President Obama has been able to announce the news that Americans have longed to hear for the last ten years: Osama bin Laden is dead, his corpse flung into the sea.
Better, he is dead at America’s hands.
Better yet, he died a beaten man. His bid for the leadership of global Islam had failed, and Osama lived long enough to see other movements and other ideas shoulder his perverted synthesis aside. Osama was yesterday’s man, and he knew it.
Osama Bin Laden (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Above all, this is good for the United States. Presidents Bush and Obama have not gotten everything right since 9/11, but on this matter they both did pretty well. The United States was relentless and determined in hunting him down, pursuing tens of thousands of leads all over the world. We left no doubt in anyone’s mind that getting Osama Bin Laden was a priority, but we did a pretty reasonable job (except when demagogic politicians were out on the stumps) of keeping our eyes open and our mouths shut.
My own approach has been to say very little on the hunt for OBL. Back in December 9, 2009, when the subject got attention because of General McChrystal’s testimony in Congress, I cited the advice of Leon Gambetta to the French following the loss of Alsace-Lorraine to the Germans after the Franco-Prussian war in 1871: “Think of it ever, speak of it never.” Good advice then, and good advice for the United States during the ten year manhunt. The more we talked about him and the more we shared our frustration at not finding him, the more we magnified the murdering thug and helped make him a larger figure on the world stage as a hero. Talking about our desire to capture or kill him while he eluded us made him the Pink Panther to our Inspector Clouseau, the Bugs Bunny to our Elmer Fudd.
There was no telling how long it would take us to get him. Killing or capturing an individual leader whose followers are willing to hide him is one of the toughest things a country can do. Finding him in a country like Pakistan, where the United States is widely hated and where much of the leadership actively works with our enemies is harder yet.
But now the deed is done and there is no need to downplay its importance. The death of Bin Laden will discourage and depress terrorists and their potential recruits the world over. The world’s most ‘successful’ terrorist had nothing to show for his efforts — no forced withdrawal of the US from the Middle East, no proclamation of a caliphate, no destruction of Israel, no theocracy in Iraq.
Bid Laden’s death is not, as Peter Beinart suggests in the Daily Beast, the end of the war on terror. Unfortunately a shadowy underworld of “Islamic” terror groups continue to pose an unprecedented threat around the world. Unlike anarchist and communist terror groups in the past, they can kill hundreds and even thousands of people at a time, and they have the ability to disrupt commerce and the free flow of people around the world. The threat that these groups could acquire chemical, biological or nuclear weapons of mass destruction is still very much alive; we live in an era in which non-state actors can wield levels of violence on a scale once restricted to states.
This underground, with links to organized crime, is opportunistic and evolving. New leaders will emerge, new tactics will develop, and new attacks will come. This remains a strategic threat, and whether we admit it or not, the state of war continues. We are winning that war by degrading the capacity and depressing the elan of these groups. They are losing their popular support in most places; a decade of growing international cooperation has made the world’s counter terror measures significantly more effective.
So to amend Beinart, we are winning this war, but it isn’t over yet.
Nevertheless, the death of this failed, misguided man — with the blood of his thousands of victims staining his hands, choking his soul, and rising up to testify against him on the dreadful day of judgment – changes the world, and it changes the world for the better.
In the first place, it greatly simplifies America’s task in Afghanistan. The death of this man was a strategic objective in that war; it has now been achieved. It is easier now for the United States to take a more flexible and political approach toward ending the conflict. There are a lot of things we would like to see in a peace deal in Afghanistan; there are only two things we must have. One is that Afghanistan never again becomes a friendly sanctuary for terrorists planning attacks against us and our allies; the other is that the end of the Afghan War cannot be perceived as an American defeat.
The death of Bin Laden makes it much more difficult to paint a compromise political settlement in Afghanistan as an American defeat. This should hasten the day when NATO forces come home.
It also begins to untie the unhealthy knot that has bound the US and Pakistan together since 9/11. Pakistani nationalists by and large hate and fear the United States, especially since the US-India rapprochement puts us firmly in favor of India’s emergence as a global power. Americans are frustrated by what we can only see as Pakistan’s slow but inexorable national suicide. As these long term forces drove us apart, we were tightly bound together by the war in Afghanistan and the US drive against Al-Qaeda. That unnaturally tight bond between two countries fundamentally uneasy with each other has intensified the friction in our relations and increased the hostility between us.
We have now moved significantly closer to the end of the unnatural relationship that is doing so much damage. Ultimately American interests in Central Asia are secondary ones; we will not be abandoning this region as completely as we did after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but we will not indefinitely hover over Pakistan the way we have since 9/11. This will allow some underlying parallels between US and Pakistani interests to emerge and should lead to a smoother working relationship.
Pakistanis often blame Washington’s war in Afghanistan for their own country’s grim slide into chronic instability and for their frustrations in Afghanistan. They are likely soon to discover that the only thing worse than a Washington breathing down their necks is a Washington relegating the region to a lower priority level. The Russians, the Chinese, the Indians and the Iranians all agree that the conversion of Afghanistan into a sanctuary for radical, Sunni-linked religious terror movements is a very bad thing. Pakistan’s isolation on this issue is not America’s fault; as the US steps back, Pakistanis will have to grow up. For too long Pakistan has had a security culture that nurtures fantasies and illusions; when those illusions don’t pan out, Pakistani nationalists blame the United States. They will soon have the opportunity to find out that we have nothing to do with the steady deterioration of Pakistan’s position.
Osama certainly didn’t intend to do Israel any favors, but it is another sign of the curse under which he lived that his death has given the Jewish state a badly needed diplomatic victory. In a statement that was one of the most serious of the many self-inflicted wounds to the Palestinian national cause, the ‘administrative head’ of the Hamas authority in Gaza condemned the attack and called OBL a “holy warrior”. Suddenly, it is much, much easier for Israel to resist negotiating with the ‘unified’ Palestinian movement and much, much harder to pressure the Jewish state to embrace a coalition that includes Hamas. In death as in life, OBL ruined whatever he touched — but did more damage to those he claimed as friends than to those he claimed to hate.
To be loved by Osama was if anything worse than to be hated by him. No one has ever slimed the causes he claimed to support like he did. OBL claimed to defend Islam; he and his henchmen murdered Muslims by the cartload and brought the name of Islam into disrepute all over the world. He claimed to support Afghanistan, and brought a ruinous war to that country. Those who offered him shelter were forced into exile themselves. Those who sought to use him had their fingers scorched. He lived as he died: a man of violence and blood.
May God have mercy on us all.