IN THE NEWS
Suppose you had the opportunity to kill Ayman al-Zawahri, one of Al Qaeda's original leaders, and still one of the most important architects of terrorist operations that Al Qaeda has carried out, or more common today, sponsored. You had credible information that he would be at a particular village in the "tribal areas" of Pakistan at a particular date and time. Unfortunately, you also run the same risk you always face when these opportunities arise:
- The intelligence might be wrong. Even the most credible sources sometimes provide bad information, particularly when the customer, the US government, is eager to get it.
- You might not be able to mobilize a commando team for a raid on Zawahri's location.
- You might not be able to safely fly such a team into the village.
- The "information" about Zawahri's movements may have been the bait to trap US special operations forces (SOFs) in an ambush.
- If you try to kill Zawahri with an air strike, even the most precisely-guided missiles or bombs might not kill him.
- There's also the risk that either the commando or the air strike option might kill a lot of innocent bystanders. (However, the risk of unintended casualties is always higher for air strikes than commando raids.)
How low would the probability of each of these outcomes have to be for you to order the attack? That's the difficult question facing American leaders in these scenarios. Often, the process of assessing these risks takes too long, in which case the opportunity (and the terrorist) slips away. Decision-makers have to factor that additional dimension of risk into the tactical equation, before giving the go or no-go order.
Apparently, the US government thought it had a chance to kill Zawahri while he was traveling through Baluchistan. Unfortunately, local sources claim that the air strike killed 18 luckless residents of the village where he was supposed to be, but the attack missed Zawahri. Now, Pakistanis are loudly protesting the US attack on their territory.
While Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, has remarkable survival skills, he has to play a very delicate game to maintain his position--and, as several failed assassination attempts show, his life. No Pakistani is deluded about this continued support for US actions in neighboring Afghanistan. At the same time, Pakistanis remember that Musharraf gave A.Q. Khan, the government scientist who used his position as head of the Pakistani nuclear program to sell nuclear secrets to North Korea and Iran, an effective pardon. Musharraf keeps all his bases covered, and all his "allies" sufficiently confused about his real intentions to stay in power.
Therefore, we should expect for Musharraf to take some action to show that he does not approve of the US attack, without going too far to alienate his American ally. Unfortunately, given the level of unrest and dissatisfaction already swirling around Baluchistan, Musharraf will have to tilt very far toward the disgruntled parties, and very far from the United States. We'll have to wait and see the form in which this "tilt" takes.
Still, as tragic and regrettable an event as this appears to be, there are at least three questions a level above the incident itself worth asking:
- What was the intelligence on which this attack was ordered?
- How did military commanders in the area, and their civilian bosses in Washington, evaluate the options?
- How important is it to kill Ayman al-Zawahri in the first place?
Naturally, we don't have the information to answer the first two questions. For a mix of reasons, some good (the protection of sources, if this attack was based on HUMINT instead of SIGINT), some bad (reflexive secrecy about everything related to counterterrorism, even when not merited), we're not likely to hear any relevant details for quite a while.
While we wait for further information needed to answer the first two questions, we can reach some conclusions on the third point, the value of killing Zawahri. Yes, Zawahri is a proven enemy of the United States. We'd all like to see him dragged to the bar of justice, or at least see him get his just desserts. However, Al Qaeda isn't the organization it was a few years ago. Rather than planning, organizing, and executing attacks itself, Al Qaeda is now a terrorist sponsor, offering advice, training, equipment, and finances to local terrorist groups, like the British cells that attacked London's subways last year. Certainly, Al Qaeda still has an important role in terrorist operations. The center of gravity, however, has shifted somewhat from Al Qaeda itself to local terrorist groups that might benefit from Al Qaeda's assistance, but don't necessarily depend on it.
In other words, the cost/benefit analysis for an air strike in Baluchistan looks much different today than it did right after the 9/11 attacks and Operation ENDURING FREEDOM. Was the chance to kill Zawahri worth the risk? On the benefit side, it's harder to justify.