Obama vs Osama 3

Here is a Google News reprint of an AP report based on un-named sources. Read it fast, because the link will probably rot within a week or so.

It sounds just screwed up enough to be true. I had wondered why they hadn’t landed on the roof and worked their way down, a pretty standard tactic. Now I know. They planned on it, but the helicopter crash made that mode impossible.

There’s been a lot of talk and a lot of speculation and a lot of angst about the details, and the legal basis, of the raid. Personally, I don’t have much trouble with any part of it. Now that the dust has settled, and the early, propagandistic, statements, have been retracted, we can make some statements.

1. OBL was the leader of a para-military organization that had formally declared war on the US. He was a valid target, every bit as much as Rommel was when the SAS raided his headquarters in North Africa in 1941. In fact, the compound was acting as a headquarters. It was a valid target. Yes, there were women and kids there. That merely shows that his culture is different from our culture.

2. He had to have had a support group in PK. Did everybody in Abbottabad know? No. Did the entire PK government know? Of course not. My guess is that he had a couple of highly placed, possibly retired ISI, contacts in Abbottabad, and that one of the reasons he felt safe there was the promise that they had links to current government officials and would warn him of any operations. Given the likelihood of a leak, we were right to not include the PK government in the operation.

3. No, we were not sure that OBL was in that compound. But we knew it was being used as an AQ command center, because of the courier movements in and out. That made it a valid military target.* The information we had was not strong enough for publication in a journal, and it wasn’t strong enough to take to court, but in a counter-terrorism situation it was strong enough to be ‘actionable’ — a lot more actionable than many of our drone strikes. As I pointed out in the first two installments, we could have done the equivalent of a drone raid and killed everyone in the compound and its immediate vicinity. We’ve made drone raids based on much flimsier evidence than this.

4. The assumption, going in, on a raid like this, is that there will be armed resistance. Given the importance of the target, we can assume there will be fanatical armed resistance. In a country and culture where every adult male goes armed as a matter of course, the planning assumption is that any adult male will be armed and hostile — by definition, the people in that compound are hostile, and if they have a moment they will soon be armed. This assumption isn’t something you can change in midraid, even assuming they had good reason to do so, which they didn’t.

5. They took fire coming in. Not a lot, but that’s why you want the element of surprise. If they had surrounded the house, and had a loudspeaker say “Come out Ozzie, with your hands up”, and then went in, how much fire would they have taken?

6. This was a military raid, not a police action. Too much of the writing about it is posed in an apologetic “he might have been going for a weapon” style. No apologies. He was an enemy combatant and he was moving. Valid target.

7. Despite all this, they worked with incredible precision. No women or kids killed. One woman shot when she grappled with one of the SEALS.

8. OBL alive and in US custody would have been a continuing encouragement for terrorist action. For those who say he should have been given a fair trial, I’d say that’s a nice idea, almost impossible to carry out. Where would we try him? Guantanamo? Nobody there has had a fair trial yet. Inside a proper US courtroom? Our politicians, who vary between obstructionist and pusillanimous, won’t allow any other terrorists to be tried here. World Court? Possibly. But disaffected elements of the Muslim communities in Europe, which are not as well integrated as those in the US, and which have much higher unemployment and other social complaints, would likely have made things difficult.

9. In any life and death conflict situation you are always playing the odds, and you are usually operating in morally suspect territory. The reason I applaud this operation, despite some of the legal and ethical issues, and deride the bumbling efforts of DHS and their TSA henchmen (despite their insistence that their every act is supported by some (usually secret) DoJ memo or other), is that in the one we were playing realistic odds that were in the double digits or so, and we did it in a pretty much optimal way. Instead of trumped up threats, with odds carrying a quad-digit negative exponent.

10. If you want to see a President being Presidential, this is it. Obama had an extremely difficult decision to make. The probabilities were high, but not certain, and the penalties for failure were huge. He did what Presidents are supposed to do, and acted with single-minded determination in the tradition of other Presidents who have pursued OBL. Presidents like, you know, Bill Clinton.

So, a classic Special Ops raid. A brilliant success. Was justice done? No. Did we strike an effective blow against a hostile para-military organization? Yes. Was the world a better place on May 3rd than it was on May 1st? Certainly.

*the laws of armed conflict allow attacks on communications centers, even if they are primarily civilian and in civilian territory. A standard question on a law of war quiz for military officers is “there’s a civilian telephone exchange in the middle of town, and it is being used to transmit military orders. Is it a valid target?” And the answer is, “Yes, of course”, and in the bad old days we’d have carpet-bombed the place with B-17s. In fact, I seem to remember that AQ claimed that the WTC was being used as a communications node for military and CIA command and control and was therefore, by our own rules, a valid target. But that’s a question for another post.


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