Foreign Policy Blogs

Killing bin Laden: how much did it cost?

Killing bin Laden: how much did it cost?The media coverage of the US assault on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, a few miles from that nation’s most renowned and well-protected military academy– less than an hour’s distance from Islamabad–has swung from celebratory accounts of swift, secret, single-handed US assaults by special ops teams so covert that even their own members identify themselves only by acronym, to more speculative ‘think’ pieces that raise, but are too discreet to answer, the inevitable questions about the involvement or non-involvement of Pakistan in this effort, how such involvement (or lack of it) may now affect US-Pakistan relations, and why, if members of Pakistan’s government, military, or police were involved, these actors might have been persuaded to give up a guy so valuable to so many of their constituents–in Pakistan and across the Muslim world.


Lots of it over a long period of time.

The way it works in Pakistan is the same way it works in Mexico: you want a kingpin’s erstwhile ‘protectors’ to throw da boss over the fence, you make them an offer they simply can’t refuse–it’s too good, too workable, and on the strategic chessboard separating you from your ‘frenemy,’ the  move promises advantages for both players down the road. Fast money, strategic plays, the game goes on.

But let’s talk about bin Laden. The first notion we can discard is that the US pulled this feat off alone–that our intelligence and military capabilities allowed a convoy of Blackhawk helicopters carrying teams of Navy SEALs, along with gunships (loaded with 100+ Army Rangers or Marines) flying defense above the Blackhawks, to penetrate, probably from Afghanistan, 100 miles or more into Pakistan’s airspace to one of the country’s most heavily garrisoned locations (Pakistan’s ‘West Point’) without detection by Pakistan’s intelligence/military forces or without encountering Pakistani fighter jets.

Did the radar suddenly shut down in Pakistan?

Did Arnold Schwarzenegger, intent on reigniting his Hollywood career, somehow find the right power grid in Islamabad and pull the plug?

Maybe the military, on full-alert 24/7 for Indian incoming, simply fell asleep at the switch, like the air traffic controller recently caught napping on the job in Washington, DC?

Not likely, my friend.

The story I hear is a different one–that the US has known the location of bin Laden’s compound for six months–plenty of time to ‘lay the groundwork.’ The residency has been there for six years–known to have been built for and to have belonged to the same family–the bin Ladens.

We also know that all of the information that made the assault possible came from human sources (an important fact given all the talk about the newly acquired hi-tech skills of US special ops teams). No doubt the conversation began via less-than-friendly communications between US interrogators and prisoners in Gitmo four years ago, leading the US/CIA to ‘the courier.’ After that, it got easier, the discussion improving through the kind of cooperation you get when ‘money talks,’ when circumstances and financial opportunity conspire in ways that most likely led one or more of bin Laden’s ‘protectors’ to become a catalyst, instead, for his demise.

US government insiders offer this scenario: at some point in the information-gathering process, the US switched from the use of force to the force of financial enticement, and the initial payoffs began, first, perhaps, to a single individual in Pakistan’s military or police force–someone who knew the location of the compound and the logistics maintaining its security, maybe a trusted bin Laden ‘loyalist’–and then, through this first ‘high-value informant,’ payments started moving into the accounts of his higher-ups, in the military, the police force, the government–as far up as anyone who thinks an unopposed large-scale incursion into the interior of Pakistan might warrant.

Ask yourself this: is it possible that an attack force like the one that took out bin Laden–four Blackhawks carrying Navy SEALs with companion gunships loaded with troops equivalent to the size of an infantry unit–was able to penetrate 100 miles into Pakistani airspace and into a heavily guarded interior location within striking distance of Islamabad without the knowledge or acquiescence of Pakistan’s ruling elite?

Given the number of Army Rangers or US Marines assigned to back up the Navy Seals, we can assume the perimeter established around the bin Laden compound was probably a quarter of a mile.

We’re talking about quite a ruckus.

Consider this as well–a US military airborne assault targets a compound clearly constructed with the knowledge and cooperation of Pakistan’s military and political rulers without trading a single shot with that nation’s military?

The initial bounty offered by the US for Osama bin Laden was 25m.

Chump change when the split is wide.

But money travels to Islamabad in many forms.

Example: the Obama Administration has just authorized an appropriations request for 300m made at the behest of  US Senator John Kerry (D-Mass), who heads the  Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the current US Ambassador to Pakistan to pay for weapons and defense systems Islamabad says it needs right now. House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King suggests that the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Bill, which sets no conditions on Pakistan for continued US assistance, may tally up to more than 1bn short term with undetermined amounts to follow.

So, here’s the question. Media reports indicate the CIA was ‘worried’ Pakistan officials might tip off bin Laden’s people. Common sense and US intelligence indicate the attack was, for the most part, ‘money well-spent.’ The current “outrage’ on the part of Pakistani officials about the ‘secret’ US incursion, and rumblings in the US about the failure of Zardari’s government to ‘tip us off’ about bin Laden’s whereabouts seem to be a subterfuge much of the mainstream media and the diplomatic community are prepared to accept.

But, in the end, what’s this all about? Yes, Osama bin Laden has received his just deserts. He’s an important symbol. But Pakistan, the country that both bought and sold Osama bin Laden, remains a wild card, one we play at our own risk and perhaps to our own ruin.

Pakistan is the most dangerous country in the world right now, and I am not alone in suggesting its fickle loyalties, the corruption that unseams it, its nuclear capabilities, its kinship to hard-core terrorist organizations, and its extravagant, impossible ambitions translate into a challenge no Western leader seems able or willing to confront.

There are some who say Obama triggered the assault on bin Laden at this moment because there were indications Osama was on the move, prepared to vacant the compound he had occupied for the past six years.

There are others who accuse the US Administration of unfolding Old Glory for election time–and talk about Obama’s plan to visit Ground Zero do little to scuttle such suspicions. There are also rumors in Washington, DC (my hometown) that Leon Panetta revealed all to Obama and advised him not to move, but that Hillary (you GO, girl!) stirred the pot to the disadvantage of both Panetta (now ‘promoted’ to Secretary of Defense) and bin Laden.

What can we say? Perhaps that it was worth every last penny to get the mastermind of 911. That we should probably keep paying Pakistan for this kind of  ‘actionable’ information. That Hillary Clinton has . . . ?

Yes. Absolutely. All of that. But most importantly, perhaps we should move beyond symbols and on to real life challenges. Osama bin Ladin is gone. Our ‘frenemies’ in Pakistan, with their shifting alliances, diverse customer base, and rising price tags, remain.



Kathleen Millar

Kathleen Millar began her career in public affairs working for Lyn Nofziger, White House Communications Director. She has gone on to write about a wide range of enforcement and security issues for DHS, for the US Department of the Treasury (Customs & Border Patrol), for Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME), then a Member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and for top law enforcement officials in the United States and abroad.

A Founding Member of the Department of Homeland Security, Millar was also the deputy spokesperson-senior writer for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna, Austria. She has authored numerous speeches, articles and opeds under her own and client bylines, and her work, focusing on trafficking, terrorism, border and national security, has appeared in both national and international outlets, including The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Financial Times, and Vital Speeches of the Day.

Kathleen Millar holds an MA from Georgetown University and was the recipient of a United Nations Fellowship, International Affairs, Oxford. She is a member of the Georgetown University Alumni Association, Women in International Security (GU), the Women’s Foreign Policy Group, and the American News Women’s Club in Washington, DC. Kathleen Millar is currently teaching and writing about efforts to combat transnational organized crime.