Obama stuck to his guns on bin Laden

Posted: May 03, 2011

He did what he said he would do.

Five times I have interviewed President Obama, and in each conversation I raised the hunt for Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

Going back through the tapes and transcripts, I'm reminded that he was as consistent in his remarks as I was in repeatedly asking. And in the end, it went down just the way he promised.

That bin Laden was hiding in plain view, in the shadow of the military academy of the Pakistani army, in a community noted for the numbers of its military retirees, is testament to Pakistan's obfuscation of our objectives. Obama was right to therefore disregard its sovereignty.

U.S. intelligence learned of the compound in Abbottabad in August. Two months later, on Oct. 27, I interviewed Obama and asked, "Is it at a point, sir, where it's time to send our special forces across that Afghan-Pakistan border, engaged in the hunt of bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri?"

The president was understandably reluctant to go into details about covert U.S. operations in Pakistan, though he did allude to such activity: "I will say that we are ramping up the pressure each and every day. And I'm actually confident that the work that Gen. [David] Petraeus is doing on the Afghan side of the border, the cooperation we've begun to get from the Pakistanis on their side of the border, is starting to have an effect. But as you and I have talked about before, every day I've got a team of some of our best people who are still looking for bin Laden, still looking for Zawahiri, still focused on making sure that we are defeating and dismantling al-Qaeda once and for all."

In the midst of the celebrations for how this ended, it is important to remember that there was a time when Sen. Obama was derided for saying he would act in the manner he just pursued. That happened in August 2007, when he said he would move on actionable intelligence regarding high-value terrorist targets if Pakistan did not.

Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Christopher Dodd, among others, were critical of those remarks. He did not temper his comments.

Obama has been a constant critic of our outsourcing of the hunt for bin Laden. In March 2008, he told me that the Pakistanis "have been playing us like a violin."

In that same conversation, he said the Iraq war was a distraction that had allowed al-Qaeda to regroup and become stronger. "And we've got to do something about that because those guys have a safe haven there, and they are still planning to do Americans harm, and my job as commander in chief is going to be to protect Americans," Obama said.

When we spoke a month later, he said: "When it comes to military aid, we shouldn't be propping up Pakistan's military when they're focused on a possible war with India and ignoring the very immediate and real threat of militants who are in their territories. And our aid has to be in some ways contingent on them making a serious effort."

In our next conversation, on Oct. 9, 2008, Obama again chastised those in Pakistan who were willing to harbor America's enemies and reiterated his intention to authorize covert operations to target high-value adversaries within that country.

As the war in Iraq wound down, he told me, the United States also would have to "send a strong message to Pakistan that we can't tolerate safe havens for bin Laden, where he's training terrorists to kill Americans. We can't tolerate it. Now we need to work with Pakistan to dismantle those training camps and kill bin Laden. But if Pakistan is unwilling or unable to take bin Laden out and we have him in our sights, we've got to do it."

Once in office, the Obama administration first made good on that repeated promise by dramatically increasing the number of Predator drone strikes in Pakistan. A BBC analysis found that at least 87 drone attacks had been authorized in the first 18 months of Obama's presidency, compared with 25 such attacks during President George W. Bush's final year in office.

By last February, the number of drone strikes authorized during the first two years of the current administration (at least 180) had already dwarfed such activity undertaken by the preceding administration over the previous four years (42), according to a Newsweek analysis.

When I spoke to Obama in the White House in August 2009, he told me that the Pakistani army was "for the first time actually fighting in a very aggressive way, and that's how we took out Baitullah Mehsud, the top Taliban leader in Pakistan, who was also one of bin Laden's key allies."

But when that level of pursuit did not last, Obama acted without consulting the Pakistanis.

In view of what he said so often, it's difficult to fathom that so many have for so long questioned his resolve in destroying America's enemies.


Contact Michael Smerconish

via www.smerconish.com.

Read his columns at www.philly.com/smerconish.

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