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On Sunday, Osama bin Laden met a fitting if belated demise, shot by a U.S. special forces team in an operation inside Pakistan. The killing of bin Laden was a just and necessary act that should be met with somber satisfaction but not exaltation. His death has global implications that are both subtle and complex -- and perhaps will make life more complicated for U.S. policymakers in combating the threat of global terror groups.
There is no reason to expect the Islamist terrorist threat to diminish as a result of his death. Bin Laden had long since detached himself from direct tactical control of global terrorist conspiracies conducted under the banner of al Qaeda, the terrorist organization he established in the 1990s. He was intimately involved in the planning and direction of al Qaeda’s 1998 attacks against the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the 2000 attack against the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen, and, of course, the attacks of September 11, 2001. But after the assault on his stronghold in Afghanistan and his flight into Pakistan in late 2001, it became clear to him that his survival depended on limiting his contact with the outside world to the barest minimum. Planning and direction of al Qaeda’s post-9/11 plots, such as the bombing of the London Underground in July 2005 and the 2006 plot against U.S.-bound flights from London, were delegated to a succession of operational commanders, none of whom survived very long. Bin Laden himself became known only as a disembodied voice in an audiotape or a grainy image on the occasional video.
Even in this reduced role, however, bin Laden was a malignant, animating spirit in dozens of smaller-scale terrorist plots and attacks -- and this is a role he can play in death as well. Al Qaeda has metastasized into an inchoate decentralized movement of Islamist terrorists and cells around the world.
At the same time, the removal of bin Laden from the terrorism equation may complicate U.S. global counterterrorism operations. Perceptions matter in politics, at home and internationally. Many of the most important features of an effective counterterrorism program -- recruitment of human agents, unilateral use of deadly force with the risk of collateral damage, and the apprehension, interrogation, and, sometimes, rendition of suspects -- are distasteful, politically and legally risky, and unpopular.
The destruction on 9/11 and the ensuing wrath of the U.S. president and people scared governments that had not previously cooperated with U.S.-led counterterrorism efforts into doing so. The two-way flow of intelligence between Washington and many different capitals increased dramatically. Much of this intelligence related to individual suspected terrorists, some of whom were then arrested or killed with the cooperation or at least the acquiescence of their own governments. Although not unprecedented, this degree of coordination between the United States and other countries -- Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Malaysia, Kenya, to name only a few -- that previously had a skeptical if not antagonistic view of U.S. foreign policy was historically unusual. It is possible that bin Laden’s death will come to be seen as the end of the golden years of counterterrorism, an aberrational decade in global politics in which national governments cooperated as never before to deal with a sub-state transnational threat.
Nowhere is this more true than in Pakistan, the country where bin Laden and many of his al Qaeda followers hid after he escaped U.S. and British special forces in Afghanistan. Although never as safe as Afghanistan under the Taliban, Pakistan was for al Qaeda close to a safe haven -- until early 2008, when President George W. Bush, losing all patience and faith in the Pakistani government’s willingness and ability to take on al Qaeda, authorized an escalation of direct U.S. action against al Qaeda and other extremists inside Pakistan. U.S. drone strikes rose from four in 2007 to 33 in 2008; this pace has only increased under Obama, from 53 in 2009 to 118 in 2010 (all data from the New America Foundation). Meanwhile, word of secret U.S. commando raids into Pakistan from U.S. bases in Afghanistan began to leak out.
Stepped-up U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Pakistan have not been popular among Pakistan’s ruling elite or its people, particularly as U.S. drone strikes began to target indigenous Pakistani extremist groups such as Tehrik-i-Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba. Although militants from these groups provide shelter and training to some al Qaeda operatives, they have had little if any operational ambition outside of South Asia. The Pakistani government will likely take a few weeks to get over its embarrassment about bin Laden’s long-standing presence just outside Islamabad, but once it does there is little doubt that it will resume and perhaps even intensify its demands that the United States recede from encroachments against Pakistani sovereignty.
Washington, for its part, will find it difficult to ignore these calls as it weighs other vital U.S. interests in Pakistan, such as the security of the Pakistani nuclear weapons arsenal, the ability to resupply U.S. forces in Afghanistan from Pakistani seaports, and the stability of Indo-Pakistani relations.
The death of bin Laden will affect the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, as well. This nearly decade-long war began to rout al Qaeda, an objective that enjoyed wide and deep political support. But now the American people are fatigued by it. The only war aim agreed to by virtually the entire U.S. political class is preventing the reemergence of Afghanistan as a safe haven for international terrorists. With bin Laden gone, Obama may lose even this last remaining source of public support for the war in Afghanistan.
Above all, bin Laden’s death was the death of a symbol -- in this case, a symbol with several different meanings for several different communities. The defiant survival of bin Laden in his Pakistani redoubt did not just inspire would-be jihadis around the world but also permitted a temporary simplification of U.S. national security strategy: an unwavering concentration on the protection of the American homeland from another devastating terrorist attack hatched abroad. As Bush put it in late 2001, "Over time it's going to be important for nations to know they will be held accountable for inactivity. You're either with us or against us in the fight against terror." Although he gave up the blunt rhetoric, Obama essentially continued the counterterrorism policies of the Bush White House. As such, he increased the barrage of drone strikes against Pakistan’s tribal north; added, for the first time ever, a U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, to a top-secret list of people who may be targeted and killed by U.S. military forces; and kept counterterrorism at the center of U.S. relations with a range of “front-line” states from North Africa to Southeast Asia. Only the sustained animus in Washington and around the United States toward the perpetrators of 9/11 permitted such a strong and unwavering focus in U.S. national security policy.
Bin Laden’s death thus leaves the United States at a conceptual turning point away from the strategic clarity of the post-9/11 era. Defeating al Qaeda and protecting the homeland will become not just an ever more hackneyed refrain but an increasingly peripheral issue for U.S. policymakers.
The present Middle East, for instance, is seized by forces far more powerful than al Qaeda ever was, and presents policy challenges to the United States far more complex than terrorism alone ever had. The threat of Islamist extremism is only one of many risks -- and by no means the greatest -- associated with the political upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen.
These events present genuinely deep, largely insolvable dilemmas to Obama and his officials: whether, when, and how to withdraw support from a long-standing, autocratic ally facing democratic protests? How to explain a values-based policy toward one Arab country while pursuing an interests-based policy toward another, more important Arab country? When and how to use the military power of a fractious coalition to protect a band of rebels from a wrathful, erratic dictator? How to support internal democratic reform in countries with no democratic political tradition and where political Islam is the most legitimate, cohesive alternative to the corrupt anciens régimes? The Obama administration will have to come up with answers to all these questions while still wrestling with Guantánamo and other problematic legacies of the war on terror amid a divisive and sometimes gridlocked domestic politics and a fragile, nearly jobless economic recovery and under the extreme fiscal pressures of public-sector debt.
Against this tremendously difficult national agenda, the killing of bin Laden was the rarest of events in modern-day American politics: something everyone could agree on and feel good about. Over time, the sending of a special forces assault team into bin Laden’s compound in suburban Islamabad may well come to be seen as one of the easiest decisions Obama had to make in his first term.