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The Strategic Wisdom of Barack Obama

yet another gutsy call

The killing of Osama bin Laden has been characterized by two distinct phases. In Phase I the White House simply could not tell us what happened during the raid and eventually just decided to stop talking about it. Phase II has been a demeaning and unseemly grubbling for credit on the part of the administration under the guise of Obama having made a “gutsy call.” Not only has the administration actively promoted this notion in press conferences but they are actively planting these stories in the tame and housebroken media that has become a hallmark of this administration.

The latest in the series of “Obama is as hard as woodpecker lips” stories comes from the New York Times.

WASHINGTON - President Obama insisted that the assault force hunting down Osama bin Laden last week be large enough to fight its way out of Pakistan if confronted by hostile local police officers and troops, senior administration and military officials said Monday.

Mr. Obama’s decision to increase the size of the force sent into Pakistan shows that he was willing to risk a military confrontation with a close ally in order to capture or kill the leader of Al Qaeda.

Such a fight would have set off an even larger breach with the Pakistanis than has taken place since officials in Islamabad learned that helicopters filled with members of a Navy Seals team had flown undetected into one of their cities, and burst into a compound where Bin Laden was hiding.

One senior Obama administration official, pressed on the rules of engagement for one of the riskiest clandestine operations attempted by the C.I.A. and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command in many years, said: “Their instructions were to avoid any confrontation if at all possible. But if they had to return fire to get out, they were authorized to do it.”

“Fight its way out of Pakistan.” You can nearly smell the cordite as the phrase trips off the tongue. You can just see Josh Barnett running through a cloud to smoke.

I’d be among the first to acknowledge that the SEALs are tough but, let’s be honest, they aren’t tough enough to fight their way out of Pakistan. As I detailed earlier, bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound was over a hundred miles from the Afghan border. The city itself garrisons four infantry battalions and is located in a highly militarized area as it borders on Kashmir. So some latter day reenactment of Xenophon’s Anabasis is pretty much out of the question. Extracting yourself by helicopter while under enemy fire is not something to be attempted lightly.

Nothing that we know about the raid indicates that, in fact, there was any contemplation of going at the Pakistani police or army hammer and tongs. The raiding force consisted of four helicopters. They were hardly jam-packed with shooters as they lost one helicopter on the insertion and had enough spare seats for the passengers and crew from that helicopter to extract. As a contingency they probably had seats available for several prisoners to be extracted. In short, there is no way enough troops could have been inserted on four helicopters to allow the force to “fight its way out of Pakistan.” Such an operation would have required significant tactical air support and would have resulted in sufficient casualties and property damage that Pakistan simply could not have ignored it with really bad effects for our army in Afghanistan that depends upon Pakistani roads to bring in their supplies.

What is actually scary, though, are the prospects that someone actually thought that a handful of US troops, no matter how skilled, could lock horns with a large number of trained troops and prevail. Pakistan’s Army, though hardly world class, is not to be dismissed lightly. As we used to say in regards to the Red Army, “quantity has a quality all its own.” Or in the words of Kipling

Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten-rupee jezail -

While there is absolutely nothing in the story that backs up the rather extraordinary claim made in the lede the three reporters involved, Eric Schmitt, Thom Shanker and David E. Sanger, aren’t rookies and the odds of them having come up with this formulation without some prompting are pretty slim. The way this claim is used to bolster the idea that at some level Obama was spoiling to kick a little Pakistani butt is also troubling.

There is no doubt that Obama is looking at a the killing of bin Laden as a boon to his reelection chances and, recognizing his own basic gutlessness is a millstone in this endeavor, is using “gutsy call” as shorthand for what he hopes we remember of his grossly deficient leadership. It is a sad state of affairs when you find yourself hoping that your president is simply bloviating and did not seriously contemplate sending young men into a situation that would actually have required them to do something as profoundly stupid as “fight their way out of Pakistan.”

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