The Iraq War Helped Bin Laden
By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
The New York Times
May 3, 2011
When confronted with such questions as why it took the U.S. a full decade to kill Osama bin Laden, there’s a tendency to engage in Monday morning quarterbacking: evaluating past decisions in light of information we have now, and assuming alternative courses of action would have been superior only because they are different.
In the case of the search for Bin Laden, there are a couple of clear errors, and a lot that even now we don’t know.
One clear mistake was the failure to dedicate additional troops to an operation in the Tora Bora mountains in December 2001.
One clear mistake is the failure to dedicate additional troops to an operation in the Tora Bora mountains in December 2001. As the terrorism analyst Peter Bergen wrote in “The Longest War, Tora Bora represented “the last, best chance to capture bin Laden” — until now.
A second error was the eagerness with which the U.S. went to war in Iraq thereafter, causing the diversion of resources from Afghanistan/Pakistan. The Iraq war, as Vice President Dick Cheney said, was driven in part by our thinking that “we need to battle them (the terrorists) overseas so we don’t have to battle them here at home.” Criticizing this paradigm is not just Monday morning quarterbacking.
While it is important to deprive Al Qaeda and other jihadi groups of safe havens that they can use to launch attacks against us, one error the U.S. made in invading Iraq was failing to consider how doing so fit into Al Qaeda’s strategy.
The Iraq war helped Al Qaeda by fulfilling its twin strategic goals of driving up costs to the U.S. and broadening the battlefield for this war, while the shift in resources undertaken to allow the invasion enabled Al Qaeda’s recovery. Preparation for Iraq caused such units as Delta Force and Navy Seals Team Six, as well as aerial surveillance platforms like the Predator, to be shifted into Iraq.
As a former Central Command official told The New York Times in 2007, “If we were not in Iraq, we would have double or triple the number of Predators across Afghanistan, looking for Taliban and peering into the tribal areas. We’d have the ‘black’ Special Forces you most need to conduct precision operations. We’d have more CIA.” This diversion occurred at the precise time that Al Qaeda is acknowledged to have regenerated its ability to attack the homeland.
Leaving aside the obvious mistakes of not committing more troops at Tora Bora and shifting military resources from Afghanistan/Pakistan to Iraq, are there other ways we could have caught bin Laden before? While some will say, yes, look at how inaccurate our intelligence on Bin Laden’s location has proved to be. For years, the indisputable conventional wisdom (including among intelligence analysts) was that Bin Laden was in Pakistan’s tribal areas. We can see now that he was not.
The fact is, the past decade demonstrates the limits of our capabilities. It shows that it’s exceedingly difficult to track down one individual intent on hiding. There’s not much we can do to change that. On the other hand, the search for Bin Laden demonstrates the limits of our intelligence capabilities, though we’ve had other signs of this (intelligence failures on Iraqi W.M.D.s, for one). And that’s something we can work to address. Rather than critiquing individual decisions from our own vantage point, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s more fruitful to ensure we have the right systems in place so decision-makers get the right information, and their policies can be optimally pursued.
Such questions as Pakistan’s possible knowledge of Bin Laden’s whereabouts will be asked. Though America has done little to address Pakistani malfeasance over the past decade, this also represents a tough problem where it’s far easier to critique the government’s inaction than to formulate superior policies. The clearest lesson, albeit one that will take time and true effort, is that where our limitations can be addressed, the U.S. should do so.
See the original article here.