May 13 , 2011
Bin Laden is Dead
Following up leads on Osama bin Laden's trusted personal courier, the United States tracked down the head of Al-Qaeda to a safe house in Abbottobad, Pakistan. 79 Navy SEALS descended on the compound and killed bin Laden while making off with the hard drives of his computers, sure to be a treasure-trove of the most valuable intelligence on Al-Qaeda, or what is left of it.
While he has been hiding for almost 10 years, and his face has long slipped off the front pages of the world's newspapers, his death is of tremendous significance. Al-Qaeda the organization, and the global Jihadist movement, have been dealt a massive blow. Bin Laden was the glue that kept the movement together in many ways. His charismatic personality, and his bona fide credentials dating back to the Soviet war in Afghanistan, makes him a unique and irreplaceable figure. Al Qaeda as it now exists is actually two different things. The first and original version, is the centralized organization that bin Laden himself created and controlled. The second is the widespread Jihadist networks of freelancers and autonomous groups around the world that use the name of Al-Qaeda and its ideology to give themselves legitimacy. Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb are all groups that have no direct connection to bin Laden, but they are his offspring. What bin Laden brought to them was an ideology, an explanation of why they should bomb and kill, and what the ultimate goal was.
Bin Laden got his start in the Afghan war in the 1980's. The defeat of the Soviets, and the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union, convinced Laden that Muslims could take on and defeat a superpower. For him, he wanted to rebuild Muslim power and glory, and to do so would require overthrowing the existing order in the Muslim world, particularly the Saudis and the Mubarak regime. Attempts by Islamists to bring down the Egyptian government through terror failed in the 1990's, and to Bin Laden the problem was the support the US gave to these illegitimate regimes. Convince the US to leave the Middle East, and power would naturally flow to Al-Qaeda and its movement. Hence, the attacks of 9/11, which were meant to convince the US to leave the Middle East, but instead had the opposite effect.
The Arab Spring has shown how totally irrelevant this ideology had become. Mubarak's regime did fall, but as a result of peaceful protests by young Egyptians demanding freedom and democracy, not waving pictures of bin Laden or burning American flags. The Jihadist ideology has been defeated both in the streets of Cairo and in the death of bin Laden.
For Pakistan and Afghanistan, his death does not change that much. It is unclear how much the Pakistanis knew about the American operation, but clearly the US has not trusted Pakistan when it comes to bin Laden. Pakistan has officially insisted it had no idea where he was, and that if he was in Pakistan he was hiding in the Tribal region where the government had no reach. His presence in a military garrison town is a great embarrassment. The truth I suspect is that the Pakistani government did not know bin Laden was there, but that the ISI was not looking very hard for the last decade. Bin Laden would certainly have to worry about the near-certainty of eventual leaks if his location was known within the Pakistani government.
Pakistan actually does not care much for Al-Qaeda or bin Laden himself. The real conflict with the US is over the Taliban. The US wants the war in Afghanistan to end on terms favorable to the Kabul government, with the Taliban elements sidelined. Pakistan finds the current Kabul government too hostile, and wants the Taliban to play a major in Kabul; until then, it will continue to shelter and support the Taliban. This, in my view, is a badly mistaken policy, as I have expounded on earlier. Pakistan's interests in Afghanistan can be ensured and promoted through peaceful economic ties, which would be the inevitable result of the obvious geography.
For Obama, this is a massive triumph. It provides him with tremendous foreign policy and leadership credentials going into next year's election. It also gives him the flexibility to demand his way on national security matters. He will likely carry out the full withdrawal from Iraq by the end of this year, and will perhaps look towards a major drawdown of forces in Afghanistan. He could also push the issue of closing Guantanamo again, which Congress has tied his hands on. Obama has sealed his re-election as long as the economy continues to slowly improve. Comments can reach me at Nali@socal.rr.com.