In 2001, speaking to Congress not long after the September 11th attacks, President George W. Bush said that the United States would bring the terrorists to justice or bring justice to the terrorists but that one way or the other justice would be done. As President Obama reported last night, yesterday it was.
The Obama administration appears to have pushed at least as hard as the Bush administration – and perhaps with its Predator attacks inside Pakistan even harder – on a decapitation strategy against al Qaeda and the Taliban. Yesterday’s action would have been part of that strategy, which appears to be succeeding brilliantly.
Early morning reports indicate that a number of US government agencies worked together to make the raid on the bin Laden compound possible. The first clues that led to it appear to have come from the questioning of captured al Qaeda operatives. The CIA pursued the lead over the months that followed. Perhaps the CIA man taken in custody in Pakistan after a gun battle several months ago was involved. Reports say it was Navy SEALS who staged the raid. So these early accounts suggest that the coordination within the US government agencies that was so lacking before 9/11 is much better today.
They also suggest – as have a number of other incidents over the past five years or so – that the CIA’s own house is in better order than it was in 2001. The intelligence failures of both not spotting and stopping the 9/11 attacks and of certifying the presence of actually non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq shook Washington. They called into question the basic competence of the CIA and by extension of the entire US intelligence community. Particularly in the Islamic world, the agency’s capacities had begun to deteriorate during the Carter presidency and never really recovered. The big mistake came when Carter’s director of central intelligence Stanfield Turner fired all our operatives in the region. The idea was, in part, that we didn’t need agents on the ground. Satellites and other technology would do the job for us, with less political exposure at home. We have been paying the price of that mistake regularly since then. After yesterday’s success, it appears that the CIA may have rebuilt its on-ground capacities.
Last September, I talked for nearly an hour to a top Pakistani diplomat. In his career he had been a trusted advisor at the most senior levels in the country. He discussed how Pakistan had become involved with the Taliban. It was following the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, as we all know. The diplomat explained that Russia and India were allied at the time. India was, of course, the country Pakistan considered its greatest threat. The Pakistani government couldn’t afford to have the two adversaries on either side of it. So, together with the US, it backed the Afghan resistance to the Soviets.
After the Soviets retreated from Afghanistan, he continued, the US withdrew as well. But other elements in the country, in particular the Northern Alliance forces that we allied with after 9/11, were in league with other countries that were problems to the Paks, particularly Iran. In any event, support for the Taliban continued. So in a region of bewildering factions and alliances, where everyone supports and betrays everyone else, the Pakistani government supported the Taliban, even as it supported the United States, even after 9/11.
It is no blinding revelation to say that in that part of the world more than ideology, more than principle, more than vision, more than law, raw power matters. Having bin Laden on the loose has suggested to the region that the United States lacked strength and will. Yesterday’s achievement suggests our forces may at times move slowly. But we never give up until we do what we say we will do – and we have the power to do whatever we set our minds to doing. The airwaves this morning have been filled with talk of whether killing bin Laden really matters. In a region where perceptions of will and power really matter, you bet it does.