Feb 08, 2022

An abrupt about-face for Biden on using the military, CNN.com

Updated 0202 GMT (1002 HKT) February 4, 2022 "Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. His new book is "The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden." The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN." (CNN)This week, President Joe Biden made two decisions that belied his reputation as a dove. He approved the deployment of 3,000 US troops to Eastern Europe as a result of the growing numbers of Russian forces that are arrayed near Ukraine. And he authorized the special forces raid Wednesday that killed ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. It seemed like quite an about-face for the President. Over the past decade, Biden has been far more cautious about deploying troops or using force. Biden pulled all US troops out of Afghanistan in August, which triggered the departure of thousands of allied NATO soldiers and American contractors, precipitating the takeover of the country by the Taliban. Biden also oversaw the withdrawal of all US troops from Iraq in December 2011, when he was vice president. After ISIS had seized much of Iraq in 2014, then-President Barack Obama subsequently ordered thousands of American troops back into the country. Biden also opposed the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011 because of the risks of carrying out a ground raid in Pakistan during which US forces might be captured or killed. Yet, a little over a decade later, Biden seems to be in a different place when it comes to the use of force. It's worth considering Obama's decision to carry out the bin Laden operation and compare it to Biden's decision to authorize the raid that killed the ISIS leader. Both of these operations had a good deal in common. They were risky ground operations carried out by US Special Operations Forces to avoid large-scale civilian casualties that likely would have resulted from simply bombing the compound in which bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan or bombing the building in Syria where the ISIS leader was holed up. In the end, the bin Laden operation was a success because SEAL Team Six, which carried out the raid, repeatedly rehearsed the operation, while Obama's national security team spent many months carefully planning for every eventuality, including if one of the helicopters on the raid crashed. A helicopter did crash during the raid on bin Laden's compound, but it didn't halt the operation. Similarly, with Wednesday's raid that killed the ISIS leader, US forces repeatedly rehearsed the operation, and the planning went on for many months. And while a helicopter on the raid in Syria targeting the leader of ISIS developed a mechanical problem and had to be destroyed, the operation was a success from the standpoint of eliminating the ISIS leader, who blew himself up along with members of his family. The operations against bin Laden and al-Qurayshi both resulted in civilian casualties; the wife of one of bin Laden's bodyguards was killed, while a still undetermined number of civilians died during the raid against the ISIS leader. Do 'decapitation' strikes work? A larger question is whether this week's raid will make a lasting difference. Decapitation strikes that kill the leaders of terrorist or insurgent groups do have some effect, but generally less than many assume. After the death of their leader, jihadist groups typically soon name another leader and move on. Look at the Taliban today: Their leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour was killed in a US airstrike in Pakistan in 2016, which was described as an "important milestone" by Obama, who had ordered the operation. Yet, now the Taliban control all of Afghanistan. Al Qaeda's core in Pakistan and Afghanistan never really recovered after bin Laden's death, although it had already been greatly weakened in the years after the 9/11 attacks because of CIA drone strikes and the arrests of key leaders. The current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has not been able to resuscitate the core of al Qaeda. Where such strikes can have real continuing utility is when US forces have the opportunity to perform what they term SSE, Sensitive Site Exploitation. During the bin Laden raid, SEALs picked up computers, thumb drives and documents, amounting to some 470,000 files. This led to a much better understanding of how bin Laden was attempting to control al Qaeda and its affiliates around the world and it also led to other strikes against leaders of al Qaeda which further damaged the group. During Wednesday's operation, US forces were on the ground in Syria for two hours, according to Pentagon spokesman John Kirby. Kirby said it was "common practice" that the US military would pick up anything they could find during a raid, and it would defy common sense that US forces didn't search the house in which the ISIS leader was hiding for any computers, thumb drives, cell phones and documents that might be useful in the fight against ISIS going forward. However, more than two decades after 9/11, jihadist groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda and their affiliates around the world continue to remain somewhat capable in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Killing one man doesn't, of course, kill the ideology of militant jihadism, which will always find some takers, especially in failing or failed states in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Biden no doubt knows about the limits of Special Operations raids, but he chose to launch one this time. This shift to a more muscular foreign policy stance may end up paying dividends at a time when Biden's popularity is flagging.