It goes without saying that Osama bin Laden’s death is welcome news. But more than that, it is a teachable moment for how the U.S. ought to be carrying out its counterterrorism policy moving forward.
Targeted killing is an essential component of the fight against al-Qaida. Much of the public debate has focused on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to carry out targeted killings — a misplaced emphasis on means rather than ends.
International counterterrorism is primarily an intelligence campaign, and the select application of lethal force is more effective than the deployment of large military units to Muslim nations. A scalpel, not a sledgehammer, should be our primary counterterrorism tool.
Bin Laden’s final hideout was not a cave, but an expansive compound in a community of well-to-do Pakistani military retirees — confirmation that Pakistan is a conflicted ally and that elements of her intelligence services are working for the other side.
The nomination of Gen. David Petraeus to take the helm at the CIA signaled an ongoing military-intelligence campaign against international terrorists. The raid that killed bin Laden exemplifies this new emphasis by the Obama administration. The brilliant success of this operation demonstrates the marked improvement in our human intelligence capabilities over the past decade.
Bin Laden’s death underscores the failure of al-Qaida to achieve its impossible goal: establishing a global caliphate living under his nihilistic worldview. As soon as al-Qaida establishes a return address for American special operations personnel to raid or bomb, it will be pummeled into irrelevance. Al-Qaida itself does not present an existential threat, but it can provoke us into sacrificing our blood, treasure and liberties to the point that we no longer recognize the society we set out to defend.
Now is the time to reappraise our counterterrorism policy. Terrorists are not superhuman. We must prioritize spending on national security toward cost-effective measures, just as we do in any other field. Terrorism is a tactic employed by weak actors meant to induce hysteria and overreaction in victims.
It is time to stop playing this game the way al-Qaida wants us to and transition our forces down as soon as possible in Iraq and Afghanistan. The sustainable counterterrorism path is a mix of intelligence cooperation, direct action and training regional allies, not using our line troops as a Third World constabulary in perpetuity.
America needs this moment. With three wars, a sluggish economy and continued partisan rearranging of the budgetary deck chairs, a bit of good news might give the country a renewed sense of focus. It also is fitting that President Barack Obama ordered the strike between playing a round of golf and attending the White House correspondents dinner. Contrary to al-Qaida’s best efforts, life goes on, nations heal and America will persevere and thrive.
David Rittgers served three tours in Afghanistan as a Special Forces officer and continues to serve as a reserve judge advocate. The views expressed in this op-ed are his alone.