So they got him. After nearly a decade on the lam, Osama Bin Laden has been brought to justice, whatever that means. Here in DC, we saw spontaneous celebration in front of the White House at the news that America’s Most Wanted had been terminated. Cue the 24-hour cable news orgy.
Some, including myself, have reservations about glorifying the targeted assassination of another human being. Does that make me a pacifist? Not at all. It just seems perverse and indulgent. We did what we had to do, let’s move on. I am glad that Bin Laden no longer draws breath. But I find myself thinking about the political circumstances that created him. I suppose there’s a grim logic to it all: a mujahideen born of CIA meddling in Afghanistan, killed by the Joint Special Operations Command, of which CIA is a part.
What does this mean for al-Queda and international terrorist networks? Likely not much. Although Bin Laden was an important recruitment tool, he existed in the better half as the last decade mostly as a figurehead. The interesting thing about al-Queda has always been that it functions as a network, rather than a typical command-control structure. (For info on US military efforts to become more like al-Queda, read this piece by former General Stanley McChrystal.) Killing Bin Laden is a significant symbolic victory, but it will do little to disrupt the al-Queda franchise as it exists today.
The bigger danger comes from al-Queda affiliates, such as the Yemen-based al-Queda of the Arabian Peninsula or al-Queda of the Islamic Maghreb. These organizations are linked to the al-Queda core, at times sharing personnel and resources and working toward a common goal. However, they also have a structure and identity independent of al-Queda.
With Bin Laden’s death, these affiliates retain their operational capacity. They will continue to try to undermine U.S. allies and some, such as AQAP, will attempt to strike U.S. targets beyond the region in which they operate. Bin Laden worked hard to try to knit these disparate organizations together. His success has made them all far more lethal, but keeping the ties strong depended heavily on Bin Laden’s charisma and his access to funds.
One thing’s for sure: President Obama has made it very difficult for his domestic opposition to say he’s “soft on terror.” It was Obama, not the previous cowboy in the Oval Office, who bagged the prize buck. 2012 will definitely be about “the economy, stupid,” but the prez will certainly benefit from having neutralized a long-cherished Republican talking point. Of course, they’ll still try. But they will fail, at least on that score.
Obama’s speech was strong. Coupled with US reaction to the Arab Spring (still very much a fluid phenomenon), it stands to make “consequentialist” policy the official Obama Doctrine: a combination of realism, opportunism and pro-democratic ideology, applied on a case-by-case basis.
We’ll see what happens next.