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.