George Will asserts that a “small footprint” managed to stomp out Osama bin Laden. It’s tempting to think so, and the speed and dexterity of our mission leads one to the impression very few bodies were needed to obtain a very big target. But as a factual matter, there is reason to question the premise.
Military historian Max Boot explains:
The raid shows the importance of U.S. bases in Afghanistan — not only for keeping that country out of the clutches of the Taliban and other Al Qaeda allies, but also for projecting U.S. power into Pakistan which, despite bin Laden’s death, will remain a hotbed of radical Islamist activity. If it were not for the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, how could Seal Team Six have reached bin Laden’s compound deep in the heart of Pakistan? According to news accounts, they were using Chinook and Blackhawk helicopters, presumably the variants specially modified for special operations. But modified or not helicopters are short-range aircraft. Thus having guaranteed access to bases in Afghanistan is crucial to the success of such missions — as they are for Predator strikes and various intelligence-gathering activities which the CIA and other agencies undertake to monitor the situation in Pakistan.
The fact that bin Laden was able to live within sixty miles of Islamabad, and in a town where many retired Pakistani officers make their homes, shows how deep the rot has spread in Pakistan. The fallout from the raid, with U.S. troops operating in Pakistan without the permission of the government, may further radicalize Pakistan’s politics. That makes it all the more essential that we keep a significant force presence nearby. If not in Afghanistan, where? Unfortunately the Russians have done a good job of making Central Asia less hospitable to an American presence than it used to be. Hence the continuing importance of Afghanistan as a regional hub for American operations.
I’m willing to be persuaded that Max (who’s spent quite a lot of time with Gen. David Petraeus) has overlooked some newfangled, remote control, small-footprint way to protect American interests. But unless and until we find it, we should be wary of shrinking our footprint, no matter how advanced our technology. It turns out that, as in real estate, in modern warfare the three most important factors are location, location, location.