveW

    I said at the time, why make it public we got him? The info gathered would have had much more value if the rest of the terrorists didn’t know about the raid. The only reason was political. Getting re elected was much more important to Obama than our safety.

  • skepticalist

    Check your timeline there – the raid was approved May 11th – 9 days after he was dead?

  • lazlototh

    I voted against Obama both times and against Clinton in 2016 but I’m not prepared to be so critical here. They figured out what they had to do, they debated how and when to do it fiercely within their ranks and made a decision that was well within the range of reasonable decisions available. That it temporarily angered Pakistan – who really cares? They will always be an unreliable semi-ally, and the more we line up with India – as we should – the more that will be. To expect ANY administration to bypass the political capital here is to be hopelessly naive. And it was risky. Had it failed, the blowback would have been horrific for the Obama administration. I disliked almost everything about the Obama administration for its entire two terms but here I’m not prepared to be critical. As Rudy Giuliani pointed out the administration took big risks and was entitled to the rewards in this instance. When the opposing side makes an absolutely brilliant play I applaud even if I wish they hadn’t succeeded. Here I applaud and the stakes were too high to want them to fail.

  • Schmutzli

    ““Bin Laden is dead and GM is alive” with certainty.””

    Only if one believes the no pictures burial at sea with full islamic honors but no tangible verification story that Barack Hussein Rspect, he of “my muslim faith”, told us was true. Rspect (“if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor”, “not a smidgen of corruption”, “most transparent administration in history”, etc) does not have the best track record for honesty.

    I’m not saying Osama isn’t dead, just that it takes a leap of faith to believe the rogues gallery of liars in the picture that Osama died because of them.