Among the more than three dozen English-language books that Osama bin Laden had in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, at the time of the 2011 U.S. raid, was “Obama’s Wars” by Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward. The 2010 bestseller focuses on the administration’s policy debates surrounding Pakistan and Afghanistan, and includes some reporting on how top officials discussed bin Laden.
Some of the exchanges in the book might have comforted the al-Qaeda leader. “What do you mean you don’t know where he is?” then-White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said to Bruce Riedel, a retired CIA veteran who was chairing a White House review on AfPak policy. Some $50 billion a year spent on intelligence “and you don’t have a clue where the most wanted man in the history of the world is?”
Other passages might have fed bin Laden’s ego; for example, a discussion between Riedel and President Obama regarding the al-Qaeda leader. “Some al Qaeda watchers would argue that bin Laden, hiding in Pakistan, is irrelevant, Riedel said. He’s stuck in a cave somewhere, and yes, he puts out these audiotapes once in a while, but he’s more of a symbol than the commander of a global jihad. What I learned is that’s just not true, Riedel said. He communicates with his underlings and is in touch with his foot soldiers. His troops believe they are getting his orders, and we know from good intelligence that they are.”
Woodward also quotes then-National Security Adviser Gen. James L. Jones on how the search for bin Laden was always a factor when formulating U.S. policy toward Pakistan. “The Pakistan problem was not just a matter of protecting the homeland and destroying al Qaeda,” Woodward writes. “There was always the prize: bin Laden. ‘We’ve found the hornet’s nest,’ Jones said later. ‘We’re poking at it from different ways. The bees are swarming but the queen is still there.’ ”
I reached out to Woodward for his reaction to the news that bin Laden had kept “Obama’s Wars” with him in Abbottabad. When asked what the al-Qaeda leader should have taken away from the book, and what other Woodward books would have been relevant, Woodward provided this response:
“If he read ‘Obama’s Wars,’ bin Laden’s takeaway should have been Obama does not like war but is willing to use lethal force,” Woodward said in an e-mail. “The American commander-in-chief in fact prefers covert Special Forces raids targeted and aimed at capturing or killing known high-value terrorist in their hideouts. A close reading might have sent him back to a mountain cave. Follow-on reading about Nixon (“All the President’s Men” and “The Final Days”) could have shown him the destructive power of hate. As Nixon said, ‘When you hate your enemies, you destroy yourself.’ ”
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