So President Obama would invade Pakistan? Who would have thought? “It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005,” Obama said at a speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. “If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.” Obama was pinging off a recent New York Times report of an early 2005 mission to apprehend al Qaeda leadership figures in Pakistan, including second banana Ayman al-Zawahiri. The mission was aborted by then-Defense Secretary Rumsfeld because the operation had grown too large. This alone makes it a good case-study in the failings of bureaucracy; too many components looking to get involved, not enough risk being accepted, not a shining moment for the partisans of Defense Transformation.
It is clear why Obama decided it was an opportune time to talk tough. This was an attempt to regain momentum after having to explain why as president he would rush into talks with some of the world’s most troublesome dictators. Yet his suggestion to move forces from Iraq to Afghanistan and possibly Pakistan to hunt down the al Qaeda leaders still at large is nothing new. Democrats have long argued that the resources needed to find bin Laden are being squandered in Iraq. It is a good way to sound hawkish on the war on terrorism while also critiquing President Bush’s policies, and it plays to what is being touted as Obama’s comparative strength as a candidate, his boldness and willingness to discuss (seemingly) fresh ideas.
Politics aside, it is gut-level satisfying to hear a candidate talking about ways to get the job done. How could we have not found these characters by now? North Waziristan, where the top al Qaeda leaders are reportedly hiding, is 1817 square miles of mountains populated by 361,000 people. That makes it somewhat smaller and much hillier than Delaware. You would think with the technical and human means at our disposal we could have sorted the problem out by now. It’s nice to imagine that all it would take to accomplish the mission is to send in some special operators to slap on the yellow restraints and drag the perps back to face justice. I see Dog the Bounty Hunter playing a key counterterrorism role in the Obama administration.
Of course there is always the possibility of failure. Take Operation Eagle Claw — a.k.a. “Desert One” — the 1980 Iranian Hostage rescue mission. Five and a half months of planning and training were done in by mechanical failures and unexpected bad weather causing two helicopters to lose their way. In the wake of the mission abort a helicopter collided with a C-130, killing eight; in the rush to evacuate the area documents were left behind identifying US intelligence operatives inside Iran. So yes, these kinds of missions can be mounted in non-permissive environments, but if they don’t work out they can help bring down one’s presidency, as President Carter learned.
The decision not to go ahead with the 2005 mission was regrettable — assuming it would have succeeded, that is. But Senator Obama’s umbrage notwithstanding, that was not the end of the game. Instead we chose to fight smarter rather than harder. Over the next two years there followed a series of much less risky missile strikes on the same type of targets. On May 7, 2005, high-ranking al Qaeda operative Haitham al-Yemeni was taken out by a Hellfire missile attack in North Waziristan. On December 4, 2005, Hamza Rabia, reportedly al Qaeda’s #3, met the same fate. On January 13, 2006, four al Qaeda operatives were eliminated in a similar manner in Damadola. This attack narrowly missed al-Zawahiri, but killed his son-in-law, Abdul al-Maghribi, who helped run al Qaeda media operations. Al-Zawahiri was again targeted (unsuccessfully) on October 30, 2006, in a missile strike against an Islamic school in Chingai, Pakistan.
All of these attacks were plausibly deniable, and none took place with Pakistan’s permission, at least not publicly. In fact the Pakistanis found ways to explain away around the obvious, such as stating that one of the explosions was not the result of a missile strike but simply an accident while the terrorist was making bombs.
Note that in each case the U.S. was using actionable intelligence (defined as intelligence that triggers the execution of pre-planned defense and security capabilities already identified and enabled). So there is nothing very innovative in saying we will act on that which is actionable; that is U.S. policy. There is also no reason to believe that sending troops rather than missiles in would have led to better outcomes. In fact they would probably have been much worse since the U.S. would have had to explain not only the failure to take down the intended target, but also the incursion itself.
Intelligence may be deemed actionable, but it is not necessarily correct. Intelligence by its nature presupposes ambiguity. If we asked our intelligence agencies for 100-percent certainty on everything they examined, we would never have enough information in time for policymakers to be able to make informed decisions. After the December 4, 2005, attack Musharraf said he was “200 percent certain” that Hamza Rabia was killed — but that degree of certainty is not only literally impossible, it is never the case before the fact. The January 13, 2006, strike is a clear case in point. Our people were as certain as they reasonably could be that Zawahiri as going to attend an Eid ul-Adha feast at that particular location. But at the last minute he changed his plans. This is a good instinct for someone in his line of work. The attack went ahead, and took out some important bad guys, but not the person we most wanted. As well, over a dozen noncombatants were killed. In the next attempted Zawahiri takedown, 80 people died.
It is true that Pakistan could be more openly cooperative in the terrorist hunt. But Musharraf can get active when it suits him. The takedown of the Red Mosque is one recent example; also the cornering of Taliban leader Abdullah Mehsud, who took the opportunity to blow himself up with a grenade. There is a report that two al Qaeda operatives have been picked up this week and handed over to US forces. One of them is Muhammad Rahim, a former bin Laden special assistant. And Pakistan has launched a new offensive in North Waziristan, now that the much criticized peace agreement with local warlords has failed. Who knows, maybe these and similar developments will produce the actionable intelligence necessary to finally take down the al Qaeda leadership. In any case I don’t see how all this posturing helps. Perhaps Senator Obama should ponder how the National Clandestine Service got its name, and why the Special Forces are nicknamed the “silent professionals.”
— James S. Robbins is the Director of the Intelligence Center at Trinity Washington University, Senior Fellow for National Security Affairs at the American Foreign Policy council, and author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point. Robbins is also an NRO contributor.