The US was abuzz last night as news broke–slowly, and with swarming rumors–that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had been killed by American forces. Spontaneous celebrations broke out all over the country as the news was confirmed. The killing of bin Laden is a national triumph for the United States, but it is also the end of a national embarrassment, for bin Laden’s ability to avoid the intense search efforts of the US and its allies for more than a decade added to his legend in radical circles while demoralizing the American public. As many have been quick to point out, bin Laden’s death is by no means the end of al Qaeda, for it has fragmented into a number of splinter and affiliate movements. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has likely been the most dangerous al Qaeda organization for several years now, as we have seen from the many recent plots that have been tied to Yemen. The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a pseudo-affiliate, is also undergoing a period of prominence, with some of its personnel reportedly serving as mid-level commanders in the anti-Gaddafi rebellion. We have hardly seen the last of al Qaeda and its subsidiaries. However, we must not be too cynical–this is indeed a major symbolic victory. Terrorism relies on symbolism and representation to make its attacks meaningful and draw in new recruits. Bin Laden provided this symbolism. His death does not silence his story, but it removes some of its mystique.
The killing represents a major political coup for US President Barack Obama. His approval rating has reportedly climbed roughly 40 points overnight–a performance not unlike that of George W. Bush after September 11th. By killing al Qaeda’s figurehead, he has created an opportunity to redirect US antiterror policy as he pleases, and he likely will use bin Laden’s death to justify a drawdown in Afghanistan. For the next several weeks, he will be untouchable.
A more serious challenge will be the US-Pakistan relationship. Officials from both countries were quick to emphasize the role that cooperation had played in the raid, yet this was transparently false–the United States acted unilaterally, keeping Pakistan and its compromised Inter Services Intelligence in the dark until after the operation, and going to great lengths to do so. White House officials confirmed that the drone used to support the operation was an RQ-170, a largely secret craft notable for its reduced visibility to radar. Reports from the ground suggest that the American helicopters were flying at very low levels, again to reduce radar visibility. The US didn’t want Pakistan to know what they were doing until it was too late.
As more information comes out about Pakistan’s role, risks grow that an alliance-shaking scandal will result. Pakistan has been a notoriously duplicitous partner in the war on terrorism, with its support of the Afghani Taliban (not to mention other sinister groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba) being an open secret. Bin Laden’s compound was in an area that has been a popular hangout for military figures since the days of the Raj–Abbottabad is, after all, named for a British officer–and is very close to a major Pakistani military base. One Abbottabad resident even made an unclear statement to Al Jazeera reporter Imtiaz Tyab that suggested the bin Laden compound was in an area with a regular military presence, including checkpoints. Tongues are already wagging around the world that elements of the Pakistani military may have been aware of bin Laden’s presence. Pakistani President Zardari will be in a very tough spot if embarrassing revelations occur, for his weak government cannot stand losing US support but cannot hope to reign in the Army and the ISI. Many in Washington are critical of the US-Pakistan alliance, and their case could be significantly strengthened in the coming weeks.
Senior US officials have made contradictory statements on the intent of the raid, with one saying that the intent was to kill and not capture bin Laden, which prompted a clarification that the intent was to capture or kill if bin Laden did not surrender. That bin Laden would not have surrendered is all but a certainty, so the debate is somewhat moot. However, capturing bin Laden alive would likely have been a worse outcome for the US. Trying bin Laden would be a long and expensive ordeal that would require enormous security, and executing him–via the lengthy American death penalty process–would only add to those costs while making his “martyrdom” that much more visible to his supporters. Revenge attacks for his killing are likely, but they would be even more likely if he were put on trial.
The spontaneous celebrations that broke out in New York and Washington, DC were quite reminiscent of those in places like Tahrir Square or downtown Benghazi after the fall of other faces of evil. It was poetic that the celebrations in Washington appeared larger than those in New York, though the attacks in New York were more deadly. The war on terrorism has seen a shift of power from the nation’s economic capital to its political and military capital, as the national defense budget has swelled from $333 billion in 2001 to over $700 billion in 2010, levels which roughly equate to the height of the Cold War. Fighting terrorism is a vital element of any US security strategy, but realists and budget hawks have been unhappy with its growing centrality to US foreign policy at the expense of preserving American global dominance relative to emerging powers and strengthening relationships with key regional players. The US is slated to spend as much as $113.7 billion in Afghanistan in FY2012, while it will spend about $1.5 billion in Egypt. Afghanistan has a rich cultural heritage, but it is an extraordinarily peripheral society in the global context, isolated both physically and economically from the rest of the world. Egypt, meanwhile, has historically been the leading power of the Arab world, and it is already showing signs of reclaiming that role after its recent revolts. The institutional inflexibility of the US government has created a paradigm of an ever-growing defense establishment and of increased emphasis on the fringes of the global community. We may see shifts–not dramatic, but not insignificant.
Upshot: bin Laden’s killing has created a moment of plasticity in the war on terrorism that could allow significant changes.
Prediction: Barack Obama will be reelected in 2012. AQAP will use the original al Qaeda’s leaderlessness to take a more independent role.