Things went sour from the start. As the helicopters launched from the U.S. base in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, and crossed the border into Pakistan, one helicopter and the Navy SEAL team members it carried had to abort their mission and return to base after mechanical difficulties. The remaining helicopters had to carry on by themselves. As they neared the target in the city of Abbottabad, Pakistani air defenses spotted the chopper and began firing. The strike team avoided the fire and kept going but encountered stiff resistance when it landed, because the building's inhabitants had been tipped off.
The helicopters' propellers blew an intense heat onto the SEALs as they landed near the compound and sprinted to their assigned breach points. Like a finely tuned orchestra, the SEALs set and simultaneously detonated several breach charges around the compound's courtyard and flooded inside. The tipped-off inhabitants stood ready, wounding several of the SEALs with a withering fire as they poured in. But the SEALs' specially designed weapons and their reflexive sharp-shooting skills developed from hundreds of missions proved too much for the waiting guards. The SEALs eliminated the threats in the courtyard and prepared to enter the target building.
Like clockwork, the SEALs "stacked" at the main house's doors prepared to enter the building to find their ultimate target. But they had miscalculated the strength of the building's reinforced doors, costing them precious time, presenting the enemy hiding inside with an opportunity. Grenades flew through the house's windows, peppering much of the strike team with shrapnel.
After seconds that seemed like hours, the door-breachers broke through. The lead team members burst into the building but quickly realized that the house had been rigged with explosives. Tell-tale signs of a house-borne IED were everywhere: copper wires hugged the walls, leading to several plastic jugs filled with explosives. Before the strike team could pull out, the home exploded, burying several people under its rubble.
In a situation where seconds were critical, it would take hours to dig the operators out of the rubble. Worse yet, their intended target was not among the debris. The gunmen were not the most senior leaders of al-Qaida, but, rather, members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, an anti-Indian terrorist group that works closely with the Pakistani government (though some of its members have links to al-Qaida). Even worse, the botched raid had inadvertently led to the deaths of several children living in the compound. As the SEALs salvaged what they could, Pakistani forces from nearby military bases responded quickly, arriving on the scene and demanding their surrender, leading to a standoff covered live on satellite television.
The debacle was a disaster for the president. The nightmares of special operations past all resurfaced: the failed hostage-rescue attempt in Iran in 1980 and the capture of Somali militants in Mogadishu in 1993 that led to the Blackhawk Down fiasco—operations in which eight and 18 American soldiers died, respectively—both resurfaced to haunt the intelligence and special-operations community. Republicans derided the president for his ineffective and weak leadership, while members of his own party privately expressed their doubts about the strategic prowess of their professor-turned-commander-in-chief. In its subsequent propaganda, al-Qaida derided the United States for its "deliberate killing of Muslim children" and boasted of its skilled preparations to foil the U.S. military (even though it let another group fight on its behalf).
But none of that came to pass. Instead of criticizing the president, we are celebrating the death of Public Enemy No. 1. While the administration takes its victory lap and basks in the glow of success, it is worth thinking through the many things that could have gone wrong and how we think about high-risk military operations when they fail.