It appears that it wasn't the guns, tanks or Tomahawks of the Global War on Terror, as George W Bush named it, that were responsible for the extermination of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. If the version of events we are getting is true, it was old-fashioned police work – gathering intelligence, getting leads and following them up painstakingly.
By bagging their most wanted man finally not with an army but a squad of special operatives, the US may have unwittingly exposed as unnecessary a decade worth of ground warfare in two countries. At the cost of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, neither Iraq nor Afghanistan destroyed Osama bin Laden, a team of Navy Seals backed by the CIA's intelligence did.
Osama's lieutenants who have been brought to bay or eliminated – and there have been plenty of them – have mostly been caught by the CIA or intelligence forces from other countries. In this case, there may have been some help from elements inside of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence Bureau that either took a bribe or decided Osama was no longer worth the effort.
Osama and his jihadi compatriots, in bringing down the World Trade Center in New York almost 10 years ago, impelled the United States and its allies – but mainly the United States – into fighting two wars lasting 10 years that were probably unnecessary.
The broader war on terror also resulted in widespread violations of prisoner rights and the use of torture that has undermined America's reputation for rule of law and respect for human rights. Despite protestations by some that water-boarding and other tortures inflicted on Kahlid Sheikh Mohammed produced the initial lead that eventually led to Osama, US Sen. Diane Feinstein and others have said it wasn't torture at all that worked. Kahlid, who gave up the identity of a vital courier, did so after the torture stopped and US agents had gained a measure of his confidence.
So far in Iraq, according to the Brookings Institution Iraq Index, US$900 billion in direct costs were approved through November last year, not counting ancillary costs for continuing medical care and other issues that are expected to push the final tab into the trillions. As of April 27, some 4,444 US troops had been killed and 32,051 wounded, 20 percent of those seriously. Another 316 coalition forces have been killed. Some 146 journalists have been killed. Of those 14 were killed by US forces.
The cost to Iraqis dwarfs those figures. The most conservative estimates, included in military documents released in October 2010 by WikiLeaks, are that 100,000 civilians were killed. Some estimates go as high as 600,000. The cost to Iraqis is rarely mentioned in the US press. Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan are estimated as high as 2 million. Some 40 percent of the country's professionals have left. The democracy bequeathed to the country on American orders appears riddled with corruption and dominated by the Iranian Shiites from next door.
The Afghan war so far has cost another US$455 billion and taken the lives of more than 2,340 coalition men and women. Untold thousands of Afghan civilians have died as well, far too often killed by "friendly fire," misplaced drone attacks or targeted assassinations in revenge for assisting the coalition.
When Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry, in his 2004 campaign stump speeches, advocated a "nuanced approach" to the prosecution of the campaign to find Osama, Vice President Dick Cheney ridiculed him. But in fact, although we are a long way from learning what really happened in Abbottabad in the middle of the night on May 1, it was a nuanced campaign that got the Al Qaeda leader. This was cop on the beat stuff – gathering intelligence, bribery, coercion and keeping track.
Given the trauma and horror surrounding the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Bush's initial instinct to send the troops into Afghanistan to try to get Osama was understandable. US and British Special Forces, backed by massive US air support, drove the mullahs from power in the following month and left them fleeing for the Pakistani border. It appears they just missed getting Osama at that time, possibly from reluctance to fire on what appeared to be the convoy bearing him and Taliban No. 1 Mullah Omar to safety in the Tora Bora mountain range.
At that point, the United States had the sympathy of most of the world, with the exception of those who believed then and continue to believe that the CIA engineered the collapse of the Twin Towers. But with the unprovoked and unrelated attack in Iraq, which had nothing to do with trying to catch Osama, the US lost an enormous amount of friendship and sympathy in the Islamic world and beyond.
From that point forward what in the chilling parlance of Washington-speak was called the GWOT, the global war on terror, looked to many millions of Muslims like a war on their religion.
"I doubt that this killing is going to be a lasting victory with the entire Arab region in turmoil, US allies being toppled," said a Muslim friend in Kuala Lumpur. "I think generally the Muslims are quite affected. They kind of feel sorry for his death, more so at the hands of US forces."
Few Muslims agreed with the destruction of civilian targets by Al Qaeda and other splinter organizations, he says.
"But what they see now is US and Western aggression against Muslims as unceasing and the manipulation of Muslim nations as unending. For Obama to make mention that this is not a war against Islam means he knows that that's exactly what most Muslims think it is."
The fact that Americans in 1991 put their lives on the line to protect Muslims in Kuwait, and again in 1999 in Bosnia and Kosovo, has been buried. If Muslims acknowledge those campaigns at all, it is to say that in Kuwait's case they were protecting oil supplies and in Bosnia and Kosovo they arrived with too little, too late to save thousands of dead Muslims.
With Osama killed in his villa and now somewhere at the bottom of the Arabian Ocean, and with vast amounts of computer data collected that should allow the police work to continue, the best thing the Americans could probably do in both Iraq and Afghanistan is declare victory and just get out. Hamid Karzai, the corrupt puppet that the Americans installed in Kabul, says he would be glad to see them go. They should take him up on it.