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Learning from Bin Laden's Strategy

Author: Jonathan Hillman
May 10, 2012
National Interest


As Americans debate the future of the war on terror, they might consider learning from the man who was its focus for over a decade. A chilling letter from Osama bin Laden to al-Qaeda's top operational planner, recovered during the U.S. Special Forces raid on his Abbottabad hideout, shows that Bin Laden had an overall strategy, a clear sense of priorities and an appreciation for restraint—in other words, a discipline and coherence that America's "long war" has lacked.

The overall strategy Bin Laden mapped out in his May 2010 letter was simple and straightforward. "The focus must be on actions that contribute to the intent of bleeding the American enemy," he wrote. "As for actions that do not contribute to the intent of bleeding the great enemy, many of them dilute our efforts and take from our energy."

In contrast, the most recent National Defense Strategy asserts that the winning the long war will be the "central objective of the U.S." but says nothing about subverting other priorities to achieve this goal. Indeed, "Win the Long War" is one of five "key objectives," the others being "Defend the Homeland," "Promote Security," "Deter Conflict" and "Win Our Nation's Wars." The Defense Department has multiple missions, of course. But when everything is a top priority, there are no priorities.

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