Monday, May 2, 2011

My Thoughts on Bin Laden

I first heard about Bin Laden this morning on the way to work. Doc got out the driveway before me, then backed up with her window down a said “We killed Osama.” I smiled, gave a little fist pump and said “Awesome.” Then I got in the car and went to work.

I enjoyed catching NPR’s coverage on the way in to Elon, and quickly scanned the blogs and news feeds (Small Wars Journal, Opinio Juris, Abu Muquwama, and the regular collection of bureaus) for what details were percolating up about this.. What struck me immediately in the comments to these articles, trending on Facebook and Twitter, and in discussion forums was the meathead, ugly American, “we got him and you can rot in hell, Islam” attitude that suddenly came to the forefront of so many people’s minds. I guess this underscores how sensitive an issue Osama Bin Laden represents. Apparently not so sensitive that many people (prior to today) gave it much thought in their day to day fretting over jobs, the economy, the price of gas, the 2012 election, Lindsey Lohan, etc. I guess the spontaneous celebrations are more of an emotional response by people looking for a bright spot in the news. I'll say I prefer a more considered, thoughtful, and insightful response of people that have worried and worked for years over these ideas and the role of America's power in the world. But of them all I liked Andrew Exum's post the best, about his gathering at the bar Sunday night for the press conference, because it hits close to home:
We went around, all of the veterans, each of us naming friends we had lost. I offered up Joel Cahill's name, and then that of Joe Fenty. I thought of the wives and young daughters those two men left behind, and I thought of so many more men and women who I never got the chance to know but who have given their lives since 2001.
I had told myself for years that the death of Osama bin Laden would not mean anything. Decapitation campaigns against sophisticated, mature terrorist networks, I knew, rarely yield strategic effects. But standing in that Washington bar, I was overcome with emotion.
If you consider the single-minded dedication with which the task force responsible for yesterday’s accomplishment has worked over the last decade, I think this reaction of the general public is a bit out of place. Certainly, those guys deserve a beer and a chance to celebrate. But I suspect, quiet professionals that they are, and given the investment they have in the mission in regards to training, lost friends, lost time at home, etc, that they will not be parading around waving the American flag and singing God Bless America on the steps of the White House. In fact, my first thought after “Awesome” was a quiet word of thanks to those guys and their families – not that there is no more work to do, but just the relief of a job - this job - well done. I bet among those gallant men there is some reflection, a strong sense of satisfaction, a remembrance of those lost along the way, and then a desire to kit up and get back out there.

As the details unfold of the mission, you’ll hear that they mocked-up a full scale compound for months of raid practice, (much like the Son Tay raid) and then had to pivot on the objective when an airframe had a mech failure. These are the best and brightest of America, as much or more as the denizens of any other tech, investment, industry or education sector of our county. You'll also hear about the intelligence yield from our program at Guantanamo and elsewhere, and the persistence and patience of our collection community in the targeting and planning of this operation. Try to remember about this stuff when you go back to your day to day lives and the worries that accompany them.

Now that everyone is paying attention to the War on Terror again, questions resurface about the character of our fight. What does this change? Certainly it is not the end, or even a big shift in the meaning of Al Qaida – AQ 2.0 has been in the game for several years and seems to have already executed their succession plan when Bin Laden was driven deep to hiding following Anaconda. Organized international terrorism is still a persistent and existential threat for the foreseeable future – instability across the globe still has the potential to breed unrest and sanctuaries in regions that we do not engage in a productive manner.  Will we continue to pay a billion (seriously) dollars a year to Pakistan? I bet not.

I do think that the one key achievement of the killing of Bin Laden is this - the US is now free to exit Afghanistan on the terms of our choosing, defining military and diplomatic goals, and even victory, free of the symbolic albatross that has hung ‘round our necks for so long. I haven't seen this mentioned much - perhaps it is just obvious. But this is really the #win in my mind – that the guys with 1/5 deployed to Sangin can go about their mission of engagement and COIN and stability operations – even “nation-building” – not as a placeholder for the greatest manhunt in our history, but because it is our enunciated national security policy. Or, if it is not, they can come home. But we can have that national conversation about what is an important exercise of our wealth, and power, and blood, independent of any iconic search for evil.

Hopefully this will also raise to the surface the continued work ethic and incredible sacrifice of our fellow citizens in uniform. If you have not heard of LtGen John Kelly, he has some particularly poignant remarks on the investment that these folks and their families have made in the future of our nation, at great peril to themselves and with increasingly little awareness of their real involvement. A friend reminded me just this weekend of one such example from my old haunt of Ramadi, where two young Marines from different worlds went face-to-face with the devil with fingers on the trigger. Cpl Yale and LCpl Haerter received the Navy Cross, posthumously, for their intrepidity, valor and dedication, but we don’t talk often enough about how important that spirit of service is to America. And we should, every day, consider that there are folks we call our neighbors that do not run from their post. Not for how long it takes to get the job done, if it takes 10 years or 6 seconds.

Semper Fidelis.

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