On May 2, 2011 a team of Navy SEALs raided Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound, killing the Al-Qaeda leader nearly 10 years after the September 11 attacks. Americans poured into the streets to celebrate what was widely seen as long-awaited justice — any questions were lost in the jubilation. What led to the decision to kill bin Laden? What did his death really mean 10 years later? What was the future of Al-Qaeda and the War on Terror?
On June 22, 2012 Peter Bergen sat down with Brian Fishman to discuss his ground-breaking research for his latest book, Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad.
A lot was riding on the mission to kill bin Laden, Bergen said, noting Vice President Biden was concerned about the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad being overrun following a strike. The administration also received conflicting advice from military officials on the nature and suitability of a raid.
The weight of history also weighed heavily on the president’s decision. “Jimmy Carter did make this decision, and it made him a one-term president,” Bergen said.
In the end, President Obama sent back a military plan, saying the operation needed to be larger to account for accidents if the mission were to go awry. And while something did indeed go wrong — one of the helicopters malfunctioned and went down — Bin Laden was killed.
As for the relevance of bin Laden at the time of his death, Bergen says the answer is clear.
At the end of his life, Bergen describes bin Laden as living a Spartan life that was far from the “spectacular martyrdom at Tora Bora” he would have wanted. Even though Al-Qaeda’s influence was greatly diminished by 2011, Bergen stated that bin Laden’s significance was such that it would be impossible to end the War on Terror without his death.
Bin Laden’s death was such a pivotal point in the Obama administration that the raid had to be carried out seamlessly. The drone strikes that would go on to kill so many Al-Qaeda leaders in the following months were not an option.
Turning to the role of drones in U.S. military strategy, Bergen said, “nearly 60 countries have drones. We are creating a lot of bad precedents that China or Russia may cite when they can arm their drones in two to three years.” Bergen also called for more discretion in American drone strikes, particularly in Pakistan where nearly 2,000 people have been killed by an unmanned drone campaign to sweep the vestiges of Al-Qaeda out of the region.
Although Al-Qaeda’s death knell was sounding long before bin Laden’s death, Bergen wouldn’t “recommend a precipitous withdrawal from the region.”
Whether the United States continues to attempt to improve relations with Pakistan while carrying on a drone program in its airspace, or whether an American president once again takes up the mantle of Middle East peace, it is clear U.S. involvement in the region is far from over.
— By Lauren Glass