Let's begin with the intelligence. Information on terrorists is often wrong, fragmentary, or incomplete. Before 9/11, the United States repeatedly tried to find Osama Bin Laden and launch strikes to kill him, but it never had confidence in the intelligence it gathered. At times, terrorists are where the intelligence places them, but civilians are there, too. When Israel killed Hamas mastermind Salah Shehadeh in 2002, it also killed nine children, because Israeli intelligence did not know they were within the radius of the bomb blast. One cannot use intelligence beforehand to predict whether a mission will be a dazzling success or one that results in congressional investigations due to failure.
Too many times to count, U.S. special operations forces have acted on pinpoint intelligence, hoping to kill or capture high-level terrorists, only to find empty buildings, the wrong guy, or traps set for the team. Prior to Sunday's raid, there was no guarantee that the compound's defenders had not prepared al-Qaida's favorite defensive tactics of mutual suicide: house-borne IEDs or suicide vests.
Even when the intelligence is good, it is often exceptionally difficult to act upon. Many top terrorists know to hide in countries in which U.S. special operations are not allowed to operate. U.S. forces had to cross undetected deep into Pakistan. The secrecy of the operation suggests that U.S. officials believed that any request for help from Pakistan would backfire, with Pakistani officials tipping off Bin Laden. But Pakistan's military is competent and often fearful of an Indian military strike. It might have shot down an unknown intruder or at least discovered it and forced the disruption of the mission.
Technology, of course, is fallible. One helicopter did malfunction when the SEAL team tried to leave the compound; as a result they had to blow it up before departing. If the helicopter had gone down anywhere but in the compound, the team would have risked being left exposed for the world to see. Flying at night provided a protective cloak, but the SEALs were working against the clock in order to avoid the eventual response of Pakistani security forces. And no amount of technology is able to answer critical questions before such raids, like "Will the inhabitants of the compound fight back?" or "How many people are inside the house, and how well-armed are they?"
Relations with Pakistan, already at a low point over government contractor Raymond Davis' killing of two Pakistanis he said tried to rob him, could have plunged even further. If Pakistani soldiers or noncombatants had died in the raid, the Pakistani government would have faced tremendous domestic pressure to further distance itself from Washington. American drone strikes that accidentally kill noncombatants in remote parts of the country are headache enough for the government: Lethal mistakes next to the heart of Pakistan could have been far worse politically. American supply routes throughout Pakistan that support ongoing efforts in Afghanistan remain critical Pakistani bargaining chips.
An airstrike would have avoided much of this messiness, but it offered fewer advantages. A drone strike would launch a small bomb, which might not kill Bin Laden. Bombs from a larger, manned aircraft could cause so much damage it would destroy nearby buildings and kill children or other noncombatants in the compound. Before the raid, U.S. officials estimated it would take more than 30 2,000-pound bombs to destroy the complex. Proving that Bin Laden was dead would be harder if the United States did not have the body in its possession. Also, Bin Laden's headquarters presumably was also an intelligence goldmine, and a raid could capture documents, hard drives, and people, while an airstrike buries them in the rubble.
The president, of course, did not have the luxury of knowing he would be right when he made the decision to go with the riskier option: the raid. Fortunately, the decision paid off in spades. The mission's success shows the incredible confidence and skills that U.S. counterterrorism professionals must have in order to mitigate the risks associated with dangerous operations. But these factors can only offset so much risk. In any given operation, mistakes and plain bad luck can undo the sturdiest combination of special operator skills and planning. As we praise the intelligence and special-operations communities today, we should recognize that considerable skill and planning often go into failed raids and that fortune does not only favor the bold. So if we want raids like those that killed Osama Bin Laden, we must countenance those that miss their targets and at times end in disaster—and be supportive of the operators who carry them out and the politicians who order them into action. President Barack Obama should be commended not only for the mission's success (where the real credit spans administrations and special operations and intelligence officers that triumphed over each of the mission's potential setbacks), but for deciding to go forward even when so many things could go wrong. Who dares, wins—but only if the dare pays off.