The death of Osama bin Laden is a transcendent moment for the country and a pivotal one for President Obama.
As the president said, it “marks the most significant event in our effort to defeat al-Qaeda.” The inability to capture bin Laden has been the hole at the heart of the American national security establishment for 10 years. More than 5,000 American soldiers have been killed pursuing terrorists and insurgents since the Twin Towers fell. Many thousands more have been injured. Untold numbers of civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan suffered death and displacement. The American government was reorganized to protect the homeland, and Americans saw loved ones march off to war and slogged through long airport security lines to avoid a replay of what happened that bright September morning.
The plot set in motion by this tall, itinerant Saudi, born in 1957, opened a chaotic and difficult century for the world’s superpower. The 20th century saw American armies victorious with tanks and planes and mired in the jungles of Vietnam. The wars of the 21st century, from the Khyber Pass to Baghdad, tested American ingenuity and leadership. Could America deliver victories in this terrain?
As long as bin Laden remained on the run, the answer was no.
The triumph of a pro-American government in Baghdad and an ostensible American ally in Kabul was all good, but as long as the man who started the wars of 9/11 was able to scurry from hiding place to hiding place without capture, it cast a pall over the entire enterprise.
After Historic Manhunt, Osama bin Laden Is Dead
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•What Does it Really Mean for al-Qaida?
•Timeline: Osama bin Laden's Life and Death
•PICTURES: Newspapers Lead With bin Laden's Death
With bin Laden's death, the importance of little-known aspects of America's fighting capability—the paramilitary-like forces of the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command—may soon be as well-known as mainstays like the Army and the Marines. In the wars of the 21st century, on the eve of this long-awaited moment, the lesser-known legions in the American military are now under the spotlight.
The CIA had been caught off guard by 9/11 and caught up in the contretemps over faulty intelligence leading to the Iraq war. Its director, George Tenet, had famously said that the case for Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction was a "slam dunk."
Now the CIA stands much taller. Its intelligence helped pinpoint bin Laden, but so did its patience: The genesis of the operation began four years ago, based on a fragment of information received years earlier than that from detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Just as Leon Panetta readies to leave his tenure as director, Langley has cause for pride.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, now retired; his successor at the Joint Special Operations Command, Vice Adm. William McRaven; and Michael Flynn, McChrystal's intelligence chief, transformed the way the military uses and fuses intelligence. This is their kill, too.
Inside the Pentagon today, the "Three Musketeers," as they're affectionately known—CIA deputy director Mike Morell, Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Gen. James Cartwright, and Mike Vickers, the civilian who oversees special operations—drove through artificial bureaucratic firewalls to make sure that secretive entities could work with other.
Of course, we don't know yet what the practical impact of bin Laden's death will be. His continued existence remained a source of inspiration and recruitment for the loose network—the “al-Qaida"—that he commanded, even as he lost the ability to directly order and supervise terrorist attacks. The death will not end terrorism. It may even draw a ferocious response from those who are sympathetic to bin Laden. It will almost certainly complicate the already severely strained U.S. relationship with Pakistan even as President Obama went out of his way praise Pakistan for its cooperation in the effort—which was, to be sure, nil, because Pakistan had not been told about it beforehand—and to encourage its continued help.