Bin Laden’s capture: should the U.S. military use “scapels” or “sledgehammers”

“Bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy,” was how Bin Laden described his goals.  [As if our elected representatives needed help bankrupting America. But unlike our politicians Bin Laden uses the term “bleeding” literally.]

In a blog post titled “Osama Won,” Reason magazine editor Radley Balko notes that Bin Laden succeeded in his related goals: “to draw the U.S. and the West into a prolonged war—an actual war in Afghanistan, and a broader global war with Islam.” Reuters reports that “the war expense topped $1 trillion in December 2009,” and CostOfWar.com keeps a running tally.

But have costly wars, a large troop presence, and nation building helped capture terrorists?  The operation to apprehend Bin Laden involved about two dozen Navy SEALs and years of surveillance and intelligence gathering.  “A scalpel, not a sledgehammer, should be our primary counterterrorism tool,” notes Cato Institute policy analyst David Rittgers, a former Special Forces officer in Afghanistan.

The combination of intelligence and precisely-targeted force was also behind capturing 9/11 plotters Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh. “Most effective counterterrorism techniques do not rely on tens of thousands of troops stationed indefinitely in distant lands,” notes Christopher Preble, author of “The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free.”

Recent calls for pulling troops out of Afghanistan sound reasonable. The number of Al Qaeda members there is “at most … 50 to 100, maybe less,” said CIA director Leon Panetta last summer. Indiana Senator Richard Lugar argues that this does not justify “100,000 American troops and a $100 billion per year cost.”

A version of this was published in the Boulder Daily Camera on May 7, 2011.

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