May 03, 2011

Why Did It Take So Long to Find bin Laden?

The death of Osama bin Laden raises questions about why it took the United States so long to kill or capture him in the first place.

We can state with certainty that it wasn’t because the United States lacked the capability. The U.S. special operations task force that tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden was created in the aftermath of the 1980 Desert One fiasco and was refined in the years leading up to the September 11th attacks. Over the past decade, the units that make up this task force have honed their operational prowess and have gained valuable experience working with one another in combat.

And we know, now, that it was not because Osama bin Laden was living in some remote corner of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, sleeping in a cave or shuttling between a different village or house each night. Instead, he was living in relative comfort, just down the road from the Pakistani Military Academy in Abbottabad.

We are left, then, with two explanations – neither of which bode well for the continuing war against Al Qaeda. On the one hand, Pakistan’s security services could have been so grossly incompetent that Osama bin Laden was living right under their noses for years. If this was the case, the United States must question the effectiveness of the training and equipment it has provided to Pakistan’s military and security services since 2001.

On the other hand, elements within Pakistan’s military and security services might have themselves been complicit in allowing Bin Laden a safe haven. Pakistan has suffered greatly from the actions of terrorist groups over the past decade, but the average Pakistani has his leaders in large part to blame for this. Pakistan’s security services have often used violent non-state actors in the service of perceived Pakistani interests in Kashmir and Afghanistan, in part because these non-state actors help Pakistan keep a balance against the conventional capabilities of its larger rival, India.

If actors within Pakistan indeed sheltered Osama bin Laden, that both explains why he was so difficult to track and gives the United States added leverage over a government that receives $3 billion in U.S. aid annually. But it also raises difficult questions about the U.S.-Pakistani relations, which are so important in the war on Al Qaeda going forward.