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The bin Laden operation: how the national security system should work

May 4, 2011

On 3:00 p.m. Eastern Time Sunday afternoon, an elite U.S. special operations forces unit infiltrated a 3000-square-foot compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, confronted and killed Osama Bin Laden, and captured a “motherlode” of intelligence material about Al Qaeda’s network.

This was a demonstration of how the national security system should work.

The special operations forces that conducted this operation are themselves a product of Congressional reforms from the late 1980s. Legislation offered by Senator Sam Nunn and Senator William Cohen and supported by many others passed into law and created the U.S. Special Operations Command. As a result, the United States has the world’s finest special operations forces.

The operation on Sunday was enabled by all-source intelligence fusion, a truly collaborative effort across multiple U.S. government organizations. The integration of multi-agency intelligence and special operations is an organizational triumph for the U.S. national security system. However, as a recent study from National Defense University warns, it is a capability that needs to be institutionalized. If it is not, then the impact of the victory may pass away quickly.

In 2006, special operations forces supported by an interagency team succeeded in eliminating Al-Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Fortunately, U.S. forces were able to build on this success and expand the use of interagency teams in Iraq. In the process, the United States learned how to conduct what General Stanley McChrystal has called, “collaborative warfare.”

PNSR has recommended interagency teams and explained the necessity to institutionalize this capability. The National Defense University researchers argued in their study of special operations forces and interagency teams that this combined capability constituted an organizational secret weapon that helped dramatically turn around the war in Iraq. If the same capability can be brought to bear on other problems around the world, there is reason to hope for success in those areas as well.

However, even at this high point of success, high value target teams cannot be the sole solution to America’s security challenges. Stay tuned.

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