Best Thing Since the Doolittle Raid

by Dr. David Aikman
May 9, 2011

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The raid by a U.S. special operations team, SEAL Team Six, on a house outside Islamabad, Pakistan, and the killing there of Osama bin Laden is one of the most brilliant military feats by any American military unit in decades.  President Obama's decision to launch it was gutsy and commendable for several reasons -- among them, it wasn't absolutely certain that bin Laden was there. And the raid itself was complex and risky.  It would, for example, have been catastrophic if the Pakistani military had detected the incoming or outgoing U.S. helicopters and intercepted them, or if the ground operation had been fiercely resisted at the bin Laden compound after the team’s arrival.  It would at the least have been deeply embarrassing if Pakistani civilians had been killed or injured during the raid.
But there is another aspect of the raid's success that needs to be considered: its moral resonance.  The United States has been in an undeclared war against Muslim radical extremists since the al-Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  Al-Qaeda was the group indirectly acknowledging responsibility for the attack, and the leader who founded it in the early 1990s was Osama bin Laden.  That attack led directly to the U.S. going to war in Afghanistan in 2001, and then indirectly to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Since 9/11 itself, bin Laden had uttered countless pronouncements threatening death and destruction to the U.S., to Israel, and to Christians and Jews in general.  (Does anyone recall that captured al-Qaeda training video, showing recruits training to barge into a house and then shoot at targets clearly identified by a Christian cross painted on the wall?  I certainly do).
In effect, al-Qaeda boasted that it was going to bring down the U.S. -- and bin Laden crowed over every single Islamic terrorist bombing perpetrated against America and its allies since 2001. The Islamabad raid has not only shut bin Laden up for good, it has made clear to America's adversaries that "they can run, but they can't hide."  It took nearly ten years to track down bin Laden, and much of the pursuit at times seemed fruitless.  Most people seemed to think he was holed up on some remote village compound in Waziristan, in Pakistan's border region with Afghanistan.  But in the end, painstaking pursuit of intelligence leads, perhaps aided by some hard interrogation techniques of captured enemy combatants, showed that he was quietly living in a phone-less, TV-less house in a Pakistani suburb.
I think the real satisfaction for Americans is that, after years of combat against our terrorist adversaries -- some of it counter-productive (the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal of 2004, for example) -- we did something right.  We killed the man who had instigated, planned, and presided over the most vicious surprise attack upon American civilians since Pearl Harbor in 1941.
In one respect, therefore, the Islamabad raid might be considered comparable to the Doolittle Raid over Tokyo in April, 1942.  Barely four months after the Pearl Harbor disaster, Lt. Col. "Jimmy" Doolittle led 16 B-25 bombers in a dangerous, carrier-launched raid on Tokyo.  The raid failed to inflict serious material damage upon Tokyo, but it deeply embarrassed the Japanese, who had proclaimed their island nation invulnerable; and it injected an immeasurable morale boost into Americans, who otherwise had watched the Japanese since the beginning of 1942 scoring uninterrupted victories over the map of Asia.  It also had the unexpected effect of causing the recall of a major Japanese carrier group from the Indian Ocean to the Japanese home islands, from whence it was assigned to attack the American mid-Pacific target of Midway Island.  That, in turn, led to the Battle of Midway, a crushing defeat of the Japanese navy by the United States from which Japan never recovered.
It is far too early to speculate concerning the effect bin Laden's death will have on al-Qaeda operations and on other radical Islamic assaults on Americans and the U.S. in particular.  But it is not unreasonable to assume that some foreign terrorist groups may think twice before planning an attack on our country or its citizens.  Americans have a right to take pride in the awesome skill and power of America's military machine and in the sense that a real international villain who had declared war on the U.S. has been brought dramatically to justice.
Our continuing war on radicals of every complexion who wish to do us harm is far from over, and there may well be some nasty setbacks in the future.  But enemies of the U.S. need to take notice: it is dangerous to tamper with the U.S. when its most talented and patriotic brains are engaged in its defense.

A version of this column appeared originally at on 9 May 2011.

For 23 years Dr. David Aikman was a foreign correspondent and senior correspondent for Time magazine. A former foreign policy consultant in Washington D.C., he is a current senior fellow of the Trinity Forum. Read full bio.

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