Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Sometimes a Victory

Like many Americans, I remember where I was on September 11, 2001. Now, I will always remember where I was on the night Osama bin Laden was killed in a raid by US Special Forces. I was lying in the floor in the bedroom of a home in North Carolina, about to go to sleep. Jennifer and my daughter were with me. We were there to attend the funeral of one of Jennifer’s family members the next day.

Just before I dozed off my daughter said, “They killed bin Laden.” It was all over Facebook. Since she lives in the realm of social networking reality, she knew about it PDQ. Being a Neanderthal, my only recourse was to turn on the TV and watch in the darkness of the room as ABC News (the first channel I came to) was busy covering the breaking story with all sorts of expert interviews and reporters blabbing on and on with very few details to work with. We were told the president was going to speak “soon.”

Almost 45 minutes later, nearing midnight our time, President Obama did make a brief statement, confirming everything the journalists had been stalling about. As the president concluded with the line “God bless the United States of America” I silenced the boob tube and attempted to doze off. I tried to recall if I ever saw a president address the nation at such a late hour eastern time. No other occasion came to mind.

But, the occasion warranted it. For ten years bin Laden has been the absolute symbol of radical Islamic terrorism worldwide. Even though the operations of al-Qaeda are highly decentralized, the death of its figurehead is a heavy blow for the terrorists. Conversely, the moment was outstanding for the US military in general and for our “black ops” service arm in particular.

At first I thought this was probably the result of another drone strike. Then it was announced we had possession of bin Laden’s body. That could only mean ground forces were involved. The next day I learned that President Obama made the decision to kill bin Laden and take his body for DNA testing and to gather other factual evidence so that there could be no doubt whatsoever we had our man. The raid resulted in the confiscation of a "robust" collection of materials that will likely assist our efforts against Islamic terrorism in the near future. This was a gutsy and admirable military decision. Bin Laden blown to bits is not the same as physical possession of the body. It made the raid so much more spectacular from my perspective.

The next day I learned that the mission had been well-planned, involving the Navy Seals, perhaps our best special forces, taking many months to put together all the pieces required for its superb surgical execution. The raid was rehearsed in a specially built replica of the bin Laden compound. There were no civilian casualties. No American loss of life. Bin Laden and all of his personal security guard were wiped out.


But, things hardly went without a hitch. There was an issue with a helicopter that malfunctioned and had to be blown-up before our forces withdrew with bin Laden’s body. That must have been an anxious moment for everyone concerned. Still, this was mission accomplished in the non-George W. Bush sense of the term. There was no big publicity push, no bragging, no grandstanding. By necessity, black ops require anonymity and, thereby, preclude ceremonialism and direct personal recognition.

Still, Americans certainly celebrated. But, this was the best kind of commemoration for such a victory. Spontaneous and without a lot of organized hype. The event needed no hype at all. The killing of Osama bin Laden is a hype-less moment of pure achievement. No rhetoric or hyperbole required. It would serve no purpose at all.

But, after a moment of pride and time to marvel at the secretive workings of our intelligence-gathering and covert military operational capability, it is time to sober up and realize the world has not changed. The al-Qaeda organization remains intact. The problem of radical Islamic terrorism remains. Things are still difficult in Afghanistan. There is a war still to be won…or lost.

So, while this is great for public relations and certainly a well-needed boost to the morale of our troops, the larger mission is far from accomplished and in many ways a mess. Some officials now boast that we have the ability to wipe out al-Qaeda but I’m not buying that without the caveat that it might take another 10 years to produce such a result.

Do we have the determination as a nation for that? Sometimes it takes a victory to remind us of what we are doing. But, it is the distance between victories that proclaims the real strength of our resolve. And our resolve has certainly been faltering of late. Americans like their wars, fast and furious and short. That is more of a description of the successful bin Laden raid than it is of the continuing war in Afghanistan.

I have been watching that war with renewed interest over the past few months. We seem to have accomplished a great deal on the ground in 2010. Several operations in southern Afghanistan have reduced the Taliban (great protectors of al-Qaeda) to a car-bombing nuisance instead of the roaming packs of wild vigilantes they were back in 2008.

But, the campaigning season is just gearing up in 2011. We will soon see if the US-led coalition forces and the rather questionable role of the Afghan security forces are sufficient to justify an anticipated draw-down of American troops beginning in July. We will soon see if Afghanistan is another Vietnam, and – perhaps more important to the outcome – whether Pakistan is another Cambodia.

So far, the latter does not seem to be the case. There are, of course, numerous parallels between Pakistan and Cambodia. It is clearly a safe-haven and a logistical base for the Taliban and al-Qaeda. But, the bin Laden raid did not originate from Afghanistan. It apparently originated from a US base inside Pakistan. Pakistan denies this, however. If true, this is something we never had in Cambodia. This is significant from my perspective.

Though questions abound regarding Pakistan, that country remains cautiously and tenuously cooperative. Relations with the US are clearly complex. Pakistan sharply criticized the US for "unilateral action" inside its borders. US drone raids into Pakistan have been largely successful, however. That makes this situation very different from Cambodia. The military fact is that if you deprive the enemy of their logistical base then you disrupt their operations in many ways. It helps make the coming campaign season in Afghanistan problematic for the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

So, perhaps our efforts in Pakistan in 2011 can back up our efforts in Afghanistan in 2010. Or, perhaps, the Vietnam analogy still applies even if the Cambodian one does not. Ultimately, Afghan forces must keep their country stable. So far, we’ve seen little indication they can do that.

Sometimes it takes a victory to remind us what we can achieve. Sometimes a victory renews strength and hope and gives clarity to the way to further victories. But, sometimes a victory only declares how much further you have to go instead of how far you’ve come. So who has been made more patient by the bin Laden raid? The al-Qaeda organization is the epitome of patience.

Are we?

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