Despite the way U.S. Navy Seals took down bin Laden in a scene straight out of the movie Navy Seals, until 2001 American special forces had never targeted terrorists anywhere, ever. Remember the Bushies yapping about how the War on Terror could not be waged according to a "law enforcement" paradigm? That's where all the Stupid of our lost decade begins, because law enforcement is in fact the best possible model for dealing with men like Osama bin Laden. Much more after the jump...
During the Reagan administration, the Pentagon determined that terrorism was a crime -- and terrorists criminals by definition. Invoking posse comitatus, the Pentagon forswore actions against terrorists and adopted a posture called "force protection." Base security was increased, soldiers were admonished to be watchful, and the elite forces of SOCOM stayed in their barracks. As General Pete Schoomaker, original Delta Force member who later commanded the unit in 1991-92 before leading the Special Operations Command in the late 1990s, put it:
Counterterrorism, by Defense Department definition, is offensive. But Special Operations was never given the mission. It was very, very frustrating. It was like having a brand-new Ferrari in the garage, and nobody wants to race it because you might dent the fender.
Those words were recorded by neocon Richard Schultz, Jr. in a January 2004 edition of Weekly Standard. Schultz also said:
"Patterns of Global Terrorism," a report issued by the State Department every year since 1989, sets forth guidance about responding to terrorism. Year after year prior to 9/11, a key passage said it was U.S. policy to "treat terrorists as criminals, pursue them aggressively, and apply the rule of law." Even now, when President Bush has defined the situation as a war on terrorism, "Patterns of Global Terrorism" says U.S. policy is to "bring terrorists to justice for their crimes."
Schultz's article is surprisingly fair to the Clinton administration. The Pentagon resisted any role in dealing with terrorism by disclaiming legal authority to deal with the issue, stalling Richard Clarke, and offering only "action plans" with enormous risks attached:
One former official recalled that when strikes against al Qaeda cells were proposed, "the Joint Staff and the chairman would come back and say, 'We highly recommend against doing it. But if ordered to do it, this is how we would do it.' And usually it involved the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. The footprint was ridiculous." In each instance the civilian policymakers backed off.
To some extent, (Special Ops) planners themselves have been guilty of this. "Mission-creep," one official called it. Since you can't "totally suppress an environment with 15 guys and three helicopters," force packages became "five or six hundred guys, AC-130 gunships, a 900-man quick-reaction force ready to assist if you get in trouble, and F-14s circling over the Persian Gulf." The policymakers were thinking small, surgical, and stealthy, so they'd take one "look at it and say that's too big."
But after 9/11, resistance to the sort of daring operation just completed in Pakistan was mainly an executive decision. Iraq took the full attention of policymakers. Bush and Cheney repeatedly asserted the "War on Terror" could not be fought as a law enforcement matter, and still are. Meanwhile, American troops were enacting scenes from Cops on a daily basis in Baghdad, kicking in doors and clearing houses. The handoff of responsibility to Iraqi troops has mostly involved teaching them how to do the same thing a SWAT team does.
Consider the infamous "WikiLeaks video," in which the helicopter crew fired on unknowns according to wartime "rules of engagement." Had the crowd been gathered in South Central Los Angeles, a police helicopter would merely have radioed ground units to investigate. Indeed, the most important weapon on a drone isn't the missile, but the camera. Loitering overhead, it can wait until the target leaves a wedding -- or guide ground units to capture him. War is in fact a bad paradigm for fighting terrorism.
Or consider what police officers do in interrogation rooms every day. Rather than waterboarding and torture, they ask questions in a language the suspect understands. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, better known as the Underpants Bomber, gave up critical information in his initial interview. When the FBI brought his parents to bear on him, Abdulmutallab became cooperative. The difference between breaking a terrorist and a criminal is no difference at all.
Questions about whether Americans should enforce their laws in other countries, or act as a "global policeman," are moot if one simultaneously argues for the applicability of laws to terrorism. With Pakistan unable or unwilling to pursue bin Laden, extradition was not an option. Osama now joins Pablo Escobar in hell, victims of their own safety and surety in friendly territory. Indeed, I can think of no better analogy to the "War on Terror" than the "War on Drugs" -- both need to end through saner, sounder policy. America's reach is long, but its paradigms need work.