Killing Osama bin Laden: What's most amazing?


Supporters of hard line pro-Taliban party Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Nazaryati carry portraits of slain Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden as they pray for bin Laden during an anti-US rally in Quetta, Pakistan on May 2, 2012, the first anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden. Pakistan was in a state of high alert on May 2, over fears militants will launch revenge attacks on the first anniversary of Osama bin Laden's killing by American Navy SEALs.


Banara Khan

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts — The hunt for Osama bin Laden followed a path with many twists and turns. Around each corner lay new discoveries, each often more unbelievable than the last. What was most amazing about this story?

  • Who can believe that the White House kept a secret — indeed, kept secret for 5 months the sexiest story Washington’s media never got to report before it happened?
  • Who could imagine a president taking this much time to make sure that he had the right target in his crosshairs and to aim carefully before he pulled the trigger?
  • Who would have anticipated a decision-making loop drawn so tight that the majority of the National Security Council was in the dark until 24 hours before the raid?
  • Who would have suspected the world’s most-wanted man was hiding in plain sight in Abbottabad, 30 miles from Pakistan’s capital city and 800 yards from Pakistan’s leading military academy?
  • Who can believe today that Pakistan’s army chief Ashfaq Kayani and the military and intelligence leadership did not know that he was hiding there?

As an analyst of American national security decision-making, I find this case truly astounding.

I was able to spend more than 100 hours in recent months interviewing officials in the White House, Pentagon and CIA to assess how President Barack Obama decided to launch the raid, and wrote about aspects of it in a Time magazine article this week coinciding with the anniversary of the assault.

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For scholars, this decision will provide grist for many studies and great debate. For the wider audience of American citizens and taxpayers, this story is also instructive about our government. Consider five takeaways:

First, American government worked. It not only succeeded in a supremely difficult assignment. It did so by achieving a level of performance that should make all Americans proud. While Obama and a handful of advisers made the key decisions, at a deeper level this was a quintessentially American story that reflected the work of a team of thousands of people. Over more than a decade, they had invented magical intelligence eyes and ears, developed methods for following trails and connecting dots, engineered and maintained drones and helicopters, and trained to become Olympian headhunters.

Second, the integration of new technologies and professionals — perfected after literally thousands of repetitions in nightly operations in Iraq and Afghanistan — gave Obama choices that were not available to any previous president. Had President Bill Clinton been offered this menu after the US embassy bombings in Africa, or President George Bush when bin Laden was surrounded at Tora Bora, bin Laden would likely have been killed.

Third, secrecy matters. The bin Laden case demonstrates why success requires discovering secrets, allowing a president time to reflect on them in private, and permitting him to reach a decision and act — unbeknownst to the watchful eye of the Washington press corps — thus finding ways to expand a zone of privacy for presidential decision-making on other major national security issues.

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Fourth, this case reminds us that tightening the decision loop in order to prevent leaks inescapably means that important angles will not be adequately considered. Here, it led to insufficient appreciation of the costs the operation would impose on the US relationship with Pakistan, possibly dooming our hope of finding a successful exit from Afghanistan.

Fifth, the biggest takeaway from this case is the radical challenge these facts pose to the central assumption on which US policy toward Pakistan is based: that someone there is in control. Hard as it is to imagine that no one in Pakistan’s leadership knew of bin Laden’s whereabouts, no evidence of Pakistani complicity has been found in the material seized from Abbottabad. Could it be possible, then, that a nation that was unaware that bin Laden lived in their country for nine years, moved five times with three wives, and fathered four children (two born in local hospitals) is also a nation that is really in control of 100 nuclear bombs?

As we reflect on the amazing success of the American government in an amazing case, we are also left with a frightening possibility that, while better discovered sooner rather than later, we are likely to face even more serious challenges in years to come.

Graham Allison is director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School. He served as assistant secretary of defense during the Clinton Administration. 

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