Killing Bin Laden: An Alternate History

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Photo: Columbia Pictures

It took less than a day for Barack Obama to start drawing heat for the way he handled the killing of Osama bin Laden. South Carolina Republican senator Lindsay Graham accused the president of being overly sensitive to Islam by burying the Al Qaeda leader within 24 hours and doing so at sea, thereby disposing of the incontrovertible physical evidence of bin Laden’s death; the Washington Times castigated him for having “no class” by not properly thanking George W. Bush.

That an unequivocal military success could still provoke bitter condemnation of the president made us wonder what would have happened if Operation Geronimo hadn’t gone off successfully — a possibility that was very real to the mission’s planners, who the Times reports made frequent mention of Black Hawk Down and Jimmy Carter’s botched hostage rescue in Iran. Here then, an alternate history of the past 36 hours.

May 1
11:45 p.m.
BREAKING: Al Jazeera is reporting an exchange of fire between American and Pakistani military forces in the mid-size city of Abbottabad tonight, located about an hour from Islamabad in northeastern Pakistan. Details forthcoming. [Aljazeera.com]

UPDATE: One Twitter user, Sohaib Athar, has been live-tweeting the clash, which appears to be centered around a large fortified compound by a military academy on the outskirts of the city. [WP]

"Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event)."

“Go away helicopter - before I take out my giant swatter :-/”

“A huge window shaking bang here in Abbottabad. I hope it’s not the start of something nasty :-S”

“Jets just flew over, shaking the windows again. There’s a flash and a big boom. Might be the helicopter, but people are saying it might be a drone.”

*

1:24 a.m.
CNN is reporting chaos on the ground in Abbottabad.

The fighting has stopped, but a bloody scene has emerged. Casualties are heavy, including Americans, Pakistani armed forces, and others who may be civilians. An American helicopter has been destroyed, and there are reports of a Pakistani jet crashing in the center of the city. Several buildings in the vicinity are ablaze. Residents are reporting that the incident began with two helicopters carrying American troops descending on Abbottabad. The troops stormed a large house here and a prolonged firefight broke out. Pakistani jets, scrambling to the scene, destroyed one of the U.S. helicopters. “It was a free-for-all,” said a local man. “You couldn’t tell who was fighting whom.”

*

1:55 a.m.
Pakistani military has confirmed a firefight with “dozens” of American forces in Abbottabad and is reporting an unknown number of casualties.

“We take this as a gross violation of Pakistani sovereignty,” Pakistan’s military chief said in a statement. “Through its policy of drone warfare, the United States has repeatedly undermined our counterterrorism efforts and turned public support against us. Today’s operation was an escalation, unprecedented in its arrogance. We fear the relationship between the two nations cannot be repaired.”

UPDATE: The White House has announced that it would be issuing a statement on the incident soon.

*

5:15 a.m.
Osama bin Laden was the target of a failed military operation in northeast Pakistan last night, according to White House press secretary Jay Carney. The effort was the result of over a year of planning and intelligence work that pinpointed the location of the Al Qaeda chief, and it was undertaken without the knowledge of Pakistani security forces for fear that bin Laden would be tipped off in advance. This appears to lie at the root of the confusion at the scene. When word of fighting in Abbottabad spread, Pakistan scrambled its air force and other military forces to the scene and engaged what it believed to be foreign invaders, which were in fact 79 American commandos on four helicopters. “There are multiple American and Pakistani casualties, and some civilians,” said Carney. “As far as we can tell, bin Laden is not among them.”

6 a.m.
President Obama issued a brief statement from the White House briefing room on the botched military operation in Pakistan last night that left twelve American commandos dead. He expressed sadness and frustration at the outcome and vowed, as he had during the campaign, to get Osama bin Laden. “We will continue to pursue bin Laden with an unshakable resolve, and we will not rest until the man responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children is brought to justice … To the families of the brave men who lost their lives attempting to secure a safer future for our nation, our hearts are with you. God bless you, and God bless America.”

*

6:04 a.m.
Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Mitt Romney, Donald Trump, Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels, John Boehner, Chris Christie, Rick Santorum have issued statements on the debacle in Pakistan, lamenting the loss of American lives and calling for a moment of quiet reflection and prayer.

*

7:30 a.m.
In a video posted on an Islamist website, Al Qaeda has vowed reprisals for the attempt on bin Laden’s life. Security in New York and Washington, D.C., has been upgraded in response to the threats. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that the new two-stage terror alert system, which recently replaced color-coded warnings, has been raised from "Elevated" to "Imminent."

*

11:23 a.m.
UPDATE: Roundup of the latest Republican responses to Operation Geronimo.

Sarah Palin on Fox and Friends: “What is truly upsetting to me is that while our brave men in uniform were being sent on this errand, the president was laughing it up at the White House Correspondents' Dinner with his pals from the mainstream media and Hollywood. Maybe if he was actually at his desk instead of golfing and rubbing elbows with elites — and spending so much time resurrecting the birth-certificate issue — this would have turned out differently.” [FOX]

Mitt Romney: “I’ve said before that we can’t afford to have a president who is learning on the job. Before I was referring to the damage he has done to the American economy, but now it’s clear that that extends to national defense as well. Never before has there been more glaring evidence that this president is unequal to the task of leading the free world. We need a president who can handle the economy and the war. Right now, that’s something we do not have.” [WSJ]

John Huntsman: “This single ill-conceived operation has done more damage to our delicate diplomatic relationship with Pakistan — a needed ally — than anything we have seen thus far. I hate to say it, but it’s a rookie mistake by a man afraid to reach outside of his closed circle of advisers, and a costly one.” [NYT]

Michele Bachmann: “You know what, running the military is not the same as reading a TelePrompTer, not the same as giving a pretty speech. What we had last night was a president sacrificing the lives of fighting men and women in a political ploy to distract us from real problems. It’s Jimmy Carter in Somalia all over again.” [CNN]

Donald Trump: “If he was willing to be as tough with bin Laden as he was with his buddy Matt Damon at the Correspondents' Dinner, we would have all been better off. [The timing of the mission] is pretty transparent. His approval rating is lousy. His radical agenda has failed miserably at home, so he needed a distraction. Simple. Sadly, many of our brave soldiers paid for this with their lives.” [FOX]

Newt Gingrich: “Anyone who knows anything about the War on Terror knows that bin Laden had been marginalized, that he no longer posed any real threat. He was done, isolated, living in a concrete bunker with no phone or Internet, for God’s sake. What was he going to do? We already beat him. Well, if bin Laden can’t kill American soldiers, our president sure can. [FOX]

*

12:15 a.m.
The Times is reporting that the debate on whether to bomb bin Laden’s alleged hideout using drones or to send in troops raged for a week prior to the president giving his go-ahead to send in Navy SEALS. “It was about avoiding civilian casualties in light of the Raymond Davis issue and minimizing damage to our relationship with Pakistan,” said a source close to the discussion, characterizing the president’s decision. “In the end, we did neither.”

*

12:45 a.m.
Republican House leaders, joined by several Democrats, are demanding an investigation into the White House’s decision to put men on the ground in Abbottabad instead of using bombs to take out the Al Qaeda head yesterday. “It’s a mistake we simply cannot afford to make again,” said House Speaker John Boehner. “Worse, troops were committed without consulting with Congress. These are the actions of an arrogant, out-of-touch executive bent on consolidating power.” Added Texas Democrat Henry Cuellar: “I agree completely.” [Politico]

*

2:23 p.m.
An excerpt from Rush Limbaugh’s exchange with former senator and presidential hopeful Rick Santorum [Mediamatters]:

RL: This is our professor president trying to be tough. But you know what happens when wimps try to be tough? This is what happens. And anyway, should we really be surprised that he’s afraid to kill a Muslim — even the worst terrorist — with all we know about this guy?

RS: Exactly. This is a president so detached from the American experience. Look, contrary to what the elites will tell you, an Ivy League diploma doesn’t mean you know how to fight, how to run a war.

RL: Maybe if he actually worked for those grades …

RS: Right. But this president doesn’t know how to run a war. He’s half in, half out in Libya. Afghanistan lacks any sort of clear mission. He’s wishy-washy on Gitmo. Hell, he’s not willing to go all in to catch bin Laden, even when he knows exactly where he is.

RL: If only he were as good at destroying Al Qaeda as he is at destroying America.

RS: Right, exactly.



*

5 p.m.
New numbers out in a CBS poll put President Obama’s approval rating at the lowest level of his presidency, with only 29 percent saying he's doing a good job. More than 85 percent say they disagree with his handling of Operation Geronimo. [CBS]

5:12 p.m.
Oil prices rose to $119 a barrel today. Prices at the pump are over $4.75 a gallon. [Reuters]

6:15 p.m.
Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan, and Chris Christie all announce they are forming presidential exploratory committees. [Politico]