This Time a Message; Next Time Get Him

THURSDAY’S U.S. cruise-missile attacks against terrorist camps in Afghanistan and a suspected chemical weapons production site in Sudan seem to have been a success. But we may not have gone far enough. If there is a next time, bolder measures will be called for.

On the positive side of the ledger, the attacks sent a message to Osama bin Laden and his cohorts that the United States is prepared to abandon a number of legal and political constraints in the fight against terrorism. Their bases in foreign countries will no longer be treated as sanctuaries, and the United States will no longer hold itself to a rigorous legal standard of establishing their guilt before striking back. In addition, these attacks may have meaningfully set back the bin Laden network’s attempts to obtain chemical weapons.

There are downsides as well. One is the possibility of inciting revenge attacks. However, the bin Laden group was already planning additional attacks before this U.S. strike, so the vengeance motive may not matter much in this case. A second concern is damage to our relations with Pakistan, which appears to have had its airspace traversed without permission and to have borne the brunt of a wayward cruise missile. But the U.S. willingness to violate Pakistani airspace, while not something to be done lightly, does reinforce the message that this country is taking off its gloves in the battle against terrorists. On the whole, President Bill Clinton’s decision to strike was sensible.

Unfortunately, these hits against the bin Laden infrastructure probably will have limited military impact. Terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah in the Middle East have already shown that things like large training bases and central arms caches are not essential to their operations. Bin Laden probably will emulate them now. He also may view the cruise-missile strike, which put no U.S. troops at risk and put him at only modest risk, more as an indication of what we are not prepared to do than of what we are.

What was the alternative? Admittedly a very risky one – a commando raid against bin Laden’s headquarters south of the site we bombed. Just as with the U.S.-led manhunt against Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid in Somalia in 1993, there is some chance that our target would have eluded our grasp, and a very good chance we would have lost troops.

But unlike the case with Aidid, bin Laden represents a direct threat to core U.S. interests. In fact, he is a greater threat than was Panama’s former president, Manuel Noriega, when President George Bush sent thousands of troops to capture him in 1989.

In this case, thousands of U.S. troops would not have been needed. Several hundred, most of them flying into Afghanistan on perhaps two dozen helicopters predeployed to an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean, could have done the job.

A commando operation would have shared many of the military and political risks that confronted Desert One, the attempted rescue of U.S. hostages in Tehran in 1980. In that unsuccessful mission, eight American servicemen were killed – and the Carter presidency’s fate effectively sealed – when a U.S. helicopter and airplane collided at an improvised staging base in the Iranian desert.

But our special forces have improved drastically since then, as Pentagon analyst Susan Marquis describes in a 1997 Brookings book. They are run by a unified command that provides them with high-quality equipment and rigorous, realistic training. Situations like those confronted in 1980, when Marine Corps pilots had to fly unfamiliar Navy helicopters, and coordinate operations with Air Force planes they had not properly trained with before, would not recur.

The mission might still have failed. Moreover, Pakistan might have firmly resisted any use of its airspace or territory to stage the operation – even if we had offered to lift sanctions imposed on it after its nuclear weapons tests as a quid pro quo.

But bin Laden may well pose the most serious direct risk to U.S. territory since the Cuban missile crisis. This time around it may have been enough to send a message. Next time, assuming we can again find him, we should consider going in and getting him.