Things went sour from the start. As the helicopters launched from the U.S. base in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, and crossed the border into Pakistan, one helicopter and the Navy SEAL team members it carried had to abort their mission and return to base after mechanical difficulties. The remaining helicopters had to carry on by themselves. As they neared the target in the city of Abbottabad, Pakistani air defenses spotted the chopper and began firing. The strike team avoided the fire and kept going but encountered stiff resistance when it landed, because the building’s inhabitants had been tipped off.
The helicopters’ propellers blew an intense heat onto the SEALs as they landed near the compound and sprinted to their assigned breach points. Like a finely tuned orchestra, the SEALs set and simultaneously detonated several breach charges around the compound’s courtyard and flooded inside. The tipped-off inhabitants stood ready, wounding several of the SEALs with a withering fire as they poured in. But the SEALs’ specially designed weapons and their reflexive sharp-shooting skills developed from hundreds of missions proved too much for the waiting guards. The SEALs eliminated the threats in the courtyard and prepared to enter the target building.
Like clockwork, the SEALs “stacked” at the main house’s doors prepared to enter the building to find their ultimate target. But they had miscalculated the strength of the building’s reinforced doors, costing them precious time, presenting the enemy hiding inside with an opportunity. Grenades flew through the house’s windows, peppering much of the strike team with shrapnel.
After seconds that seemed like hours, the door-breachers broke through. The lead team members burst into the building but quickly realized that the house had been rigged with explosives. Tell-tale signs of a house-borne IED were everywhere: copper wires hugged the walls, leading to several plastic jugs filled with explosives. Before the strike team could pull out, the home exploded, burying several people under its rubble.
In a situation where seconds were critical, it would take hours to dig the operators out of the rubble. Worse yet, their intended target was not among the debris. The gunmen were not the most senior leaders of al-Qaida, but, rather, members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, an anti-Indian terrorist group that works closely with the Pakistani government (though some of its members have links to al-Qaida). Even worse, the botched raid had inadvertently led to the deaths of several children living in the compound. As the SEALs salvaged what they could, Pakistani forces from nearby military bases responded quickly, arriving on the scene and demanding their surrender, leading to a standoff covered live on satellite television.
The debacle was a disaster for the president. The nightmares of special operations past all resurfaced: the failed hostage-rescue attempt in Iran in 1980 and the capture of Somali militants in Mogadishu in 1993 that led to the Blackhawk Down fiasco—operations in which eight and 18 American soldiers died, respectively—both resurfaced to haunt the intelligence and special-operations community. Republicans derided the president for his ineffective and weak leadership, while members of his own party privately expressed their doubts about the strategic prowess of their professor-turned-commander-in-chief. In its subsequent propaganda, al-Qaida derided the United States for its “deliberate killing of Muslim children” and boasted of its skilled preparations to foil the U.S. military (even though it let another group fight on its behalf).
But none of that came to pass. Instead of criticizing the president, we are celebrating the death of Public Enemy No. 1. While the administration takes its victory lap and basks in the glow of success, it is worth thinking through the many things that could have gone wrong and how we think about high-risk military operations when they fail.
Let’s begin with the intelligence. Information on terrorists is often wrong, fragmentary, or incomplete. Before 9/11, the United States repeatedly tried to find Osama Bin Laden and launch strikes to kill him, but it never had confidence in the intelligence it gathered. At times, terrorists are where the intelligence places them, but civilians are there, too. When Israel killed Hamas mastermind Salah Shehadeh in 2002, it also killed nine children, because Israeli intelligence did not know they were within the radius of the bomb blast. One cannot use intelligence beforehand to predict whether a mission will be a dazzling success or one that results in congressional investigations due to failure.
Too many times to count, U.S. special operations forces have acted on pinpoint intelligence, hoping to kill or capture high-level terrorists, only to find empty buildings, the wrong guy, or traps set for the team. Prior to Sunday’s raid, there was no guarantee that the compound’s defenders had not prepared al-Qaida’s favorite defensive tactics of mutual suicide: house-borne IEDs or suicide vests.
Even when the intelligence is good, it is often exceptionally difficult to act upon. Many top terrorists know to hide in countries in which U.S. special operations are not allowed to operate. U.S. forces had to cross undetected deep into Pakistan. The secrecy of the operation suggests that U.S. officials believed that any request for help from Pakistan would backfire, with Pakistani officials tipping off Bin Laden. But Pakistan’s military is competent and often fearful of an Indian military strike. It might have shot down an unknown intruder or at least discovered it and forced the disruption of the mission.
Technology, of course, is fallible. One helicopter did malfunction when the SEAL team tried to leave the compound; as a result they had to blow it up before departing. If the helicopter had gone down anywhere but in the compound, the team would have risked being left exposed for the world to see. Flying at night provided a protective cloak, but the SEALs were working against the clock in order to avoid the eventual response of Pakistani security forces. And no amount of technology is able to answer critical questions before such raids, like “Will the inhabitants of the compound fight back?” or “How many people are inside the house, and how well-armed are they?”
Relations with Pakistan, already at a low point over government contractor Raymond Davis’ killing of two Pakistanis he said tried to rob him, could have plunged even further. If Pakistani soldiers or noncombatants had died in the raid, the Pakistani government would have faced tremendous domestic pressure to further distance itself from Washington. American drone strikes that accidentally kill noncombatants in remote parts of the country are headache enough for the government: Lethal mistakes next to the heart of Pakistan could have been far worse politically. American supply routes throughout Pakistan that support ongoing efforts in Afghanistan remain critical Pakistani bargaining chips.
An airstrike would have avoided much of this messiness, but it offered fewer advantages. A drone strike would launch a small bomb, which might not kill Bin Laden. Bombs from a larger, manned aircraft could cause so much damage it would destroy nearby buildings and kill children or other noncombatants in the compound. Before the raid, U.S. officials estimated it would take more than 30 2,000-pound bombs to destroy the complex. Proving that Bin Laden was dead would be harder if the United States did not have the body in its possession. Also, Bin Laden’s headquarters presumably was also an intelligence goldmine, and a raid could capture documents, hard drives, and people, while an airstrike buries them in the rubble.
The president, of course, did not have the luxury of knowing he would be right when he made the decision to go with the riskier option: the raid. Fortunately, the decision paid off in spades. The mission’s success shows the incredible confidence and skills that U.S. counterterrorism professionals must have in order to mitigate the risks associated with dangerous operations. But these factors can only offset so much risk. In any given operation, mistakes and plain bad luck can undo the sturdiest combination of special operator skills and planning. As we praise the intelligence and special-operations communities today, we should recognize that considerable skill and planning often go into failed raids and that fortune does not only favor the bold. So if we want raids like those that killed Osama Bin Laden, we must countenance those that miss their targets and at times end in disaster—and be supportive of the operators who carry them out and the politicians who order them into action. President Barack Obama should be commended not only for the mission’s success (where the real credit spans administrations and special operations and intelligence officers that triumphed over each of the mission’s potential setbacks), but for deciding to go forward even when so many things could go wrong. Who dares, wins—but only if the dare pays off.