What Osama bin Laden's killing means going forward

Sunday, May 8, 2011

By Dr. Wayne H. Bowen

The killing of Osama bin Laden was an unequivocal victory for the United States, the West and the more than 90 percent of Muslims worldwide -- as measured in elections and polling -- who do not support global jihad. He was the most public enemy of western civilization, destroyed the World Trade Center, attacked the Pentagon, and inspired attacks by local al-Qaida affiliates throughout the world, killing tens of thousands, mostly Muslims. This world is a better place now that he has gone to his final judgment.

The killing of bin Laden is not just an immediate victory, but also means that when the president of the United States promises to pursue an enemy of this nation, that commitment might give pause to those people who are, in the phrasing of former president George W. Bush, "evildoers."

President Barack Obama deserves credit for this success. He ordered the operation and took the risk of using a SEAL team, rather than a laser guided missile or Predator drone. Gaining the certainty of recovering Osama bin Laden, dead or alive, was a bold and dangerous move, and the president made the tough call.

However, there is plenty of credit to go around, for the current and previous administrations. Claiming Obama succeeded where Bush failed is comparable to saying "Truman succeeded in winning World War II where FDR failed." Bush set the conditions -- rigorous interrogations, aggressive intelligence gathering, strengthening Special Operations forces and invading Afghanistan -- measures some of which were resisted, ironically, by members of the current Administration, including then-Senator Obama.

While the United States is the most obvious beneficiary of this killing, another major nation is also pleased: Saudi Arabia. The Saudi monarchy is thrilled that no longer is a Saudi national (who lost his citizenship in 1994) the leader of global jihad against the West. With 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers being Saudi citizens, and Osama bin Laden heading al-Qaida, it has been a difficult decade. In truth, at least since 2003, when terrorist attacks by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula began, the monarchy has been unrelenting in its pursuit of terrorists. Not surprisingly, the government of King Abdullah was one of the first nations -- even ahead of many Western allies -- to praise the operation that ended Osama bin Laden's life.

However, the United States must not draw the wrong lessons from this joint CIA-military raid in Abbottabad. The CIA must remain focused in gathering and analyzing intelligence, rather than becoming a primarily paramilitary force. The militarization of the CIA, with an increasing focus on kinetic action, is perhaps even more at risk now that a U.S. Army general, David Petraeus, has been named the next CIA director.

Another potential risk is that politicians will be tempted to rely even more on Special Operations Forces -- SEALs, Special Forces, Rangers, Civil Affairs -- and I say that as a former Special Operations Officer with deployments to Iraq and Bosnia. While Special Operations Forces are essential, they should not be the foundation of our national military strategy.

U.S. combat experience since Sept. 11 has been primarily in fighting terrorists, insurgents and other unconventional forces. The capabilities of the United States in conventional warfare -- using tanks, infantry, attack aviation and artillery against an operational force of soldiers organized into their own units -- have declined. If before 2001 the U.S. military was unprepared for wars like Iraq and Afghanistan, the opposite could now be true. Our armed forces are arguably now less prepared to face, for example, a North Korean attack across the Demilitarized Zone or a Chinese assault on Taiwan. With pending withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the continued weakening of al-Qaida, it is past time to alter that posture.

Dr. Wayne H. Bowen is a professor and chair of the Department of History at Southeast Missouri State University and a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.

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