Saturday, 7 May 2011

Bye bye, Bin Laden

So Osama Bin Laden is dead at last. That's good news, but there's been a lot of commentary and criticism of the US government and President Obama for approving what some describe as a simple revenge killing.

The commentariat line is that Bin laden should have been captured alive, with the approval and assistance of Pakistan, and brought back to the US, or The Hague, to face trial and give an account of himself.

Sorry, but that was never going to happen.

Let's try to work out what would have happened if somebody had tried to do that. First, Bin Laden would have been alerted by the Pakistani intelligence services and their Al-Quaida sympathisers. He would have moved and gone to ground somewhere else, concealed by duplicitous government organisation who would continue to have made it as difficult as possible to track him down, and quite impossible to extradite him. At least that's what probably would have happened, based on what happened before.

So, there was no point in asking Pakistan for help. And asking Pakistan's permission to enter its air space with a commando snatch squad would be out of the question for the same reason. It wouldn't take much warning for somebody like Bin Laden to disappear once again, especially if he had ISI resources behind him (including almost any form of transport considered necessary at the time).

Okay - the US acts alone. Logical call. What does the snatch squad do when it enters the compound where Bin Laden was holed up? That depends on the reception it receives. Satellite and UAV surveillance probably established how many people there were in the compound, but probably wouldn't provide details of the internal layout and where individuals might be located and weapons might be stored.

Military operations are routinely blighted by the Fog of War and Murphy's Law. Complexity in the plan ('unnecessary complexity' is a tautology in this context) makes the planners and operators hostages to fortune, so I suspect the plan was probably to fight through the building until Bin Laden was found and identified, and then take him alive only if he showed signs of wanting to come quietly.

The element of surprise would be lost even before the first SEAL commandos' feet touched the ground in the compound. At the very least they would expect to have to fight their way into the building, and then overcome at least some resistance in tracking down Bin Laden before trying to overcome him - assuming, of course, he wasn't armed and preparing to fight it out. If it had been possible to overcome Bin Laden, how would he have been transferred to the waiting helicopter? And what if somebody inside the compound had continued to resist, or somebody outside the compound had decided to join in the fight on behalf of Bin Laden? And if he had been extradited alive what would have been the response from his lieutenants?

Based on what we know, the risks facing the men who entered Bin Laden's compound were scary enough already; trying to capture him alive would have compounded them beyond the point where you could reasonably expect even a volunteer to carry out your orders.

Naturally, Bin Laden didn't come quietly. By all accounts he ran, accompanied by his wife. We can't know what was in the mind of the SEAL team member who killed Bin Laden but unless he had very specific orders to the contrary, killing Bin Laden may have been the safe, default option in the circumstances that commando faced.

Could the US have done anything else, or done anything differently? I don't think so. For the first time in years it knew where Bin Laden was hiding out, suspected that he was being protected (unofficially) by a government organisation in Pakistan, couldn't guarantee it would ever get a better opportunity - and, most importantly, couldn't be seen to be allowing somebody like Bin Laden to get away with what he achieved on 9/11.

The message is clear - mess with the US and, rough or not, justice will be done, eventually. And the majority of Americans, and I daresay Europeans and Australians, would feel that justice has been served to the extent that circumstances allowed

The fact that the US never gave up the search, and was willing to take the chances it did to get rid of Bin Laden, sends a powerful message. It may not deter all would-be attackers but will surely deter many, and give pause to the remainder.

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