Barack Obama was the first presidential candidate to campaign on a platform of targeted military strikes, or so claim some legal scholars. George W. Bush may have relied on President Pervez Musharraf to fight the battle against terrorists in Pakistan, but Obama took things into his own hands. He brought together Special Operations and CIA operatives, who worked closely together in Pakistan, and used covert ventures to go after al Qaeda in Pakistan in a way that Bush never had.
Indeed, Obama ramped up the number of drone strikes, authorizing more than five times as many as Bush, according to a New America Foundation project, “ The Year of the Drone.” Even supporters of the strikes were “surprised,” as one National Security Council deputy who worked under Bush told me, at how enthusiastically Obama embraced these types of operations. Mike McConnell, who served as Bush’s director of national intelligence, may have “worried that the temptation of covert action might entrance Obama,” as Bob Woodward wrote in Obama’s Wars, adding that “any president, especially a new, relatively inexperienced one, could be vulnerable.”
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Yet hardly anybody in this country has complained about Obama’s use of covert operations on such a broad scale—certainly not the human-rights advocates, who have been largely silent about the forces in Pakistan. As Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, told me in the fall, it has been easier for Obama to justify these clandestine actions “because he’s a Democrat, and he is seen as a champion of civil liberties and the rule of law.”
The seduction of targeted warfare, whether carried out by drone attacks or by Special Operations, is clear: The strikes are quick and surgical, involving only a handful of Americans, and yield results, as we saw so spectacularly in Osama bin Laden’s case. The premise of targeted warfare rests on the assumption of good data, however, and until now that has been in short supply. More than 1,340 people have been killed in Obama’s pursuit of bin Laden and other terrorists in Pakistan; at least 200 of them were not militants, according to the New America Foundation, and nearly all of those who were classified as Taliban, al Qaeda, or other terrorists were low-level fighters who posed little danger to Americans.
As one legal expert has written, it may be better to kill them from afar so that Americans are not faced with the messy prospect of a terrorist who wants to surrender. Administration officials told reporters that bin Laden resisted the U.S. forces in a firefight that erupted after the helicopter raid Sunday, but most terrorists will try to give themselves up. Suicide bombers aside, the individuals who support al Qaeda and its principles, and particularly those at the upper levels of the organization, are by and large in no hurry to die. A former CIA operative who hunted down dozens of al Qaeda fighters in Pakistan after the 9/11 attacks told me that most of them were illiterate teenage boys from poor families. When they were caught, he said, a lot of them didn’t fight back—instead, they just cried.
It was hard to see how much good any of this did, at least in terms of protecting U.S. national security, until the biggest target, bin Laden, was taken out.
Obama had been laying the groundwork for more than two years; aside from ramping up the drone strikes, he had been steadily beefing up Special Forces in Pakistan. Technically, the roughly 200 special operators stationed in Pakistan were supposed to help the local soldiers, and not lead capture-kill missions, and this was how the operations were portrayed in the press. As a Carnegie national-security fellow, monitoring the role of special operations, I decided to travel to Pakistan to see firsthand how things were done. I arrived in the middle of the night in early October on a “CentCom flight,” as it’s known at the U.S. Embassy, because so many people on these flights are from U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.
I found that things on the ground, and in the air, were different from what U.S. and Pakistani officials had told me. Officially, Pakistanis were running the campaign against terrorists; in fact, Americans were often leading the charge, tracking fighters in the Haqqani network in Waziristan as well as other terrorists, and collecting intelligence through surveillance devices. They were not supposed to be taking the lead, since they were serving only in advisory roles in Pakistan, but they were.
A Pakistani journalist who frequently travels with the military in Waziristan, for example, described how Americans had gone on raids—in many cases, even when the Pakistani soldiers have balked—and said his country’s soldiers just hated their American counterparts. The journalist, who has received threats from Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, asked me not to reveal his name or any details about the raids. As he knows all too well, the subject is emotionally charged for people in Pakistan, a country where anti-Americanism runs high and where civilian leaders have tried to maintain the fiction that they are not under the sway of the U.S. military and the CIA.
For these reasons, cooperating with the Pakistani military and intelligence agency has been notoriously difficult, and the Pakistanis did not seem to play much of a role during the raid on Sunday. “This is one we did ourselves,” says Timothy D. Hoyt, a U.S. Naval War College professor who specializes in strategy and policy. Relations between the U.S. and Pakistan, and their shared efforts to collect intelligence, have been “just a mess. The Pakistanis seem just totally discombobulated, and it’s all deeply confused,” he says.
Certainly, the subterfuge paid off, or so we hope. Decapitation of an organization as lethal as al Qaeda is immensely satisfying, but unlikely to diminish its capacity. When a terrorist group loses its leader, it is destroyed less than one-fifth of the time, as the University of Chicago’s Jenna Jordan showed in a 2009 Security Studies article; in the other cases, members of the group found another person to call their leader and carried on with their work. Meanwhile, the story of American triumphalism is not going over well in Pakistan, which is a training ground for terrorists and could produce a new cadre of suicide bombers in the wake of bin Laden’s death. The battle against al Qaeda is less about body counts than it is a war of ideas—and at this point it would be premature to say that Americans are winning.
Tara McKelvey, a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review, is the author of Monstering: Inside America's Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War (Basic Books).