SPECIAL OPS….The New York Times reports today that two years ago the CIA had some strong intelligence about the time and location of a meeting between Ayman al-Zawahri, al-Qaeda’s #2, and other top al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan. A special forces operation was put together to capture the terrorist leaders, but at the last second Donald Rumsfeld pulled the plug:

Mr. Rumsfeld decided that the operation, which had ballooned from a small number of military personnel and C.I.A. operatives to several hundred, was cumbersome and put too many American lives at risk, the current and former officials said. He was also concerned that it could cause a rift with Pakistan, an often reluctant ally that has barred the American military from operating in its tribal areas, the officials said.

…. “The Special Operations guys are tearing their hair out at the highest levels,” said a former Bush administration official with close ties to those troops. While they have not received good intelligence on the whereabouts of top Qaeda members recently, he said, they say they believe they have sometimes had useful information on lower-level figures.

“There is a degree of frustration that is off the charts, because they are looking at targets on a daily basis and can’t move against them,” he said.

It would be nice to use this as an excuse to bash Rumsfeld for being unwilling to put his money where his mouth is, but there’s nowhere near enough information in this story to justify it. Operations like this aren’t a game, and Rumsfeld may well have made the right decision.

Two things, though. First, the ballooning of the mission from a couple of squads to a couple of companies sounds eerily similar to what happened to Bill Clinton whenever he asked the Pentagon about special ops missions. Almost inevitably, what he got back was a battle plan involving hundreds or thousands of troops, which made it politically impossible to consider implementing. It sounds like Rumsfeld had the same experience.

And on a related note, Rumsfeld’s decision to scuttle this mission is precisely the same kind of decision that Clinton has been pilloried for making under similar circumstances back in the 90s. But now it turns out that Clinton wasn’t just some liberal softy after all. Even after 9/11, and even after installing a rock-jawed Republican as Secretary of Defense, the Bush administration is doing the same thing. So maybe Clinton knew what he was doing after all. And maybe the world isn’t quite the game of Risk that Bill Kristol thinks it is.