A key component of the US raid on Abbottabad had its origins in a military operation over 70 years ago in the island of Tarawa, which Japan had occupied during World War II. This was one of the first American offensives in the Pacific region, and possibly the toughest. Of the 35,000 US marines who landed in Tarawa on 20 November 1942, over 6,000 died in just the three days of fighting it took to claim the island. One of the major reasons was that the assaulting units had no knowledge of underwater corals and obstacles, where hundreds of marines perished without firing a single shot.
This tragic incident triggered the creation of a unit that was capable of operating underwater in enemy-controlled territory. Specially trained commandos handpicked from within the US Navy were trained in underwater demolitions and deep-sea incursions. They could then be launched from floating crafts and submarines. Since the enemy would still be able to pick out the radar signature of the launch platform, in later years this elite team was trained to execute airborne insertions using the HALO, or “High Altitude, Low Opening”, format of parachute jumps. This allowed commandoes to be dropped directly off the shoreline from very high altitude aircraft—which could pose as commercial airliners—along with specialist equipment such as raiding crafts or submerged breathing apparatus. A later variant that enabled parachuting at high altitudes allowed commandos to “fly” several hundred kilometres on their own after jumping from the aircraft.
With this three-dimensional capability, the team was deemed capable of operating in sea, air and land, giving it the name SEAL. SEAL team commandos led the American thrust on developing capability in unconventional warfare. By the 1960s, they had started working with the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) highly secretive Special Actions Division and later the Studies and Operations Group (SOG) in Vietnam. SOG’s mission was to carry out an intensified programme that comprised harassment, sabotage, capturing prisoners, causing diversion of resources, physical destruction and propaganda. Later, this lethal combination—CIA espionage and political engineering expertise, along with the surgical strike capability of the Special Forces—was ported to different theatres of war such as Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan and now Pakistan.
While the SEALs were “limelighted” in the 2 May mission, they are as the trade calls them—the “sharp end of the stick” which needs to be backed by formidable resources. Raid and rescue missions are extremely complex by nature. The intelligence is never conclusive; there is always some ignorance about local target conditions, which are usually well protected; and it almost always involves working with other actors. In addition, several variables come into play. A small technical malfunction, which would be just a hiccup in regular operations, can start a chain of disastrous events in raids —as was the case in the infamous Tehran embassy rescue attempt in 1980.
While the SEALs have had their share of glory and setbacks, the US has continued to invest heavily in nurturing its special forces. More importantly, it has cultivated extensive experience of using them in irregular warfare—a hard- earned but force-multiplying skill.
Four aspects are critical in any systematic response to proponents of terror, be they state or non-state players, or both. These are: the conventional armed forces, diplomatic and economic efforts, the intelligence apparatus and finally, Special Forces and other tools of unconventional warfare. The modern trend is one of conventional forces providing the anvil or umbrella cordon for operations. Diplomatic and economic efforts undermine the terrorists’ resolve and deny wherewithal to the enemy. But in the war against terror, the real game changers are intelligence-based, strategic high-value operations conducted by Special Forces, followed up by propaganda and psychological operations. Missions planned and led by the CIA, and executed by small groups of specialist military commandos, are fast becoming the favoured format to disrupt terrorist networks whose leaders now fear that the next raid might be coming for them.
With the Abbottabad operation, the US has reiterated that “hot pursuit” as an instrument of war has incredible strategic returns on investment. The 38-minute operation required painstaking preparation over four years, led by the CIA and assisted by a number of other agencies, including the National Security Agency, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the department of defence. The intelligence was collected using unmanned drones as well as “feet on the ground” by CIA-operated surveillance teams around Osama bin Laden’s hideout, and tens of millions of dollars were sanctioned for this operation alone.
It must be conceded that in the world of Special Forces operations, successful missions are lesser known than failures that are highlighted. But with this raid, the US has joined the elite club of countries that are reputed for taking the battle personally to top terrorist leaders, and hunting them down rather than waiting for the next attack to happen.
Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security.
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