The bin Laden Operation: What's Not To Like?

In May, shortly after the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, I was on a panel on BFM Radio in Paris. One of the panelists, a leading journalist for L'Express magazine, Vincent Hugueux, began the conversation by stating flatly that "Justice has not been done" in the case of bin Laden. His view was certainly representative of dissenting opinion at the time: bin Laden had not been brought to trial, and the simulacrum of an Islamic "burial at sea" was considered offensive to Muslim public opinion.

But this summary execution, weighed against the enormity of bin Laden's publicly admitted sponsorship of the 9/11 attacks, in which he disclosed that they had exceeded even his own expectations, evoked generally in Western public opinion emotions of vengeful satisfaction and pride in a job spectacularly well done.

The contrast with the failed operation thirty years earlier, aimed at rescuing American hostages in Tehran, by stealth and without a declaration of war, comes vividly to mind, as does the realization that coordination between the CIA and the American military has vastly improved.

The front-page photo of the White House Situation Room at the climax of the Abbottabad operation is instructive. The missing personality in the photo is Leon Panetta, the then chief of the CIA. It was that the White House was in touch with Panetta at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Va. Panetta was receiving messages about the unfolding of the operation from CIA officers in Afghanistan. The operation was being run by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and executed by the Navy's Seal Team Six, along with the support of the CIA, in terms of intelligence and communications.

This was an extremely risky operation, make no doubt about it. Though the exterior of the compound at Abbottabad was well scouted out, and mock-up exercises were carried out, there were two huge uncertainties:

  • Was bin Laden really inside he house? (Hence the abortive attempt to get DNA samples).
  • What if there occurred a confrontation between the American intruders and the Pakistani military/security services?

The U.S. was right, of course, not to notify the Pakistani authorities prior to the operation, however much the Pakistanis have come to resent this. What is amazing in this operation is that there were a number of Pakistanis independently recruited to help in the operation (at least one of whom has since been arrested by the Pakistani Government), and yet the operation did not leak.

It is now more than two months after the operation, and some misgivings have begun to surface. The willful manifestation of American displeasure with Pakistan (the projected cutoff of some military aid; the statement of Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, blaming the Pakistani Government in the death of a journalist who wrote about Islamist penetration in the Army; Hillary Clinton's announcement about increased cooperation on terrorism with India; and most recently, the indictment of two individuals for allegedly having illegally used Pakistani Government money to influence Congressional voting on Kashmir) are seen by some as unnecessarily provocative toward Pakistan, which is vitally important to a successful outcome of the war in Afghanistan. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that, in the long term the killing of bin Laden will be seen to have been a "strategic mistake."

With the latter, I can only register my stupefaction. The death of bin Laden was of enormous psychological importance. No other person, in al-Qaeda or elsewhere, can match the inspirational charge that he carried: the "prince" who gave it all up to wage holy war from the mountains. No one can really take his place.

Charles Cogan was the chief of the Near East-South Asia Division in the Directorate of Operations of the CIA from August 1979 to August 1984. It was this Division that directed the covert action operation against the Soviets in Afghanistan. He is now a historian and an associate of the Belfer Center's International Security Program at Harvard University's Kennedy School.