Saturday, September 7, 2013

How the Bin Laden raid can guide US intervention in Syria

When it comes to military operations that are 'limited' in scope and duration, the key to functional impact is found in the strategy of application.

So, let's consider some examples.

In 1998, President Clinton ordered a 'limited' strike against Al Qa'ida (AQ) bases in Afghanistan. Unfortunately however, this operation was negated by weak intelligence and the President's desire to tick a political box (looking tough domestically) in preference to all other concerns. In result, the resolve to achieve a meaningful strategic impact was distinctly absent. In its failure, this action propelled extremist conceptions of an American 'paper tiger'.

Yet, the failure of one particular action should not be allowed to define all 'limited' military actions. 

As he plans a response in Syria, President Obama should look to another operation against AQ. More specifically, the 2011 raid that killed Bin Laden. 

This action didn't simply weaken AQ's operational power, it denied that group their perversely charismatic talisman. The 'limited action' produced a profound strategic effect.

Paying heed to Operation Neptune Spear, President Obama could draw three lessons worthy of application in the present crisis.

1) Secrecy - As he seeks to persuade Congress on the merits of intervention, Obama must cautiously follow General Mattis's core maxim - ''don't tell the world you're weak and make darn certain you don't tell your adversary what you're not going to do...'

Prior to May 2011, Bin Laden found false safety in his belief that the United States would never be able to find him. The US played to this sensory deficit - right up until the raid, the US offered no hint that it had an idea of the terrorist leader's location. In the same vein, balancing with the need to persuade Congress, Obama must also ensure that General Dempsey's targeting portfolio is kept secret. In order to achieve impact, Assad must be denied the ability to protect his vulnerable assets. This leads to the issue of 'impact'...

2) Impact -  Where the Abbottabad raid's 'limited' but decisive force pummeled Al Qa'ida's center of gravity, the failed 1998 action allowed Bin Laden to continue his plotting (as did other missed opportunities that were lost to hesitancy). The lesson is clear- if it proceeds, US intervention in Syria must bear an absolute focus towards weakening Assad's WMD program - targeting the officers (WMD leadership), assets (WMD launch platforms) and infrastructure (C4ISR) that enable the employment of that program. The sustaining focus must situate in achieving military impact and not in achieving a political satisfaction of the 'red line'.

3) Expectations - Again, just as the Bin Laden raid was never expected to end Al Qa'ida terrorism, nor should US intervention in Syria be expected to end Assad's bloodletting. The President and Congress must accept that a limited strike will not cripple Assad's ability to massacre. Further, assuming they adhere to points (1) and (2), they must not blame each other if the operation fails to significantly weaken Assad's regime (the evident rancor in Congress suggests that this may well occur). This is a hard but basic point - the President must focus on doing the possible, but recognizing the limits of his power. Nonetheless, unconventional complements to military force remain at his disposal.

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