Osama bin Laden is dead. As the result of a well-choreographed and flawlessly executed mission by U.S. special-operations and intelligence personnel, one of history’s great villains has been killed. It has taken a great deal of time and enormous quantities of blood and treasure to get here. We should savor the moment.
Then we should stop and consider why it took us 10 years to make this happen.
In December 2001, the men of the CIA’s Jawbreaker team and Army Special Forces had bin Laden and many of his supporters trapped at Tora Bora. Al Qaeda and the Taliban were reeling. A handful of American personnel on the ground working with the U.S. Air Force and local Afghan forces had brought us to the brink of total victory.
That moment was squandered. The forces of Washington bureaucracy weighed in, and the recommendations of the men on the ground were ignored. Risk aversion took hold. In place of bold, decisive action were substituted indecision, staff review and second-guessing. While we hesitated, bin Laden walked out to safety. It has taken a full decade for us to recover from that error.
In that decade, al Qaeda has continued to evolve and spread. The center of gravity for al Qaeda plots against the United States right now is neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan. It is Yemen. Affiliates have spread throughout Europe. Somalia is all but under the control of al-Shabab, an Islamic militia allied with al Qaeda.
Increasingly in the United States, we are faced with threats that come from overseas only in the sense that that is their ideological origin. The terrorists themselves are drawn from our own population and are radicalized in place without ever traveling abroad.
While the enemy adapts and innovates, we continue to respond slowly, ponderously and bureaucratically. Faced with a threat from relative handfuls of terrorists and the need to track them down and eliminate them, we deploy massive conventional forces, build huge bases and airstrips, initiate enormous government aid programs and conduct the functional equivalent of siege warfare rather than the type of rapid, unconventional actions that are required.
There are virtually no al Qaeda personnel in Afghanistan anymore, yet we maintain a force of more than 100,000 military personnel on the ground there and have mired ourselves in an open-ended, ruinously expensive and highly problematic exercise in nation-building. Within Pakistan, we have settled into a long-term strategic relationship with a government that is a reluctant ally at best and are waging something akin to a strategic bombing campaign in the tribal territories along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. In fiscal 2010, we provided in excess of $4 billion in military and economic aid to the Pakistani government. That figure does not begin to address the cost of our own efforts in the nation.
At home, we have devoted our energy largely to the creation of new bureaucracies, pursuing the time-honored Washington tradition of attempting to solve problems by simply throwing money at them. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, once conceived of as a small coordinating body of 150 persons, now employs thousands. The Department of Homeland Security is building a huge new headquarters complex. All across the Washington area, tens of thousands of new contract jobs have been created. Fortunes have been made from the vast sums expended in the creation of this massive counterterrorist apparatus.
Virtually none of the massive, lumbering defense and homeland security bureaucracies contributes directly to action on the ground, either at home or abroad. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, for example, sits atop the pre-existing intelligence structure. It collects no intelligence. What analysis it produces largely duplicates that already created by other agencies.
What all of this structure does add, however, is what bureaucracy always creates: process and delay. In a war in which speed and agility are of the essence, this is fatal.
Counterterrorist operations do not succeed based on the amount of paperwork associated with them or by virtue of the size of the staffs behind them. They succeed based on the skill, daring and speed of the operators who conduct them. In the world of counterterrorism, less is more. You either seize an opportunity or you do not. Your adversary does not stand still, and he does not wait for you to catch up.
In 2001, we needed to finish the job, kill bin Laden, install a government in Kabul that would prevent that nation from being used as a base for attacks on our nation and move on. Similarly, in Pakistan we needed to move rapidly, decisively and, probably in many cases, unilaterally, to hunt down the terrorists harboring there and move on. Our enemy was shifting shape and adapting. We needed to move with him, not lumber along behind.
We have done what we should have 10 years ago. We cannot continue to run a decade behind in this contest, nor can we continue to employ standard bureaucratic methodologies to confront the enemy. We need to be faster, smarter and more agile. We need to trim the bureaucracy, eliminate unnecessary layers of command, move away from the employment of large conventional forces and get ahead of the game. It’s time to stop playing catch-up.
Charles S. Faddis is a retired CIA operations officer, former chief of the CIA’s weapons-of-mass-destruction terrorism unit and author of “Beyond Repair” (Lyons Press, 2009).