After the U.S. responded to the Sept. 11 attacks by investing billions of dollars to revive neglected special operations forces, it was only fitting that Navy SEALs earned the glory of killing the most wanted terrorist in history.
It was not an airstrike from 15,000 feet, or a foreign military, or someone in the inner circle who got to Osama bin Laden.
It was a team of well-trained American warriors whose command made manhunting a top priority over the past decade.
“Amen. We’re standing 6 inches taller,” said retired Rear Adm. George R. Worthington, who, as the top SEAL, headed the Naval Special Warfare Command in Coronado, Calif., in the early 1990s. “Interesting that ‘scuba divers’ took out Osama bin Laden.”
The nearly flawless helicopter assault on bin Laden’s walled hide-out in Abbottabad, Pakistan, showed that the huge U.S. investment in special operations forces - or SOF, as they are known - paid off spectacularly. There was no repeat of Desert One, the botched 1980 raid to free U.S. hostages in Iran, or Black Hawk Down, the disastrous 1993 mission in Somalia to capture a warlord.
The Somalia mission involved the secretive Joint Special Operations Command - the same unit that led Sunday’s killing of bin Laden. What happened in the interim began with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s post-Sept. 11 orders to rebuild Special Operations Command into a combatant division on par with Central Command and other prestigious war-planning and war-fighting headquarters.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, the Joint Special Operations Command has teamed with aviation units, CIA officers and agents of the eavesdropping National Security Agency to form potent manhunting groups.
This fusion first gained wide public notice in 2006, when the command, then led by Army Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, hunted down Abu Musab Zarqawi, a particularly deadly al Qaeda terrorist in Iraq.
Sunday’s raid was highly demanding. Army Black Hawk helicopters with 24 SEALs flew at low level more than 100 miles inside Pakistan’s airspace, undetected.
The team landed before bin Laden could escape, then found, identified and killed the al Qaeda leader. Proficient in night operations, the SEALs did it all in 40 minutes and were airborne again - carrying the body of the most-wanted with them.
It is likely the raid was launched from northeastern Afghanistan, the area assigned to Navy counterterrorism SEALs. Army’s Delta Force works other parts of the country.
Joint Special Operations Command divided Iraq in much the same way, with SEALs stationed in Anbar Province, while Delta Force performed missions around Baghdad.
President George W. Bush’s war on terrorism translated into robust spending on what are affectionately called “snake eaters.”
Special Operations Command’s budget grew from $2.3 billion in 2001 to nearly $10 billion today. Manpower expanded from 45,500 to 61,500.
“It’s an order of magnitude better,” said Adm. Worthington. “The training these guys are getting, it’s 10 times what we were getting when I went through. They’re getting training right now that makes them the best in the world.”
At the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, special operations - Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets and Delta Force, and Air Force AC-130 gunships - were generally neglected. The previous Clinton administration had not called on them to go after bin Laden or his network.
All that changed under Mr. Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld: Green Berets led the initial invasion of Afghanistan. Joint Special Operations Command enlarged and expanded its manhunting skills worldwide. The Marine Corps created its first special forces command.
“We increased the size of special operations forces,” said former Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “We obviously increased their funding for new technical capabilities.”
One key move was to make Special Operations Command a “supported” command, not just one that did the bidding of other commands, but could plan and execute battles.
“Rumsfeld elevated special operations to where they had field command empowerment, which is something they never had before,” Mr. Hunter said. “We increased generally across the board the size and the capability of special operation commands. … We made them more robust than they were.”
An Obama White House official told reporters that killing bin Laden was the result of years of work.
“This remarkable achievement could not have happened without persistent effort and careful planning over many years,” the official said. “Our national security professionals did a superb job.”
SEAL commanders are urging their men to remain humble.
“Today, we should all be proud,” said a message to sailors Sunday night from Rear Adm. Edward G. Winters III, the Navy’s top SEAL. “That handful of courageous men, of strong will and character, have changed the course of history.
“Stand tall - more importantly, be humble, be the quiet professional. This is what makes our organization special. Be extremely careful about operational security. The fight is not over.”
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