The risk in Pakistan

In his “60 Minutes” interview, President Obama noted the “geopolitical” risks involved with “going into the sovereign territory of another country and landing helicopters and conducting a military operation.” He added that if the mission fell apart, “we’ve got problems.”

Right, but what kind of problems are we talking about? The Monthly‘s Editor-in-Chief, Paul Glastris, talked to a former counter-terrorism official with extensive experience overseeing special operations, who noted that Obama sent in a large enough squad “to start a small war.”

Why? Because, in order to “plan for the worst,” the mission had to anticipate a possible Pakistani response. Paul’s source explained, “[Y]ou look at the force package we went in with — that footprint is the story. It speaks to the downside risk and concerns they had. And it means the decision Obama made was even gutsier than people realize. He was basically risking a small war with Pakistan.”

The New York Times followed up on this today, explaining that the assault force Obama sent in was prepared to “fight its way out of Pakistan if confronted by hostile local police officers and troops.” In practical terms, this meant the president “was willing to risk a military confrontation with a close ally in order to capture or kill the leader of Al Qaeda.”

Indeed, President Obama had to consciously make this choice, supporting the supposition of Paul Glastris’ source.

Under the original plan, two assault helicopters were going to stay on the Afghanistan side of the border waiting for a call if they were needed. But the aircraft would have been about 90 minutes away from the Bin Laden compound.

About 10 days before the raid, Mr. Obama reviewed the plans and pressed his commanders as to whether they were taking along enough forces to fight their way out if the Pakistanis arrived on the scene and tried to interfere with the operation.

That resulted in the decision to send two more helicopters carrying additional troops. These followed the two lead Black Hawk helicopters that carried the actual assault team. While there was no confrontation with the Pakistanis, one of those backup helicopters was ultimately brought in to the scene of the raid when a Black Hawk was damaged while making a hard landing.

“Some people may have assumed we could talk our way out of a jam, but given our difficult relationship with Pakistan right now, the president did not want to leave anything to chance,” said one senior administration official, who like others would not be quoted by name describing details of the secret mission. “He wanted extra forces if they were necessary.”

Gutsy call.