About the strategic significance of bin Laden’s execution, and the road not taken

Summary:  The capture and execution of bin Laden was a powerful act of grand strategy.  Did it advance or damage our national interests?  There was an alternative to his execution, another of the roads not taken by America since 9-11.  Bin Laden borrowed from the ending of Tom Clancy’s Debt of Honor. We could have borrowed the ending from “The Sum of All Fears”.  This is a follow-up to A brief note about the death of bin Laden.

Osama bin Laden



  1. Was bin Laden a high priority goal?
  2. Why does it matter?  Because strategy trumps tactics.
  3. The missed opportunity
  4. For more information


(1)  Was bin Laden a high priority goal?

Did we seek to capture/kill bin Laden?  Or was he more useful as an excuse for invading Afghanistan and Iraq?  There is evidence that regime change in the Middle East was the objective — and justice for bin Laden was secondary.  That was and should be primarily a decision about strategy not (as Machiavelli explained) a moral choice.  We can debate its effects another day.  Here’s some of the evidence.

(a)  Bush’s response to 9-11

As explained by the 9-11 Commission. From page 332, Chapter 10 — Wartime:

The State Department proposed delivering an ultimatum to the Taliban: produce Bin Ladin and his deputies and shut down al Qaeda camps within 24 to 48 hours, or the United States will use all necessary means to destroy the terrorist infrastructure. The State Department did not expect the Taliban to comply. Therefore, State and Defense would plan to build an international coalition to go into Afghanistan.

Both departments would consult with NATO and other allies and request intelligence, basing, and other support from countries, according to their capabilities and resources. Finally, the plan detailed a public U.S. stance: America would use all its resources to eliminate terrorism as a threat, punish those responsible for the 9/11 attacks, hold states and other actors responsible for providing sanctuary to terrorists, work with a coalition to eliminate terrorist groups and networks, and avoid malice toward any people, religion, or culture. (State Department memo, “Gameplan for Polmil Strategy for Pakistan and Afghanistan,” 14 Sept 2001)

President Bush recalled that he quickly realized that the administration would have to invade Afghanistan with ground troops.

(b)  Bush’s response to the Taliban’s offers

From “Bush rejects Taliban offer to surrender bin Laden“, The Independent, 15 October 2001 — Excerpt:

After a week of debilitating strikes at targets across Afghanistan, the Taliban repeated an offer to hand over Osama bin Laden, only to be rejected by President Bush.  The offer yesterday from Haji Abdul Kabir, the Taliban’s deputy prime minister, to surrender Mr bin Laden if America would halt its bombing and provide evidence against the Saudi-born dissident was not new … Mr Kabir said: “If America were to step back from the current policy, then we could negotiate.” Mr bin Laden could be handed over to a third country for trial, he said. “We could discuss which third country.”

But as American warplanes entered the second week of the bombing campaign, Washington rejected the Taliban offer out of hand. “When I said no negotiations I meant no negotiations,” Mr Bush said. “We know he’s guilty. Turn him over. There’s no need to discuss innocence or guilt.”

Another offer by the Taliban immediately followed:  “New offer on Bin Laden – Minister makes secret trip to offer trial in third country“, The Guardian, 17 October 2001 — “”Now they have agreed to hand him over to a third country without the evidence being presented in advance”.  The US ignored both offers.

(c)  Operation Tora Bora in December 2001

SecDef Rumsfeld overruled his senior military leaders and allowed bin Laden to escape.  For details see “Tora Bora Revisited: How we failed to get bin Laden and why it matters today“, report to by the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 30 November 2009.  There are numerous other sources that confirm this, such as “CIA Commander: U.S. Let Bin Laden Slip Away,” Newsweek, 15 August 2005 — quoting Gary Berntsen, the CIA field commander for the agency’s “Jawbreaker” team at Tora Bora.  Also see Bernsten’s book Jawbreaker (2005) and “Into Thin Air“, Newsweek, 2 September 2007.

We were invading a large nation with a small force.  The SecDef decided to focus on the big goal.  Wisely, as diversions have lost many wars.

(2) Introduction:  strategy trumps tactics (an expensive lesson to forget)

“To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”
— Sun Tzu, The Art of War, circa 500 B.C.

The tactical brilliance of our officers and the daring of our special operations forces means little unless utilized for long-term advantage.  As the German’s proved in WWII, tactical excellence cannot overcome strategic errors.  How does the pursuit, capture, and execution of bin Laden fit into our long war against the jihadists?

Looking to our history for guidance, many of America’s greatest military victories have come from sophisticated grand strategies in which we gained the moral high ground.

  1. In The Revolutionary War this meant showing that we were fighting for our rights as Englishmen — weakening the solidarity of our opponents (John Adams defending the soldiers after the Boston Massacre was as important as most of Washington’s few battlefield victories).
  2.  The Confederacy lost the Civil War largely because the British would not support a nation founded on slavery.
  3. The geopolitical regime we built after WWII lasted so long due to its strong moral foundations.

A well-executed grand strategy is the supreme force multiplier.  The late American strategist John Boyd (Colonel, USAF) said that “occurs when we live by the codes of conduct or standards of behavior that we profess, and others expect us, to uphold.”  The opposite, of course, is moral isolation, which manifests itself as, e.g., a diminishing level of cooperation by allies abroad and the public here at home.   A grand strategy focused our actions — political, economic, and military — so as to:

  1. Increase our solidarity, our internal cohesion.
  2. Weaken our opponents’ resolve and internal cohesion.
  3. Strengthen our allies’ relationships to us.
  4. Attract uncommitted states to our cause.
  5. End conflicts on favorable terms, without sowing the seeds for future conflicts.

— From Patterns of Conflict, slide 139.

Since al Qaeda probably exists only as a ghost of its former self (see details here), killing bin Laden accomplishes little.  It  provides a satisfying vengeance.  It provides political gains for Obama and DoD, valuable in the absence of any fruits of victory from Iraq and lack of progress in Afghanistan.  It is another step in the degradation of the reputation of our special operations forces from elite warriors to assassins, paid killers of unarmed people whom the US government wants hit.

It also provides an opportunity for AQ to replace the sick bin Laden with a competent and vigorous leader.  It provides jihadists with a martyr.  It gains no sympathy for America, gains no friends, builds no respect among the people of the Middle East and Muslims everywhere.

At an early intergovernmental meeting on the importance of psychological warfare, one of {General} Harkins’ key staffmen, Brigadier General Gerald Kelleher, quickly dismissed that theory. His job, he said, was to kill Vietcong.  But the French, responded a political officer named Donald Pike, had killed a lot of Vietcong and they had not won. “Didn’t kill enough Vietcong,” answered Kelleher.

— From The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam (1972)

(3)  The missed opportunity

We could have tried him as we did the Nazi and Japanese war criminals after WWII.  There was another course of action we might have asked for, which if successful would have been a major strategic victory.  From  Tom Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears, following capture of terrorist mastermind who attempted to destroy Denver with a nuke.  Excerpt from Chapter 44 — The Breeze of Evening:

They flew to Riyadh abroad Prince Ali’s aircraft.  There would be no indecent haste in the administration of sentence.  There had to be time for prayer and reconciliation, and no one wanted to treat this any differently from a more pedestrian case.  It also gave people time to sit and reflect …

The executions were at noon on Sunday {ed. note, executions are on Friday}, six days after the bomb exploded.  The people gathered, Ghosn and Qati were led out into the market square.  they were given time to pray.  … “The world will learn from this” Prince Ali said.  “This is justice happening.  That is the lesson.”

… Even though Qati knew it was coming, it didn’t matter.  As with so many things in life, it was all controlled by reflex.  a soldier prodded his side with a sword, barely enough to break the skin.  Instantly, Qati’s back arched, his neck extended itself in an involuntary flinch.  The Captain of the Saudi Special forces already had his sword moving.  The head was removed with a single stroke as deceptively powerful as a ballet master’s.  Qati’s head landed a meter or so away, and then the body flopped down, blood spraying from the severed vessels.  The blood pumped out in a steady rhythm as Qati’s heart continued to work, striving to preserve a life already departed.  Finally that too stopped, and all that was left of Qati were separated parts and a dark stain on the ground.  The Saudi Captain wiped the sword clean on a bolt of silk, replaced it in the golden scabbard, and walked into a path the crowd made for him.

The crowd did not exult.  In fact, there was no noise at all.  Perhaps a collective intake of breath, a few murmured prayers from the more devout among those present; for whose souls the prayers were offered only they and their Gold could say.  At once those in the front row began to depart.  a few from inside the crowd who’d been denied a view came to the fence line, but they stayed there for only a moment before going about their business.  After the proscribed interval, the body parts would be collected and given a proper burial in accordance with the religion that each of them had defiled.

The men who started a war executed like criminals in the market square, Jack thought.  Not a bad precedent.  Maybe it will make people think twice before the next time.

“In all our countries” Ali said, “the sword is the symbol of justice.  An anachronism from a time when men acted as men.”

Some will say that this was impossible.  But the Saudi Princes have long fought Islamic terrorists (see this list of incidents on Wikipedia), and cherish their central role in Islam.  Asking would have cost nothing, and a war crimes trial for violation of the “law of nations” (as mentioned in Article I, section 8 of the Constitution) remained an option.  Also, is the ending of Sum of All Fears less probable than the ending of Debt of Honor?

More importantly, we need imagination and vision in our strategy — not just killing.  More use of our minds, less of drones and special ops assassinations.  The creation of international organizations after WWII — especially the UN and WTO — was considered by many an idealistic and unlikely to succeed project.  We tried anyway, with great success.  We could try another large project and hope for similar results.

Or we could continue down our current dark path, alienating friends and multiplying our enemies, trusting to the strength of our weapons and spurning the strength of our beliefs.

“You know you never defeated us on the battlefield”
”That may be so,” he replied, “but it is also irrelevant.”

— Conversation on 25 April 1975 in Hanoi between Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr. (Chief of the U.S. Delegation, Four Party Joint Military Team) and Colonel Nguyen Don Tu (Chief, North Vietnamese  Delegation), from Introduction to On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War by Harry G. Summers Jr. (1982)

(4)  For more information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about about al Qaeda here, and especially these…

  1. Was 9/11 the most effective single military operation in the history of the world?
  2. Bin Laden wins by using the “Tactics of Mistake” against America.
  3. Are islamic extremists like the anarchists?
  4. Handicapping the clash of civilizations: bet on the West to win big.

1 thought on “About the strategic significance of bin Laden’s execution, and the road not taken”

  1. More evidence that regime change was the goal, bin Laden the excuse, update

    In an article at Asia Times, Gareth Porter gives excerpts from War and Decision by Douglas Feith, the DoD Undersecretary for Policy (July 2001 – August 2005):

    Feith’s book, War and Decision, released last month, provides excerpts of the paper Rumsfeld sent to President George W Bush on September 30, 2001, calling for the administration to focus not on taking down Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network but on the aim of establishing “new regimes” in a series of states by “aiding local peoples to rid themselves of terrorists and to free themselves of regimes that support terrorism”.

    In quoting from that document, Feith deletes the names of all of the states to be targeted except Afghanistan, inserting the phrase “some other states” in brackets. In a facsimile of a page from a related Pentagon “campaign plan” document, the Taliban and Saddam regimes are listed as “state regimes” against which “plans and operations” might be mounted, but the names of four other states are blacked out “for security reasons”.

    General Wesley Clark, who commanded the North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombing campaign in the Kosovo war, recalls in his 2003 book Winning Modern Wars being told by a friend in the Pentagon in November 2001 that the list of states that Rumsfeld and deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz wanted to take down included Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Sudan and Somalia.

    Clark writes that the list also included Lebanon. Feith reveals that Rumsfeld’s paper called for getting “Syria out of Lebanon” as a major goal of US policy.

    When this writer asked Feith after a recent public appearance which countries’ names were deleted from the documents, he cited security reasons for the deletion. But when he was asked which of the six regimes on the Clark list were included in the Rumsfeld paper, he replied, “All of them.”

    Rumsfeld’s paper was given to the White House only two weeks after Bush had approved a US military operation in Afghanistan directed against bin Laden and the Taliban regime.

    … the Rumsfeld paper argued that the US should target states that had supported anti-Israel forces such as Hezbollah and Hamas. It urged that the United States “[c]apitalize on our strong suit, which is not finding a few hundred terrorists in caves in Afghanistan, but in the vastness of our military and humanitarian resources, which can strengthen the opposition forces in terrorist-supporting states”.

    Feith describes the policy outlined in the paper as consisting of “military action against some of the state sponsors and pressure – short of war – against others”.

    The Rumsfeld plan represented a Pentagon consensus that included the uniformed military leadership, according to Feith’s account. He writes that the process of drafting the paper involved consultations with the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Henry Shelton, and the incoming chairman, General Richard Myers.

    Myers helped revise the initial draft, Feith writes, and General John P Abizaid, who was then director of the Joint Staff, enthusiastically endorsed it in draft form. “This is an exceptionally important memo,” wrote Abizaid, “which gives clear strategic vision.” In a message quoted by Feith, Abizaid recommended to Myers that “you support this approach”.

    After the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, Abizaid was promoted to become chief of United States Central Command (CENTCOM), with military responsibility for the entire Middle East.

    Neither Myers nor Abizaid, both of whom are now retired from the military, responded to e-mails asking for their comments on Feith’s account of their role in the process of producing the Rumsfeld strategy.

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