The one year anniversary of the raid that resulted in Osama Bin Laden’s death has brought with it a steady stream of analysis. You have the stories about while what traditionally (if less than a decade can be considered “traditional”) is referred to as “Al Qaeda Central” is on the ropes and what Secretary of Defenese Leon Panetta called “within reach” of strategic defeat, the franchises persist:
The emerging picture is of a network that is crumpled at its core, apparently incapable of an attack on the scale of Sept. 11, 2001, yet poised to survive its founder’s demise.
“The organization that brought us 9/11 is essentially gone,” said the official, among several who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss U.S. intelligence assessments of al-Qaeda with reporters a year after bin Laden was killed. “But the movement .?.?. the ideology of the global jihad, bin Laden’s philosophy — that survives in a variety of places outside Pakistan.”
You have those concerned that despite it’s weakened state, the franchises are robust and many still hope to avenge Bin Laden’s death:
“It’s wishful thinking to say al-Qaida is on the brink of defeat,” says Seth Jones, a Rand analyst and adviser to U.S. special operations forces. “They have increased global presence, the number of attacks by affiliates has risen, and in some places like Yemen, they’ve expanded control of territory.”
By the numbers, al-Qaida’s greatest presence is still greatest in Iraq, where intelligence officials estimate up to a 1,000 fighters have refocused their campaign from striking now-absent U.S. troops to hitting the country’s Shiite-dominated government.
Yemen’s al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is becoming a major draw for foreign fighters as it carves out a stronghold in the south of the country, easily defeating Yemeni forces preoccupied battling tribal and political unrest. The White House recently agreed to expanded drone strikes to give the CIA and the military greater leeway to target militant leaders.
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius puts forward the provocative idea that Bin Laden is winning, even from beyond the grave:
In the year since Osama bin Laden’s death, it has been a comforting thought for Westerners to say that he failed. And that’s certainly true in terms of al-Qaeda, whose scorched-earth jihad tactics alienated Muslims along with everyone else. But in terms of bin Laden’s broader goal of moving the Islamic world away from Western influence, he has done better than we might like to think.
So, a year on, it’s a time to think about bin Laden’s failures but also about the ways his fellow Islamists have morphed toward a political movement more successful than even bin Laden could have dreamed.
However, I think perhaps the most interesting analysis, and that which adds the most value long-term to homeland security in general, is the Time magazine cover piece (behind a pay-wall) by Harvard professor Graham Allison. He examines the policy-making process behind the decision when and how to carry out the raid, as well as identifies lessons for future foreign policy challenges. The bottom line, in his words, “is that American government worked.”
The first lesson this case demonstrates is that the US government is capable of extraordinary performance—in extraordinary circumstances. The challenge is to find ways to apply lessons learned here to improve performance in ordinary cases.
Second, sometimes secrets matter. And when they do, secrecy matters more. The bin Laden case demonstrates why success requires both discovering secrets and then keeping them, allowing a President time to reflect in private, and permitting him to reach a decision and act.
Third, secrecy comes with a price. Tightening the decision loop in order to prevent leaks means that important angles will not be adequately considered. If other officials had been brought in earlier and told to design an alternative storyline about imaginary Pakistani cooperation in the raid, that might have avoided humiliating the Pakistani military in their own backyard. The consequences of this for our prospects not only of finding an acceptable exit from Afghanistan, but also of securing Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, are becoming clearer every day.
Fourth, the most troubling lesson from this case is the dog that has not barked. In the aftermath of Abbottabad, we are left with two possibilities: either the Pakistanis knew that bin Laden was there—or they did not. It is hard to know which is more frightening.
All readily applicable to homeland security challenges.
(Note: while the Time piece is currently behind a pay-wall, Professor Allison and others were interviewed on the most recent episode of CBS’ “Face the Nation.” The video is available here: http://tiny.cc/chfkdw)