There will be many reflections this week surrounding the 10-year anniversary of the operation that killed Osama bin Laden.
From the oral history of the political and national security figures involved, those who made truly historic decisions, to the details of the hunt and eventual raid conducted by our courageous special operations and intelligence community personnel, Americans should never tire of celebrating a proud moment in our history.
I look at this anniversary from the simple optic of a CIA street case officer. Our nation was attacked. We were the ones on the ramparts who had failed. Our guilt and anger were palpable. It was thus our mission to treat every day as if it were Sept. 12, the day the hunt for OBL began. That makes May 2, 2011, a historic day. That day OBL was brought to justice was a day that saw justice for the nearly 3,000 dead at the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
I was a member of the CIA clandestine service, whose men and women worked tirelessly to defeat al Qaeda in what was a truly global counterterrorist campaign. I was not part of the planning or the execution of the OBL operation itself, though like many, I was working against al Qaeda and its affiliates for nearly my entire career. Those that contributed to the specific operation, in multiple capacities from the operations officers to the analysts to the support personnel, are forever heroes to me. As I woke up earlier this week, with multiple news accounts of the 10-year anniversary of the raid, the following personal thoughts on the hunt for OBL and the overall battle against al Qaeda quickly popped into my mind.
I will never forget, just a week or so after the attack on the World Trade Center, walking through the wreckage. I was working with a joint interagency task force and was living in New York City prior to Sept. 11, 2001. Yet I was on vacation in Europe on that terrible day and later talked my way onto one of the first commercial flights back to America. Upon my return, and as I approached ground zero late at night, I did a double take as a New York City police officer, dressed in full Irish dress, solemnly played the bagpipes as night fell and the haze of the smoke enveloped him. It was a surreal moment, one that I wished I had captured on camera.
As I gingerly stepped foot through ruins that were still smoldering, I also looked toward World Trade Center 5. The abandoned and partially collapsed building of my daughter’s day care center, where she would have been on that day, is still burned into my mind. On May 2, 2011, I was in training at a secret CIA facility, preparing for a one-year assignment to run one of our bases in eastern Afghanistan. Cable TV in our dining hall broke the news that OBL had been killed. My colleagues and I watched speechless as crowds outside the White House chanted, “CIA, CIA, CIA.” It is impossible for an outsider to understand the significance of this moment, as so many of us at the CIA toil in the shadows with never an acknowledgment of our success. I had chills, felt an enormous pride, and also understood that OBL’s death did not mean that our work was finished in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
I remember having some extra motivation on the firing range the next day. One of my colleagues had worked for nine years on the OBL operation. Nothing else. For nine straight years. He sacrificed his entire life for nearly a decade, endured personal hardship in multiple South Asia war zone assignments, and lost irrecoverable vacations and family time, all to hunt down one man. I think of him often, as he defined what it felt to take 9/11 personally, and to never rest until justice was served. This officer personified the unbelievable determination and grit that our officers working counterterrorism brought to the problem set. I also wondered: What does one do in his or her career after such an accomplishment? How do you top this? How do you put in perspective what you have done? How do you rebuild your lives and time lost from loved ones? I worry about the psychological toll that this fight has taken on our men and women who did so much for our nation.
That’s partly why I say that diversity is not just a “woke” concept. Female officers working counterterrorism played a far outsize role compared to the female officer percentages that make up the CIA workforce. The media have rightfully portrayed some of these men and women as heroes. And there are many more. Truth be told, the toughest, most accomplished, and most ethically sound leader I ever worked for was a female senior operations manager. She was responsible for saving thousands of American lives due to her role in the counterterrorism fight. She taught me the simple standard that I always tried to live up to:”Do the right thing.” In my view, she was the single most important individual in the history of the U.S. government’s counterterrorism fight. I thought of her, too, this past Sunday.
Yet as we memorialize the day that OBL’s terrible reign came to an end, it is impossible not to question that perhaps we have unfinished business in Afghanistan. For at the very beginning of my career, in 1993, I worked on a study with a brilliant female Afghan analyst that discussed the rise of the “Afghan Arabs,” those Islamic militants who came in the thousands to Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s to help defeat the Soviet occupiers. I cannot remember the actual wording of the text of our paper, but I do remember a box that highlighted a wealthy Saudi benefactor of the Afghan Arabs, a man by the name of Osama bin Laden. And I remember the fundamental premise of the paper — that ungoverned lawless spaces give rise to global terrorist movements.
Are we not making the same mistake in leaving Afghanistan today?