Bin Laden's Gone: What Now for Defense Policy?

The death of Osama bin Laden (OBL) at the hands of U.S. special operations forces is a watershed moment for defense strategists. Like the 9/11 attacks, it isn’t really the beginning or end of anything new. The world didn’t change on 9/11. What did change was how the United States and its national security community perceived threats and their likelihood. The world won’t change fundamentally in the post–bin Laden era either. Violent Islamic extremists will continue to threaten the United States, its citizens, its interests, and key foreign partners. Unfortunately, however, that is not the only unconventional threat on the horizon. Increasingly, a wide variety of irregular threats endanger U.S. security. The events of 9/11 were so jarring to the national consciousness, however, that within the Department of Defense (DoD) “irregular warfare” and persistent (counterterror) operations in the Muslim world became nearly synonymous. Among other things, OBL’s death provides senior defense leaders with the opportunity to reexamine how DoD responded to the threat bin Laden exemplified and assess whether a broader perspective on the irregular threat spectrum is warranted.

Q1: What is the most important near-term outcome for DoD stemming from bin Laden’s death?

A1: Breathing room. Since 9/11, senior DoD decisionmakers have enjoyed very little “white space” to pause and consider alternative approaches to either combating terrorism or the wider concept of “irregular warfare.” Without bin Laden, after all, there likely would not have been wars in Afghanistan and, potentially, Iraq. OBL also spurred an explosion of DoD counterterrorism (CT) responsibilities and an ensuing (re)naissance of sorts for stability operations (SO), counterinsurgency (COIN), and security force assistance (SFA). Perhaps, in a perverse way, someone like bin Laden was necessary to drag DoD into the more unconventional twenty-first century. Now unconventional or irregular threats—terrorism, insurgency, state weakness and failure, and lawlessness—have been rightly recognized as coequal to and often more disruptive than more traditional state-based military threats. DoD’s list of consequential defense challenges grew substantially longer in the days after the Twin Towers fell.

Almost immediately, DoD viewed this new era of “irregular” problems almost exclusively through the prism of Islamic extremism—not the potential failure of important states in the Middle East and other parts of the world, not ethno-sectarian civil war, not criminal lawlessness. Therefore, DoD’s adjustments were targeted exclusively at solving its near-term tactical and operational problems. These actions were undertaken without a strategic appreciation for how the irregular challenge set would change and grow over time. At a minimum, now at the front end of the post–bin Laden period, senior DoD decisionmakers can pause and consider their “irregular” future given the myriad events that have occurred since 2001.

Q2: What are some of the key considerations DoD might therefore take into account going forward?

A2: There are at least three. First, the terrorist challenge has metastasized. Sanctuary is found more in decentralization, franchising, the Internet, and anonymity than massing in austere locations. Thus, as was demonstrated this past weekend, there is still an important role for U.S. forces in countering extremist threats through offensive military action. That role, however, is now more specialized and discriminating. Regime change and long-term occupation as an instrument of CT have been discredited as too costly on a number of levels. Indeed, even in Afghanistan—the epicenter of 9/11—there were options beyond a U.S.-enabled proxy war against al Qaeda or a comprehensive counterinsurgency and national reconstruction effort. Adopting a more punitive campaign approach to Afghanistan in 2001—for example, using more rapid-entry general purpose forces but under a vastly more limited mandate (kill, capture, and dismantle)—would, of course, have left open the possibility of having to return, but it would have also afforded U.S. decisionmakers far greater freedom of action and lower overall global risk. Needless to say, limits on freedom of action and increased risk more than doubled with the addition of the Iraq War.

Second, though forcible regime change might have come off the table, the potential for large-scale irregular warfights has not. There is a high probability that U.S. forces will be needed to defeat a range of irregular and hybrid challengers and disrupt hostile networks. This means that U.S. ground troops might again be required to deploy to a foreign theater by the tens of thousands, engage in intense combat action on arrival, and then stay in place for some period of opposed stabilization. Such operations will not necessarily be confined to the Middle East or be undertaken in response to terrorist threats alone. U.S. forces may, for example, be required to reverse illegitimate seizures of power; secure vulnerable friendly governments or lines of communication; establish temporary control over criminal or terrorist sanctuary, weapons of mass destruction, and critical foreign infrastructure/resources; or underwrite the extraterritorial exercise of U.S. law.

Future operations like this would also occur under vastly different circumstances than those in Iraq and Afghanistan. That said, Iraq and Afghanistan will loom large over their initiation and execution. In this regard, large U.S. forces are more likely to be held back for use in defense of primary interests. At least in the near term, senior U.S. political leaders will employ large land forces in particular only under circumstances where they believe they can achieve a circumscribed set of minimum essential military objectives and depart on favorable terms. Finally, U.S. forces will have an implicit timeline associated with their redeployment.

Third, the enormous capabilities of direct action special operations forces are now broadly appreciated. These forces have demonstrated a capacity for deep penetration of hostile territory and discriminating capture or elimination of dangerous threats to the United States and its partners. While it remains certain that these forces will be invaluable in managing the threat from violent extremists worldwide into an indefinite future, they can prove useful against an ever-expanding set of malign and violent criminal actors as well. This is not to suggest that the United States militarize policies to combat illicit activity emanating from abroad, only that these special operations forces may increasingly be used to complement the efforts of U.S. law enforcement and foreign partners working to curb foreign-based criminal threats to the United States.

Nathan Freier is a senior fellow with the New Defense Approaches Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and a visiting research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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