Global War on Terror (2001–present)


A hundred goats surrounded four U.S. Navy SEALs, who operated near a village in the Hindu Kush range. “No Taliban,” repeated three goat-herders in broken English, as they nervously approached the Americans. Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Marcus Luttrell pointed his rifle at one, but Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy, the team leader, urged restraint. He knew that the rules of engagement for Operation Red Wings required the release of noncombatants inside Afghanistan. The SEALs allowed the Afghans and their bleating herd to pass, while they continued to watch for a group of Taliban fighters known as the “Mountain Tigers.”

An hour later, the “Tigers” ambushed the SEALs. An avalanche of gunfire and grenades forced the Americans to fall back. Luttrell bounded down the steep slopes into a rocky ravine for cover. A round hit Murphy in the stomach on the way down, while Petty Officer 2nd Class Danny P. Dietz died from multiple wounds in the firefight. Another teammate, Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew G. Axelson, received shots to the chest and head. “Remember, bro,” yelled the team leader, “we're never out of it!”

Intent upon contacting headquarters by a mobile phone, Murphy moved away from cover to get a signal. Under direct fire, he made the call. He took a bullet in the back, slumping forward while dropping his phone and rifle. He braced himself and grabbed them both before rising again. Still under fire, he confirmed that help was on the way.

An MH-47 Chinook rushed forward eight additional SEALs and eight Night Stalkers from the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. Waiting for the rescuers, the “Tigers” brought them down with a rocket-propelled grenade. On June 28, 2005, 19 Americans perished in the Battle of Murphy's Ridge.

Only one SEAL survived to tell the story. Luttrell watched each of his teammates expire until an exploding grenade knocked him unconscious. With a number of fractures, wounds, and injuries, he later reached an Afghan village. They sent an emissary to the nearest U.S. base to arrange his return.

Figure 16.1 Navy SEALs operating in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Photo 050628-N-0000X-001, U.S. Navy, http://www.navy.mil/


To combat the enemies of the U.S., the American military entered a landlocked realm in Asia known as the “graveyard of empires.” America's foes in the past belonged to nation-states, but fighters in the developing world accentuated a different way of war. Extremists from a multitude of Muslim countries resorted to terror tactics, which involved indiscriminate violence in pursuit of fanatical goals. Hiding in secluded locales or in ethnic enclaves, stateless organizations such as al-Qaeda conspired against civil society. Their leaders envisioned a brutal, costly, and nihilistic conflict that would last years if not decades. They intended to trigger the ultimate collapse of the lone superpower in the new millennium.

President George W. Bush, who took office after the disputed election of 2000, confronted the gathering threats. While he pushed plans for a missile defense system, American power during an age of globalization seemed uncertain. The bi-polar confrontations of the Cold War no longer informed strategic thought, yet the horrors of international terrorism shattered the promises of endless peace. Moreover, outlaw regimes relentlessly pursued both conventional and unconventional weaponry. For the sake of national security, Americans looked to the military to defend the ideals of liberty and justice overseas. The desire to roll back the tide of anti-American ideologies propelled the nation into the Global War on Terror.

Roused by attacks on American soil, the Bush administration called upon the all-volunteer forces to fight the terrorists abroad. Out of a U.S. population that reached 308 million, however, less than 1 percent wore the uniform. The Pentagon remained uncomfortable with authorizing long deployments and failed to plan for asymmetrical combat. Expensive military hardware proved insufficient, leaving troops vulnerable in battlefields that defied conventions. Although paradigms shifted slowly, more and more units developed the capabilities to go almost anywhere with almost any adversary in mind. The American military achieved dominance in the theaters of operations, but the missions proliferated with no end in sight.

September Morn

“Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the U.S.,” proclaimed the subject line of the president's daily briefing on August 6, 2001. For years, Osama bin Laden, a Saudi-born dissident, vowed to “bring the fighting to America” while expanding the activities of al-Qaeda. His followers embraced a radical form of Islam that glorified mass murder in defense of an embattled faith. They railed against U.S. policies that supported Israel. Unfortunately, American leaders failed to grasp the seriousness of the threat.

Figure 16.2 The Middle East


The worldwide network of terror frustrated American leaders, because a number of Muslim countries harbored operatives. In Afghanistan, the Taliban regime held power by appealing to radical Islam and by providing sanctuary to bin Laden. He gave Mullah Mohammed Omar, the primary Taliban leader, financial and military support. Moreover, Omar was married to one of bin Laden's daughters. While neither the Taliban nor al-Qaeda fielded standing forces in a conventional sense, both amassed a corps of experienced fighters eager to form a new kind of army in the desert. As many as 20,000 Arabs from 20 different nations trained in Afghanistan's remote areas for jihad. Recruitment generally followed clan and ethnic lines, although scores circulated in a transnational underworld of terrorism.

Terrorists began crafting a plan to crash airplanes into U.S. cities as early as 1996. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed shared the concept with bin Laden in a meeting at Tora Bora, a mountainous fortress in Afghanistan. They contemplated the hijacking of at least nine aircraft. They wanted to use them as missiles to strike the East and West Coasts of North America. The long list of targets included the Pentagon, White House, Capitol Hill, World Trade Center, Library Tower, and nuclear power plants. After discussing the scale of the plan for years, they finally agreed to a less grandiose attack. Accordingly, al-Qaeda decided to supply the money, recruits, and training for what was dubbed the “planes operation.”

On the morning of September 11, 2001, 19 hijackers boarded four commercial planes in the U.S. American Airlines Flight 11 departed Boston, Massachusetts, bound for Los Angeles, California. Likewise, United Airlines Flight 175 left the airport on the same route. Also headed toward Los Angeles, American Airlines Flight 77 left Dulles International Airport outside Washington D.C. In Newark, New Jersey, United Airlines Flight 93 departed for San Francisco, California. Armed with knives, mace, box cutters, and fake explosives, most of the hijackers sat in first class just behind the cockpit of each plane.

Shortly after take-off, air traffic controllers noticed a problem with the flight patterns. Flight attendants used their air-phones to relay information about the hijackings, until one caller exclaimed: “Oh my God, we are way too low!” Flying over New York City at 8:46 a.m., Flight 11 slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Several minutes later, Flight 175 hit the South Tower at over 500 miles per hour. The two Boeing 767s transformed the magnificent buildings into towering infernos. After they collapsed in a hellish scene, the southern end of Manhattan became known as “ground zero.”

With Manhattan in chaos, Flight 77 deviated from its initial course. The hijackers turned the Boeing 757 eastward and accelerated at full throttle. For the first time in American military history, an enemy struck the nerve center of national defense – the Pentagon.

As the Pentagon smoldered, the fourth airliner headed toward Washington D.C. The hijackers controlled Flight 93, but 33 passengers in the coach section voted to fight back. “Let's roll,” announced one of the passengers. They stormed the cockpit, hoping to prevent the Boeing 757 from reaching the White House or Capitol Hill. At 10:02 a.m., the aircraft plummeted into an empty field in Pennsylvania.

Thus, the terrorists deployed by al-Qaeda inflicted an enormous blow against the U.S. On board the planes, 266 passengers and crew members died instantly. At the Pentagon, 184 civilians and military personnel perished. At least 2,700 people died at the World Trade Center, including firefighters, police officers, and rescue workers. On a day simply known as 9/11, more Americans died than on any other since the Civil War.

With the nation under attack, President Bush heard the news while in Sarasota, Florida. Though he preferred to return to Washington D.C., his entourage flew to Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. In a secure video teleconference, the commander-in-chief told officials that “we're at war.” After consultation from a White House shelter, Vice President Dick Cheney authorized fighters to intercept inbound planes if necessary. Bush reached the capital that evening and spoke to the nation briefly. He met with a “war council” that included Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Hugh Shelton, also joined them, as did the vice chairman, General Richard Myers, who succeeded him a few weeks later.

In the aftermath, the Bush administration directed the federal government to assume a wartime footing. The president created an Office of Homeland Security, which Congress later turned into a cabinet department. The Coast Guard accepted a larger responsibility for protecting ports, coasts, and waterways. With respect to air defense, NORAD and the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, refined the protocols for responding to the threat of hijacked aircraft. Furthermore, Congress passed the USA Patriot Act to reduce restrictions upon law enforcement agencies while gathering intelligence within the U.S. Alluding to covert activities against enemies abroad, Cheney told an interviewer a few days after the attack that the administration intended to work “the dark side, if you will.”

In the name of Allah, a “second wave” of attacks on the American homeland was in the offing. The sinister plots envisioned operations ranging from firing a nuclear missile with a captured Russian launcher to mounting poison gas attacks within population centers. Sleeper cells around the globe prepared to conduct suicide bombings and to hijack more aircraft. Training camps in Afghanistan provided fertile ground for terrorists, who waged a new type of war against the U.S.

War in Afghanistan

With an outpouring of patriotism nationwide, Americans rebounded from 9/11. The federal government offered a $25 million reward for information leading to the capture of bin Laden. Bush appeared before a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001, when he announced the beginning of “our war on terror.” The U.S. demanded that the Taliban turn over the leaders of al-Qaeda as well as shut down all terrorist training camps. If the regime failed to act in accord with the demands, then Afghanistan would share the fate of the terrorists.

The Bush administration secretly authorized the CIA to land a covert unit in the Panjshir Valley of northern Afghanistan. Code-named Jawbreaker, they mingled with the Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara tribes. The Northern Alliance of warlords fought a long-running battle against the Pashtun in the south, where the Taliban dominated. That fall, U.S. Special Forces teamed with the CIA to provide arms, equipment, and money to the Northern Alliance.

While aiding the Northern Alliance, General Tommy Franks, the CENTCOM commander, planned an offensive campaign against the Taliban. Officially, 70 nations agreed to assist the U.S. in the war effort. Because Omar refused to comply with Bush's ultimatum, Operation Enduring Freedom attempted to apprehend bin Laden, to eliminate his camps, and to topple the regime. Beginning on October 7, cruise missiles and long-range bombers destroyed installations throughout Afghanistan. Military actions depended upon spy satellites, precision-guided munitions, and laser-targeting devices rather than a robust troop deployment. Dozens of fighters launched from two aircraft carriers to conduct deadly raids from the skies. Furthermore, C-17s dropped humanitarian rations for the benefit of the Afghan people. Although air power degraded the capabilities of the enemy, the lack of high-value targets limited the efficacy of “smart” weaponry.

Once the aerial bombardment began, village after village fell to the Northern Alliance. U.S. forces on the ground moved southward through the steep mountains and over the winding trails. A handful helicoptered for mobility, while others rode horses into action. On November 9, the capture of Mazar-e-Sharif unhinged the Taliban across the north. Kabul fell without a fight a few days later. Following a brief siege, Kunduz surrendered as well.

Combat operations continued in southern Afghanistan for weeks, as the Taliban retreated to Kandahar. Hamid Karzai, the exiled chief of the Popalzai tribe, returned from Pakistan and joined the drive against the Taliban stronghold. In the Registan Desert, a Marine expeditionary unit established a forward operating base known as Camp Rhino. After U.S. intelligence located Omar's hideout in an underground tunnel, the Air Force dropped a 5,000-pound bomb called a “bunker buster.” The Taliban leader survived, but the regime collapsed. Fleeing Kandahar on December 6, the remnant headed to the mountains or left for Pakistan.

Near the border with Pakistan, al-Qaeda took refuge in the White Mountains south of Jalalabad. They stockpiled weapons, ammunition, and supplies inside the cave complex of Tora Bora. U.S. and allied forces initiated the Battle of Tora Bora on December 12. AC-130 Spectre gunships provided close air support, but the caves tended to negate the advantages of firepower. An air raid delivered a 15,000-pound “daisy cutter” bomb, which shook the ground for miles. Afghan militiamen penetrated the bunkers and pockets with the assistance of Special Forces teams. Reaching altitudes exceeding 10,000 feet, they pressed onward for nearly a week. Americans suffered no fatalities, while at least 35 al-Qaeda fighters were killed in action. In all likelihood, bin Laden escaped into Pakistan accompanied by bodyguards and aids. Without sufficient boots on the ground, U.S. commanders counted on armed patrols organized by Pervez Musharraf, the president of Pakistan, to seal the border.

The short but decisive engagements routed the enemies of the U.S., yet Afghanistan remained an unstable country. Many Afghans took to the streets to celebrate the end of strict sharia laws that forbade women from showing their faces in public. The UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, arrived to keep peace, while the manhunt for bin Laden continued. In addition to controlling Kandahar International Airport, U.S. forces established Bagram Air Base just north of Kabul. The consolidation of territorial gains in the countryside permitted Karzai to organize an interim government. Under the Bonn Agreement, he became the head of state in Afghanistan.

The detainment of enemy combatants in Afghanistan raised difficult legal issues for the U.S. International rules regarding prisoners of war presumed the existence of nations, but diehard Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters were stateless belligerents. Although the U.S. commanders turned over detainees to their countries of origin whenever practical, the most dangerous, knowledgeable, and influential remained in military custody. Interrogators attempted to acquire actionable intelligence with enhanced techniques that became controversial. The Bush administration authorized a joint task force in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where service members supervised the apprehended terrorists in a secure facility.

On January 29, 2002, Bush informed Congress that “we are winning the war on terror.” His address noted alarming discoveries made in the sweep of Afghanistan, including diagrams of American nuclear power plants and public water facilities, instructions for making chemical weapons, surveillance maps of U.S. cities, and descriptions of American landmarks. Furthermore, the president denounced three regimes for sponsoring terrorist activities while pursuing nuclear arms: North Korea, Iran, and Iraq. Calling them an “axis of evil,” he warned Americans that they posed a growing danger to national security.

With thousands of terrorists still at large, the American military attempted to capture or to kill the residuals hiding in Afghanistan. On March 2, Operation Anaconda commenced in the Shah-i-Kot Valley and Arma Mountains to the south of Gardez. General Franklin L. Hagenback steered elements of the 10th Mountain Division, 101st Airborne Division, Special Forces, Afghan militia, and NATO into the rugged highlands. Moving in concert with heavy air strikes and close air support, they set a trap for Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters on the run.

As helicopters ferried Americans into blocking positions, the Battle of Takur Ghar ensued. Units conducting the assault faced sniper rifles, machine guns, portable air defenses, and rocket-propelled grenades, which knocked out two MH-47 Chinooks near the landing zones. Following their insertion atop Takur Ghar Mountain, two SEAL teams engaged in a day-long firefight with the enemy. Army Rangers stormed the snowy slopes before their exfiltration.

While achieving a tactical victory, the U.S. and multinational forces cleared the ridgelines and the caves. Nevertheless, the thrust across the frozen, rocky ground required two weeks to complete. The unwillingness to commit more infantry, artillery, and aircraft to the battlefield turned Operation Anaconda into a missed opportunity. Eight Americans were killed in action, while over 80 suffered wounds. Even though the enemy sustained heavy losses, hundreds escaped to Pakistan.

Thereafter, military operations near the Pakistani border focused upon providing security. Armed patrols and quick strikes kept infiltrators off balance, while U.S. commanders tried to strengthen the Karzai regime. Friendly fire mistakenly killed soldiers such as Corporal Pat Tillman, a professional football player who enlisted in the Army. With only a small footprint in the country, Americans expected NATO to assume primary responsibility for ISAF. Thanks to opium trafficking, however, insurgent groups organized in isolated areas and retained influence outside of Kabul. The Taliban and al-Qaeda established sanctuaries in Pakistan, where they reconstituted their strength for cross-border strikes. They fired rockets at U.S. bases and harassed the convoys of the Afghan National Army troops, Afghan militia forces, and non-governmental organizations. In other words, the war was not over in Afghanistan.

“Our war on terror is only begun,” Bush told the graduating class at West Point in 2002, “but in Afghanistan it was begun well.” Never again would the U.S. await an attack by terrorist groups before acting. Instead, the commander-in-chief preferred to “take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge.” According to the Bush Doctrine for preemption, the best path to safety is “the path of action.”

Iraqi Freedom

The Bush administration released The National Security Strategy of the United States in 2002, which sounded the alarm about weapons of mass destruction, or WMD. Unnerved by al-Qaeda plots, key advisors worried that the rogue nation of Iraq would give chemical or biological agents to America's enemies. They deemed Saddam Hussein a dire threat worthy of removal from power, as did congressional proponents of regime change. With the affirmation of military strength, American leaders decided to no longer make a distinction “between terrorists and those who knowingly harbor or provide aid to them.”

Americans over the years expressed wariness about Iraq, whose citizens lived in terror. For almost a decade, economic sanctions, no-fly zones, and weapons inspections failed to force Hussein from power. Iraqi officials were contacted by al-Qaeda, but no terrorist training camps materialized within the country. Nevertheless, the United Nations indicated that the dictator possessed up to 6,000 chemical bombs, 9 surface-to-surface missiles, 26,000 liters of anthrax, and 1.5 tons of VX gas. Although Iraqi research and development programs atrophied, Hussein stymied international efforts to eliminate alleged stockpiles of WMD.

Throughout 2002, Bush insisted upon Iraqi disarmament. George Tenet, the CIA director, assured him that the WMD evidence was a “slam dunk.” Several officials pointed to examples of Hussein's tyranny, but their primary complaint involved WMD. They worried aloud that he would provide radioactive material to terrorist groups seeking to kill thousands of Americans. Their public references to ominous intelligence later proved inaccurate and exaggerated, because it often came from unreliable sources in the Iraqi exile community. They “cherry-picked” information while making the case for regime change. That October, Congress overwhelmingly passed a resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq. Secretary of State Powell helped to convince the UN Security Council to approve Resolution 1441, which found Iraq in “material breach” of previous resolutions. It offered Hussein a final opportunity to cooperate with inspections, or else Iraq “will face serious consequences” for defiance.

Under the pressure of coercive diplomacy, Hussein allowed inspectors to return to Iraq by the end of the year. The scouring of the country unearthed no evidence of a WMD program, though. While France, Germany, China, and Russia refused to support another resolution, Bush opined that Resolution 1441 already gave legal authority for war. The United Nations repeated concerns about hidden stores but wanted to avert hostilities by conducting more inspections. With military action in Iraq all but inevitable, Powell reputedly warned the president: “You break it, you own it.”

During early 2003, Bush ordered American troops to begin deploying to the Persian Gulf. U.S. fighters struck Iraqi artillery and gathered tactical intelligence while patrolling the no-fly zones. General Franks crafted a war plan named Cobra II, which calculated that smaller, faster forces with superior technology overcame conventional ones on the battlefield. Even though the Joint Chiefs of Staff approved it, Army Chief of Staff General Eric K. Shinseki admitted to the Senate that “several hundred thousand soldiers” would be necessary to stabilize a post-invasion Iraq. Rumsfeld ridiculed the general's projections, however, and predicted that Iraqis would be “waving American flags” following their swift liberation. Along with “a coalition of the willing” that included Great Britain, Australia, and Poland, the U.S. prepared to conduct an offensive campaign that spring.

On March 17, Bush issued a final ultimatum to Iraq. He called upon Hussein and his sons Uday and Qusay to leave the country within 48 hours. Instead of accepting exile to another nation, the dictator remained defiant until the deadline lapsed. He dismissed the warnings as nothing if not a bluff while discounting the capabilities of the American military. “Mr. President, this force is ready,” Franks told the commander-in-chief over a secure video conference. Bush gave the order to execute Operation Iraqi Freedom, which he expected to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger.

The Iraq War commenced with a “decapitation strike” from the air that targeted Hussein and his sons. Guided by U.S. intelligence, F-117 stealth bombers delivered four “bunker busters” to a secret compound in Baghdad. Dozens of Tomahawk land attack missiles hit the three-building target as well. Although the U.S. hoped to knock out the dictator with a single blow, he appeared afterward on Iraqi television unharmed.

A few days later, U.S. and allied forces advanced from Kuwait into Iraq. With Franks commanding the theater of operations, General David D. McKiernan steered 65,000 Army personnel and 60,000 Marines across the Euphrates River. Close to 20,000 British troops swarmed the city of Basra, as air and naval assets provided cover for the ground invasion. To secure Bashur Airfield in addition to Kurdish areas, the 173rd Airborne Brigade parachuted into northern Iraq. Furthermore, Special Forces assumed blocking positions in the west to halt border crossings and to prevent Scud launches. Some 500 U.S. tanks and armored vehicles faced more than 4,000 Iraqi tanks and close to a half-million Iraqi troops. Despite the enemy's superiority in numbers, U.S. fighters, bombers, and cruise missiles rapidly degraded the defensive systems with a bombardment dubbed “shock and awe.”

With a quickening tempo, Americans bypassed towns and drove toward Baghdad along two axes. The heavy armor of the 3rd Infantry Division moved westward and then northward over the hinterlands toward the capital. At the same time, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force moved easterly along Highway 1 through the center of the country. Though slowed by a blinding sandstorm, the 101st and the 82nd Airborne Divisions mopped up the resistance while pressing northward to Najaf and Karbala. Even when Iraqi lines stiffened near the capital, U.S. forces devastated them with lethal weaponry.

Only three days after the ground invasion began, a convoy that included the Army's 507th Maintenance Company made a wrong turn in the desert. A Humvee driven by Private Lori Piestewa was ambushed near Nasiriyah, a major crossing point over the Euphrates. Though 11 Americans died during the ambush, Private Jessica Lynch, a supply clerk riding in the Humvee, survived. Severely injured, she became a prisoner of war. Soon, Special Forces launched a nighttime raid that rescued her from an Iraqi hospital. Thanks to sensational media coverage, she represented a popular symbol of American heroism.

American troops stood on the cusp of victory, prompting U.S. commanders to direct “thunder runs.” Rather than besieging Baghdad for months, armored vehicles sped straight into the enemy's dispositions before quickly withdrawing. The confused Iraqi soldiers dispersed, although hundreds lined the route to die as martyrs. More often than not, U.S. soldiers granted them their wishes. After a bold dash left Iraqi units in disarray, Colonel David Perkins, commander of the 2nd Brigade in the 3rd Infantry Division, decided to remain downtown. Consequently, the “thunder runs” shortened the siege by weeks.

As embedded journalists bore witness to the American assault, the Iraqi regime fell apart with breathtaking speed. The Army rolled into the capital from the west while seizing Saddam International Airport and the presidential palaces. Marines secured the Rumaylah oil fields before reaching Baghdad's eastern defenses. Special Forces and Army paratroopers occupied Kirkuk in the north after smashing the terrorist group, Ansar al-Islam. Because Iraqi forces disintegrated, conscripted soldiers surrendered in droves. Iraqi officers and government officials melted into the civilian population. Only the Fedayeen and the Republican Guard offered strong resistance. Foreign fighters also filtered into the country and joined suicide attacks. Pick-up trucks with machine guns and grenade launchers raced forward, but M-1 Abrams tanks and M-2 Bradley fighting vehicles pulverized them. On April 9, the towering statue of the dictator came crashing down in Firdos Square. With his 24-year rule coming to a dramatic end, Hussein fled Baghdad in the company of his minions.

Hussein lost the Iraq War after only 21 days of fighting. Over 2,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed in the fast but furious action. While the British counted 33 deaths, the U.S. suffered 139 fatalities. Sporadic clashes continued for weeks, especially in the Sunni strongholds such as Fallujah. Standing on the landing deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, Bush on May 1 announced the end of major combat operations in Iraq.

Though Operation Iraqi Freedom accomplished an important mission, the aftermath seriously damaged America's reputation around the world. Arab voices decried a war for oil – a charge that Washington D.C. vehemently denied. The DOD sought to avoid an extended military occupation, which became one of the worst miscalculations of an otherwise successful plan. In particular, Rumsfeld downplayed the recommendations of the State Department, CIA, and allies about the “day after” in Iraq. U.S. commanders expected assistance from a welcoming populace, but sectarian and ethnic conflicts engulfed the war-torn country. Looting and lawlessness within communities left civil society in complete disarray. Moreover, the effort to track down WMD caches misallocated the limited number of American troops policing towns and neighborhoods. Prewar assertions notwithstanding, no one found evidence of an Iraqi program to make chemical, biological, or nuclear weaponry. In other words, the primary rationale for military action by the U.S. proved unfounded.

After committing blood and treasure to the Global War on Terror, the U.S. maintained military units in Iraq indefinitely. During the summer of 2003, soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division killed Uday and Qusay during a shootout in Mosul. However, several Iraqi officials escaped to Syria with funds, documents, and arms. While conducting Operation Red Dawn that December, a combat team from the 4th Infantry Division found Hussein. He was hiding in a crude cellar near Tikrit, his hometown. “I am the president of Iraq,” he said while lifting his hands in the air, “and I am ready to negotiate.” U.S. forces handed the dictator over to Iraqi authorities, who tried and executed him three years later.

Green Zone

Prior to 2003, the Pentagon invested little strategic thought in planning for post-invasion Iraq. Rumsfeld tapped retired General Jay Garner to head the Office of Humanitarian and Reconstruction Assistance that spring. His team grappled with the problems of electrical outages, fuel shortages, non-potable water, and civil unrest in Baghdad and beyond. With Americans eager to leave the country as soon as possible, he scrambled to organize a transitional government. He told McKiernan that “there was no doubt we would win the war, but there can be doubt we will win the peace.”

Washington D.C. underestimated the difficulty of stabilizing Iraq. While the Kurds exercised semi-autonomous authority in the north, sectarian leaders among the Sunnis and the Shi'ites remained dominant elsewhere. The last of these sects amounted to more than half of the population. Former loyalists to Hussein's Baath Party stirred anti-American animosity inside Baghdad. Jihadists, warlords, and criminals also rushed into the void left by the deposed regime. With a propensity for asymmetrical tactics, veterans of the defeated army participated in sniping, bombings, sabotage, abductions, and assassinations. The euphoria of the American victory soon faded with the rise of an Iraqi insurgency.

After pilfering unsecured caches of weaponry around Iraq, insurgents shifted away from small-arms fire toward the use of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Adapted from conventional munitions or mines, the homemade bombs often appeared on or near roadways. When placed in corpses, boxes, cans, and rubble, they were detonated with remote controls, cell phones, or slight pressure. They disrupted security patrols and traffic flows with a sudden blast. The crude weapons of terror required minimal skill to manufacture, but they killed and injured bystanders without discrimination. Approximately two-thirds of subsequent American deaths in Iraq occurred due to IEDs.

With the conditions in Iraq worsening, Rumsfeld seemed unconcerned about the “pockets of dead-enders.” He dismissed Garner after a month of confusion and delay yet refused to deploy more troops into the theater of operations. General John Abizaid succeeded the retiring Franks at CENTCOM. General Ricardo Sanchez replaced McKiernan as the top U.S. Army officer in Iraq. Unfortunately, the turnover of senior officers made the transitional period more taxing. The Joint Chiefs grew uneasy about the daily killings of U.S. soldiers, the stretching thin of military units, and the growing uncertainty of Iraqi freedom.

In response, the Bush administration created the Coalition Provisional Authority, or CPA. L. Paul Bremer, a former U.S. ambassador, arrived in Baghdad to lead the effort. He issued two immediate orders, which required, first, the “debaathification” of governmental jobs and, second, the dissolution of military entities. While planning to transfer power within a year, he assembled a 25-member Iraqi Governing Council that included expatriates. His staff headquartered in the Green Zone, which encompassed nearly 7 square miles of fortified buildings and concrete walls inside the capital. The urge to outsource provided a boost to private military contractors, who turned the U.S. enclave into the “Emerald City.” A bloody uprising raged outside the gates, but Americans inside the Green Zone enjoyed the distractions of a swimming pool, a movie theater, a shopping mall, a disco lounge, a half-dozen bars, and all-you-can-eat buffets.

U.S. forces encountered serious opposition in Sadr City, a sprawling slum on the northeastern edge of Baghdad. Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shi'ite leader, rallied the impoverished residents to resist the Americans and to join the Mahdi Army. During the spring of 2004, they ambushed American convoys and gained control of various towns, including Najaf, Kufa, Kut, and Karbala. They battled with U.S. and coalition forces for months, but a counteroffensive began to drive them back. Thousands of Shi'ites died in the rout. With superior firepower, American troops surrounded them at the Amman Ali shrine in Najaf. The standoff ended with a temporary agreement to stop fighting that August.

While the Shi'ites remained belligerent, the American military also entered the fray against the Sunnis. In Fallujah, insurgents murdered four civilians employed by a private military contractor, Blackwater USA. During Operation Vigilant Resolve, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force conducted a major assault to re-establish security in Fallujah. The Battle of Fallujah raged from April 4 to May 1, 2004. Armed with rocket-propelled grenades, anti-aircraft weapons, machine guns, and mortars, the insurgents held the city center. Aerial bombardments hit strategic targets, but civilians as well as combatants became casualties. Americans lost 27 killed in action and another 90 wounded. Eventually, U.S. commanders suspended the operation and dispatched an Iraqi security force to maintain a ceasefire.

Months later, the U.S. launched Operation Phantom Fury to drive the insurgents from Fallujah. Known as the Second Battle of Fallujah, more than 8,000 Americans assailed the city along with Iraqi and British allies. Following air strikes and artillery barrages, U.S. battalions advanced through the streets on November 8. Within days, the Marines spearheaded a valiant charge into the teeth of the insurgency. Urban firefights continued until late December, when senior officers declared the city secured. Owing to the arduous combat in hostile areas, American losses reached 95 dead and 560 wounded. Though pushed from the stronghold, the insurgents fled to other bases within the Sunni Triangle.

Americans lost control of the Anbar province, where al-Qaeda operatives promoted mayhem from the shadows. A Jordanian-born Sunni named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi organized al-Qaeda in Iraq. His organization took responsibility for numerous acts of terror, including bombings, mutilations, and executions. Foreign fighters joined the subversive effort to topple the transitional government and to establish a pure Islamic state. With links to affiliate groups, al-Zarqawi plotted to extend the insurgency to other nations across the Middle East.

Anti-American sentiments in the Middle East increased after photographs from Abu Ghraib Prison circulated during 2004. American troops managed the austere facility 20 miles west of Baghdad, though several guards lacked proper training. As many as 7,000 detainees crowded into a space designed to hold 4,000. Most received insufficient food, water, clothing, and medical care in military custody. Furthermore, a number endured humiliation and abuse. Under pressure to extract useful information, a cadre of soldiers from the 372nd Military Police Company even tortured some. The Army later court-martialed seven of the worst offenders. Consequently, the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 required all personnel to comply with the Army field manual for human intelligence collector operations.

Although the vast majority of U.S. soldiers exhibited courage, honor, and decency, few understood how to counter the Iraqi insurgency. The casualties continued to mount, even as Rumsfeld boasted about his ongoing initiative called “defense transformation.” Defense experts insisted upon the achievement of military objectives with less reliance on manpower. While shrinking the force structure over the years, they posited that advancing technology enabled service members to accomplish missions with greater velocity at lower costs. The Pentagon kept overall troop figures at minimal levels but extended deployments longer than anticipated under the “stop-loss” program. Enlistment rates dropped, as greater incentives were required to maintain the end strength. With defense expenditures skyrocketing, the Army counted on the National Guard and the Reserves to compensate for the shortages of reinforcements. A sign on a vehicle operated by activated Guardsmen groused: “One Weekend a Month – My Ass!!!” The outlook grew bleak, especially for U.S. forces at the forward operating bases.

The U.S. provided most of the personnel and resources for the Iraq Survey Group, which completed an exhaustive search of WMD storage sites. According to their final report, Hussein's purported arsenal did not pose a militarily significant threat. Nevertheless, insurgents employed IEDs using 155-mm artillery shells that contained sarin. Two U.S. soldiers received treatment for minor exposure to the nerve agent. On another occasion, investigators found a shell containing mustard gas on a Baghdad street. In sum, a small quantity of repurposed warheads in Iraq amounted to frightening relics from the previous decade.

While public support for U.S. policy in Iraq wavered, Bush urged American voters to “stay the course” during the presidential election of 2004. He elevated democracy as the ultimate goal for the Global War on Terror, which promised to enhance national security in the long run. His Democratic rival, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, highlighted the president's mishandling of Iraq. That November, Bush narrowly won a second term.

On January 30, 2005, the Bush administration found vindication in the historic results of the Iraqi elections. The interim government helped to coordinate nationwide voting, which determined membership in the Transitional National Assembly. Irrespective of terrorist threats, more than 8 million citizens entered the polling stations. Iraqi women and men proudly held up ink-stained fingers to indicate their commitment to the democratic process.

The Surge

Iraq plunged into a ghastly civil war. The Sunnis increased their assaults on the Shi'ites, who retaliated in kind. Likewise, al-Zarqawi launched more strikes against U.S. and Iraqi forces. During 2005, more than 34,000 attacks occurred throughout the country. The carnage worsened the following year, when death squads, urban guerrillas, and suicide bombers multiplied. The bodies of the slain washed up on the banks of the Tigris River. Given the signs of anarchy, Iraqis associated their plight with American incompetence.

The American military began to experiment with counterinsurgency operations, which involved concerted actions that isolated insurgents from the civilian population. Marine officers touted the “three-block war,” that is, they engaged in direct combat on one city block, provided low-intensity security on the next, and directed humanitarian assistance on the third. Marine General James “Mad Dog” Mattis urged subordinates to befriend Iraqis while patrolling neighborhoods. The new commander of the Multinational Force, General George Casey, Jr., called for training academies to prepare Army personnel to interact with sectarian leaders. Known by the acronym COIN, counterinsurgency operations avoided measures that led to civilian casualties. Success depended upon innovative officers taking the initiative with persistent outreach and changing the momentum at the community level.

Colonel H. R. McMaster commanded the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Tal Afar, a haven for insurgents near the Syrian border. During 2005, he established 29 outposts around the city of 250,000 people. To maintain law and order, his squadrons not only “drained the swamp” but also mingled with the inhabitants. After months of interacting with sheiks, American troops began turning over security details to friendly Iraqis. The new Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, took note of McMaster, who described his approach as “clear, hold, and build.”

Even though U.S. soldiers formed alliances with anxious citizens, al-Qaeda gained control over ex-urban belts around Baghdad. Making Ramadi the capital of a prospective Islamic caliphate, al-Zarqawi hired henchmen to kill anyone defying his extremism. They bombed the Golden Mosque shrine in Samarra to exacerbate sectarian conflict. Eventually, they laced more than a dozen bombs with chlorine in a series of deadly attacks. Thanks to information acquired from a Sunni prisoner, U.S. forces discovered the location of al-Zarqawi's desert compound. On June 7, 2006, an air strike hit the target and killed him. Despite losing their leader, the terrorist group carved out a base of operations inside Iraq.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration searched for a “new way forward” in Iraq. In meetings with key advisors, retired Army General Jack Keane as well as defense analysts Eliot Cohen and Frederick W. Kagan advocated raising American troop levels to quell the violence. They called it the “surge option,” which would safeguard Baghdad and the surrounding areas with a show of strength. Moreover, they envisioned a tactical and strategic reorientation of U.S. forces toward COIN. American stamina would keep the insurgents from regaining their footing. The president agreed, resolving to not retreat from the “central front” in the Global War on Terror. Though reluctant at first, the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, accepted the deployment of five more brigades. Rumsfeld soon resigned from the DOD and was replaced by Robert Gates, who championed “new ideas on how America can achieve our goals in Iraq.”

The rising death toll in Iraq and the declining opinion polls in America disheartened Washington D.C. Congress requested the report of a bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which recommended the gradual removal of combat units. Congressional leaders preferred a “phased redeployment” of U.S. soldiers out of Iraq. Appealing to an invigorated anti-war movement, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois promised to “actively oppose the president's proposal.”

Bush ordered the surge in 2007 and appointed a new commander for the Multi-National Force in Iraq, General David H. Petraeus. Previously, he won acclaim for leading the 101st Airborne Division in securing Mosul. Holding a doctorate from Princeton University, he largely rewrote the book on COIN, or at least the Army field manual, FM 3-24. “You cannot kill your way out of an insurgency,” he told reporters, but defeating insurgents ultimately meant that “you have to turn them.”

Figure 16.3 U.S. Army General David Howell Petraeus, the Multi-National Force Iraq Commander, June 4, 2008. Photo 080604-F-LX971-358, Department of Defense, http://www.defenseimagery.mil/


While the U.S. expended more blood and treasure, Petraeus increased the focus on stability and reconstruction. An additional 40,000 soldiers deployed to Iraq, which brought the total number up to 160,000. They started to operate effectively in unsafe zones away from military bases. For months, Colonel Sean MacFarland, a brigade commander with the 1st Armored Division, experimented with approaches to providing security in Ramadi. Bolstered by the “Anbar Awakening,” Sunni insurgents began accepting money to join the foot patrols. Henceforth, Americans provided the mass of force needed to ensure that “build” followed the “clear” and the “hold” phases of COIN.

Among the Americans in the surge, Specialist Zachary Grass of Ohio belonged to the 2nd Infantry Division. His combat team operated the Army's new eight-wheeled vehicle known as the Stryker. After arriving that May, he participated in Stryker patrols east of the Tigris River. On June 16, 2007, the 22-year-old died in an IED explosion close to the town of Rashidiya. Although U.S. casualties peaked that month, they declined the rest of the year.

Conditions on the ground improved, which prompted Petraeus to recommend gradually drawing down U.S. forces while standing up Iraqi forces. General Ray Odierno, commander of the Multi-National Corps, directed a series of offensive operations that secured the major cities. Within a year, the number of insurgents around the country entered into a steep decline. The Mahdi Army laid down their weapons and recast themselves as a nonmilitary social movement. After denouncing terrorists, Sunni fighters drove al-Qaeda from the outskirts of Baghdad. Owing to U.S. logistical support, Iraqi units reestablished government control in Basra. The Bush administration negotiated the Status of Forces Agreement with Maliki, thereby establishing a process to withdraw all American troops from Iraq by December 31, 2011.

By holding the line in Iraq, the American military achieved a dramatic turnaround in the Global War on Terror. Nevertheless, the years of bloodshed left over 4,300 Americans dead and 32,000 wounded. Roughly 20 percent of the returning veterans reported symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. More than 100,000 Iraqis perished and millions more became refugees. The clash of arms also drained at least $1 trillion from the U.S. treasury, which increased the national debt to unprecedented levels.

Though stretched to the limit, the U.S. successfully gave Iraq space and time to create a new nation. Iraqi citizens ratified a permanent constitution and selected a Council of Representatives. The nascent government met most of its benchmarks, but stabilization remained fragile, reversible, and uneven. By the end of 2008, Petraeus had disengaged from the day-to-day operations in order to assume command of CENTCOM. As his successor in Baghdad, Odierno acknowledged that “our work here is far from done.”

Turn the Page

Obama won the presidential election of 2008 and became the commander-in-chief the next year. “Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred,” he declared in his inaugural address. He retained Secretary Gates at the Pentagon while appointing Hillary Clinton as the Secretary of State. Retired Marine General James L. Jones assumed the key post of National Security Advisor. Though eschewing the Bush Doctrine, the Obama administration endorsed overseas contingency operations to protect the U.S. from terrorism.

“Lone wolf” terrorism represented another dimension of the war against the U.S. On November 5, 2009, Major Malik Hasan, an American medical officer, launched a shooting spree at Fort Hood, Texas. While opening fire on troops deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan, the devout Muslim shouted: “Allah Akbar!” He murdered 12 soldiers and one civilian in addition to injuring 29 others. Instead of martyrdom, he suffered paralysis once police officers at the scene shot him. Investigators learned that he communicated with a radical imam in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki, to prepare himself for what he called “an Islamic duty.” A Senate report labeled the Fort Hood shooting the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11, although the DOD later classified it as “workplace violence.”

The Obama administration shifted the language of U.S. policy without necessarily changing the substance. Mired in legal limbo, hundreds of detainees too dangerous to release waited at Guantánamo. For example, the 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed remained in military custody without trial. Furthermore, several thwarted attacks made it clear that terrorist networks still plotted airline and car bombings. Although the president promised to close the Guantánamo prison, Congress blocked his efforts.

Obama posited that Afghanistan represented the “central front in our enduring struggle against terrorism and extremism,” which he considered a “war of necessity.” By the time he entered office, Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters intensified their attacks in the southern and eastern provinces. They resorted to IEDs and suicide missions that killed scores of noncombatants. For years, ISAF patrols floundered under the restrictive rules of engagement. With a light footprint on the ground, the U.S. relied upon air strikes to curb the insurgents entering from Pakistan. The Karzai government appeared inept and corrupt despite winning nationwide elections.

At CENTCOM, Petraeus suggested a new strategy for Afghanistan in accord with the doctrine of COIN. He wanted to focus on the civilian population as the center of gravity in military operations. General Stanley McChrystal, a Petraeus confidant, took command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. In danger of becoming a failed state, the war-torn country needed massive infusions of military and civilian resources as soon as possible.

Despite previously opposing the surge in Iraq, Obama agreed with his “war council” about Afghanistan. On December 1, 2009, the president spoke at West Point about his war plan to deny al-Qaeda a haven, to reverse the Taliban's momentum, and to strengthen Afghan security and governmental forces. The U.S. began deploying an additional 30,000 soldiers, which raised American levels to 90,000. Furthermore, NATO added another 7,000 effectives to ISAF. With a conditions-based timetable, American troops would begin to return home after 18 months if successful.

As the operations ramped up, McChrystal and his aides disparaged the Obama administration in a published interview with Rolling Stone magazine. The officers made snide comments about civilian authorities. McChrystal resigned as a result, which prompted the commander-in-chief to place Petraeus directly in charge of the surge in Afghanistan.

The long war in Iraq wound down during 2010, when the Obama administration announced a renaming of the mission – Operation New Dawn. While U.S. forces played a reduced role in population security, fewer than 50,000 soldiers remained under Odierno's command to support and to train Iraqis. “Today, when I fly over Baghdad, I see hope with bright lights and busy traffic,” the general reported. “Now,” added Obama, “it is time to turn the page.”

As the Obama administration planned for the end of the war, the American military continued retooling for the twenty-first century. Defense analysts held that state-of-the-art technology generated a revolution in military affairs, which they signified with the letters RMA. Accordingly, transformational planning optimized weapons programs to deliver swift but sure victories with fewer casualties. With a full spectrum of capabilities, men and women in uniform seemed poised to dominate battlefields worldwide. Some foresaw a future in which America's supremacy over all levels of combat intensity would render standing armies and navies obsolete. Of course, similar claims were made when sea power or atomic warfare supposedly relegated combat infantrymen to the dustbin of history. Irrespective of RMA concepts, no clear solution to the complex problem of national defense presented itself.

Washington D.C. ranked as the leading investor in unmanned platforms for national defense. By 2010, the Pentagon possessed more than 7,000 aerial drones and some 12,000 ground robots. Among the unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, the Predator and the Reaper captured useful intelligence via video surveillance. Moreover, they launched laser-guided bombs and missiles against ground targets. The Air Force piloted most of the drone attacks, although the CIA and JSOC also ran classified programs. An assortment of navybots operated at sea, including unmanned surface vessels, or USVs, and unmanned underwater vehicles, or UUVs. Even though drones provided an effective force multiplier, they remained vulnerable to signal jamming and to computer hacking. During the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, unmanned warfare offered a supplement rather than a replacement for troops.

The American military engaged in cyber warfare, which encompassed a new kind of battlefield. Service members conducted operations to penetrate an opponent's computers or networks in order to cause damage. Working at terminals, they blocked and hunted down electronic intruders. Furthermore, they infected the information systems that supported nascent WMD programs. An array of cyber weapons suppressed enemy air and sea defenses and disrupted their command-and-control centers. As the director of the National Security Agency, General Keith B. Alexander became the first head of U.S. Cyber Command, or USCYBERCOM.

In terms of manpower, U. S. forces remained broadly inclusive of different races, classes, and genders. Southerners amounted to the most overrepresented demographic cohort – nearly 40 percent of the force structure. In late 2010, Congress passed a repeal of the public law regarding sexual orientation known as “Don't ask, Don't tell.” The change in policy went into effect the next year. While developing “gender neutral” standards for specific jobs, the Army, Navy, and Air Force began to integrate women into combat units. The Pentagon worried about recruitment and retention across the branches, but new enlistments remained steady during a deepening economic recession. With less than 1.4 million Americans in uniform, the all-volunteer force was smaller in size than at any time since its inception.

Both physically and intellectually, the uniformed services remained one of the most demanding of all professions. Global missions required adaptive personnel, because success on the ground often depended upon interagency operability, language skills, cultural awareness, political expertise, and personal integrity. Advancements in battlefield medicine and body armor enabled more and more of the wounded to survive attacks. Whatever the importance of firepower, the American experience in diverse theaters of operations underscored the advantages of “small change” soldiering going forward.

In early 2011, U.S. forces battled the Taliban for control of Marjah, a city in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan. Partnering with the Afghan National Army, they secured their objective while expanding their activities in the opium-producing region. Civilians entered thereafter to hire residents for governmental and non-governmental projects. They built schools, homes, health clinics, and irrigation canals. An agricultural program encouraged farmers to raise wheat, vegetables, and fruit trees, thereby displacing the poppy fields that funded the insurgency.

Though dispersed by military action, the insurgents found sanctuaries in other parts of the country. Concentrating on the Kandahar Province, U.S. forces launched an offensive to clear, hold, and build once again. Petraeus assessed American progress with optimism: “We've got our teeth in the enemy's jugular now, and we're not going to let go.”

Killing bin Laden

For most Americans, the long hunt for bin Laden remained the most important objective of the Global War on Terror. With each video and audio recording that he released on the lam, distressed males in the Muslim world found new inspiration for jihad. His flight from the “infidels” recalled the exile once endured by the Prophet Mohammed, or so his followers imagined. Over the years, U.S. forces failed to catch al-Qaeda's elusive leader. Their search focused on North and South Waziristan in Pakistan, where intelligence analysts presumed he hid.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's deputy, assumed a greater role in directing al-Qaeda operations from Pakistani enclaves. An advocate for what he called the “World Islamic Front Against Jews and Crusaders,” he maintained contact with terrorists in pursuit of martyrdom. He dreamed of acquiring nuclear, chemical, or biological devices that would annihilate the U.S. He even discussed purchasing “nuclear suitcase bombs from the black market of Central Asia.” While avoiding cell phones and handheld radios, his communication system primarily involved couriers. He somehow survived air strikes by American drones that flew into Pakistan, although lower-level operatives perished in them.

“We will kill bin Laden,” Obama stated during a presidential debate. Once in the White House, he tasked Leon Panetta, the CIA director, with creating a detailed operational plan for upgrading the manhunt. Unfortunately, the trail for “Crankshaft” – the CIA's nickname for the world's most wanted terrorist – appeared cold after his narrow escape from Tora Bora. In the summer of 2010, Panetta received a new lead in regard to the al-Qaeda leader. The CIA tracked a man in Pakistan named Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, who served as bin Laden's courier. Thanks to satellite surveillance, agents monitored his residence in Abbottabad, a small city deep inside Pakistan. For months, they studied his activities behind the high walls that surrounded the three-story main house, a guesthouse, and a few outbuildings. They caught glimpses of a tall, reclusive person, who lived inside the compound.

Though unable to identify the person of interest, Washington D.C. began to plan possible military action. The planning did not include contacting or collaborating with Pakistan, because the government in Islamabad seemed likely to leak the information to America's enemies. In addition to the fortress-like compound, Abbottabad contained the Pakistan Military Academy. Ostensibly, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, knew something about the conspicuous site and its occupants. The Air Force suggested a strike with a B-2 Spirit bomber, but the risk of collateral damage and Pakistani casualties concerned the Pentagon. Confident in the skill of their assault teams, JSOC wanted to storm the compound with SEALs. During early 2011, the Obama administration weighed the options before taking action.

The commander-in-chief decided to send SEAL Team-6, which officials called the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or DEVGRU. Under the auspices of the CIA, their operation was code-named Neptune Spear. It involved two MH-60 Black Hawks modified with stealth technology. The helicopters carried 24 SEALs from eastern Afghanistan into northeastern Pakistan. A Pakistani translator as well as a bomb-sniffing dog accompanied them. Furthermore, two MH-47 Chinooks entered Pakistan to provide support to the Americans in the event of an ambush. As the mission commenced, a special electronic warfare aircraft jammed Pakistani radar. An unarmed drone circled high above Abbottabad, thereby capturing real-time video and audio while feeding it to U.S. commanders.

Before the dawning of May 2, 2011, the SEALs reached the compound in Abbottabad. However, the first Black Hawk pitched forward and crashed within the outer wall. Despite the jarring accident, no injuries occurred. The second Black Hawk safely landed as planned in a nearby field. After blowing open the gates, team members sprinted through the courtyard. Their night-vision goggles enabled them to locate their objectives in the darkness. They faced short bursts of hostile fire at the guesthouse but swiftly secured it and entered the main house.

Moving up the narrow stairwell, the SEALs engaged bin Laden on the third floor. Their shots struck his chest and head, which they reported with code-words over their radios. “For God and country,” a SEAL declared to his comrades, “I pass Geronimo, Geronimo E.K.I.A.” In other words, America's enemy was killed in action.

While putting bin Laden's corpse into a body bag, the SEALs secured the entire compound within 40 minutes. They took DNA samples and multiple photographs before interrogating the women and children in the residence. Four other occupants perished in the raid, including al-Kuwaiti and one of bin Laden's sons. One of bin Laden's wives received a wound in her leg. Furthermore, the 38,000-square-foot site yielded intelligence items such as CDs, DVDs, flash drives, memory cards, and computer hardware. The evidence indicated the existence of an active command-and-control center for al-Qaeda, whose leaders plotted to assassinate both Petraeus and Obama in the coming months. Shortly before departing the scene, the SEALs used C-4 charges to detonate the damaged Black Hawk.

The SEALs returned safely to Jalalabad Air Base in Afghanistan. With various tests confirming the identity of the corpse, a military detail soon loaded it onto a V-22 Osprey and flew it to the U.S.S. Carl Vinson in the North Arabian Sea. Americans prepared the body in accordance with Islamic precepts. Afterward, they heaved it into the water.

A month later, al-Qaeda selected al-Zawahiri to lead the terrorist network. Still under U.S. indictment for his previous embassy bombings, he warned of reprisal attacks against Americans for killing bin Laden. While rumors of an internal power struggle spread, the operational planning devolved from the high command to the assorted franchises within Pakistan and around the globe. The appeal of bin Laden's movement survived, but the American military brought a mass murderer of innocent men, women, and children to justice.


The dramatic events of 9/11 aroused the nation, as the armed forces of the U.S. roared into action. Although bin Laden once sneered that American troops were “just a paper tiger,” they lit up his sanctuaries in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. The Bush administration soon turned their sights upon Iraq, where Hussein defied the armistice that halted the first Gulf War. Even if the allegations about WMD stockpiles proved mistaken, Operation Iraqi Freedom toppled an outlaw regime. The sectarian conflicts overshadowed the American victory, however, while the foot soldiers of the Taliban reentered the Afghan provinces. Operating in two theaters at the same time stressed U.S. forces. Fortunately, Petraeus found effective ways to counter the insurgencies. After the Obama administration refocused upon Afghanistan, killing bin Laden inside Pakistan provided significant momentum to the war effort. Whatever the future of the Global War on Terror, the U.S. degraded the capabilities of al-Qaeda.

Following a decade of fighting in faraway lands, the U.S. began to bring the troops home. For most men and women in uniform, the protracted struggle against international terrorism involved two major military operations undermined by ineffective post-invasion regimens. The American way of war, which accentuated quick and decisive battles, did not initially deliver population security, economic assistance, and stable governance to defeated countries. With armed might unable to end the tumults in an expedient manner, anti-American ideologies fueled lengthy insurgencies. Nation-building offered new hope, although WMD proliferation remained a grave danger to the world. Approximately 6,000 Americans were killed in action overall, while over 40,000 suffered wounds. The financial costs mounted, thereby exacerbating a fiscal crisis in Washington D.C. Eventually, the doctrine of COIN enabled the military to claim success abroad. On a strategic level, the U.S. achieved measurable progress in a long slog.

Even though diehards persisted in shadowy realms, the U.S. showed unparalleled strength in most facets of military affairs. The American military worked with allies to conduct offensive campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, which knocked enemy forces off balance. While the Obama administration planned for an exit from the former, the final convoy of U.S. soldiers left the latter as scheduled by 2012. Petraeus, who retired from the Army after a remarkable career that spanned four decades, took charge of the CIA but soon resigned. With federal budget cuts looming, Panetta succeeded Gates as the Secretary of Defense. An armada of drones continued to hit targets inside Pakistan and other nations. Special Forces skillfully disrupted al-Qaeda and its affiliates in an era of persistent conflict. Popular uprisings in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria signified an “Arab Spring,” although fanatical elements sought to exploit the uncertain outcomes.

As the age of globalization reached a point of inflection, America's warriors moved forward together with an extraordinary history of resilience and resourcefulness behind them. The Army, Navy, and Air Force constituted the most advanced military ever to exist on the face of the Earth. Of course, they appreciated a technological edge in almost every domain. Their work reinforced the myth of the mega-machine, which made humans ever more dependent upon tools and tool-makers to act. While undertaking counterterrorist and counterinsurgency operations, they accomplished near-impossible missions that enhanced national security. Some did what fighters in all wars do – kill. Others defended the U.S. in innovative and unconventional ways. With stealth and precision, a few belonged to elite commando units capable of confronting enemy forces anywhere on the planet. Like the legendary knights of yore, their collective sacrifices for the greater good exemplified the noblest form of service.

Essential Questions

1 How did the American military change after 9/11?

2 In what ways were U.S. forces tested in Afghanistan and Iraq?

3 Why was killing bin Laden such an important military objective?

Suggested Readings

Anderson, Terry H. Bush's Wars. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Atkinson, Rick. In the Company of Soldiers: A Chronicle of Combat. New York: Henry Holt, 2004.

Bergen, Peter L. The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict between America and Al Qaeda. New York: Free Press, 2011.

Berkowitz, Bruce. The New Face of War: How War Will Be Fought in the 21st Century. New York: Free Press, 2003.

Cloud, David, and Greg Jaffe. The Fourth Star: Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army. New York: Crown, 2009.

Hahn, Peter L. Missions Accomplished? The United States and Iraq since World War I. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Jones, Seth G. In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan. New York: W. W. Norton, 2009.

Kaplan, Fred. The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.

Lewis, Adrian R. The American Culture of War: The History of U.S. Military Force from World War II to Operation Iraqi Freedom. 2nd edition. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Luttrell, Marcus, with Patrick Robinson. Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10. New York: Little, Brown, 2007.

May, Ernest R., ed. The 9/11 Commission Report with Related Documents. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2007.

Moyar, Mark. A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

Owen, Mark, with Kevin Maurer. No Easy Day: The Autobiography of a Navy Seal. New York: Dutton, 2012.

Ricks, Thomas E. Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq. New York: Penguin, 2006.

Scales, Robert H., Jr., and Williamson Murray. The Iraq War: A Military History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Singer, P. W. Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century. New York: Penguin, 2009.

Wright, Evan. Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America, and the New Face of American War. New York: Putnam, 2004.

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