By Patrick J. Kiger October 19, 2011

Commandos: The Riskiest Solution

Once President Obama and the U.S. national security leadership learned that Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was hiding in a fortified mansion in Pakistan, they were confronted with the dilemma of what to do next. They could have opted for assassination via missile strike, like the one that President Clinton launched against bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1998, or outsourcing a capture-or-kill operation to indigenous mercenary militias, as the Bush Administration did at Tora Bora near the Afghan-Pakistan border in 2001. But bin Laden had survived those and other failed attempts against him. Thus, the decision this time to go with a more effective, but potentially highly risky, option: a team of U.S. Navy SEAL commandos, specialists in pulling off seemingly impossible missions that required astonishing feats of physical prowess and skill, under cover of secrecy.

This time, the plan worked to near-perfection, as the SEALs managed to penetrate bin Laden’s compound, assassinate him with a gunshot to the head, and escape with a treasure-trove of computer drives that seem likely to help the U.S. further cripple the terrorist network. The only casualty on their side was a malfunctioning helicopter that the operatives were forced to jettison.

Nevertheless, throughout history, clandestine commando action against enemies has a more mixed record. The idea of such shadow warriors isn’t new. It may date back to the 14th century, when Japan’s black-clad ninjas, or shinobis, circumvented the strict ethical rules followed by samurai warriors to perform espionage, sabotage, and assassinations against their lords’ enemies. During the American Revolutionary War in the late 1700s, the Continental Congress set up the Committee of Secret Correspondence, whose responsibilities included launching pirate raids against Great Britain. In the late 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Gen. “Wild Bill” Donovan as the euphemistically-named Coordinator of Information, a post that gave him free rein to set up paramilitary raids and sabotage against enemies of the U.S. From the 1950s onward, Israel became perhaps the world’s foremost practitioner of covert action, staging a successful operation to kidnap Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann from Argentina in 1960, and staging a daring—and successful—commando raid to free passengers on a stranded Israeli airliner from terrorists at Entebbe Airport in Uganda in 1976.

But commando missions and covert strikes against enemies have also ended in disaster—or had unforeseen negative consequences. The 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by U.S.-backed Cuban expatriates turned into such a spectacular fiasco that President Kennedy angrily threatened to break up the CIA “into a million pieces” afterward. An even more painful failure was Operation Eagle Claw, an ill-fated attempt to rescue 52 American hostages in Iran in 1980, when the mission had to be aborted after two helicopters collided in the desert. In 1985, the Reagan Administration’s daring interception of a plane carrying terrorists who had hijacked the Achille Lauro went for naught, after authorities in Italy, where the plane had been forced down, decided to release the terrorists. (Their leader, Abul Abbas, was captured years later by the U.S. military in Baghdad.) A 2002 Russian commando attempt to rescue hostages taken by Chechen rebels in a Moscow theater resulted in tragedy, when a sleeping gas pumped into the building by the commandos killed many of the hostages.

So why did the Entebbe Raid and the SEAL mission to kill bin Laden succeed when other efforts failed? Experts say reliable advance intelligence; sophisticated planning with built-in contingencies; clear, competent leadership; and disciplined teamwork are key. In Pakistan, U.S. forces were able to obtain so much information about Osama’s custom-built compound they were able to build a near-identical replica of it, which the SEALs could use for training. Ultimately, though, success comes down to the skill and sheer nerve of the commandos who carry out the mission. Ability to adapt on the fly and compensate for miscues is also crucial. At Entebbe, for example, Israeli commandos attempted to sneak into the airport in a motorcade designed to resemble Amin’s. But guards, who knew that Amin recently had purchased a Mercedes that was a different color, were not fooled. Without missing a beat, the commandos simply shot the guards and went straight into the rescue.

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