Coverage of the killing of Osama bin Laden has splintered between kvelling and questions about the "how" -- Burial at sea! What did the Pakistanis know? How 'bout those Navy SEALS! -- and not-so-subtle attempts to seize the moment to advance certain policy positions. Torture worked, says John Yoo. The fight against terrorism continues, says the Council on Foreign Relations. Out of Afghanistan now, says Robert Greenwald.
To think systematically about what this event will mean for national security long-term, imagine its effects rippling outward in three concentric circles: from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, where bin Laden's al-Qaeda grew and lured the U.S. in the deepest; from the broader Middle East, where the news is sure to affect relations between the Muslim world and the West; and finally, from home, where bin Laden's death has already begun to change Americans' understanding of who we are and how we act in the world.
In Afghanistan and Pakistan
Bin Laden's death is not, of course, the death of al-Qaeda. While he was alive, bin Laden retained tremendous symbolic power, some of it by dint of the U.S.' focus on and failure to find him, and some because of his operational power over the al-Qaeda base in the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands. But worldwide, al-Qaeda is more decentralized, a loose global network of franchises and other terrorist groups for whom bin Laden served as a primarily symbolic head. Now, in addition to bin Laden's well-known deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, a number of other senior commanders have been in the organization long enough to command similar respect and credibility. The organization will still be able to funnel through young recruits by the hundreds or thousands as evidenced by the arrests in Germany last week of two young men who trained with al-Qaeda, went home, and recruited others to plot with them. Al-Qaeda will still be able to carry out attacks on U.S., international, and regional targets.
This global franchise model means that it will be difficult if not impossible to ever say that al-Qaeda or terrorism is eradicated. But it will also be difficult for a bin Laden successor to recapture al-Qaeda's peak influence without the global access to funds, recruits, and prestige that bin Laden enjoyed in the 1990s. To make a crass corporate parallel, both Apple and Starbucks had to bring back their charismatic founders to regain their mojo; al-Qaeda doesn't have that option.
By dealing a blow to al-Qaeda -- and by implication, to its allies in the Taliban and its protectors in Pakistan's intelligence establishment -- bin Laden's death may have created new opportunities for a political settlement in Afghanistan. While experts across the political spectrum have been calling for talks with elements of the Taliban, opponents have argued that because the U.S. had not turned the tide militarily, now was not the time. It's hard to imagine a bigger military momentum-changer than the bin Laden operation. Military and regional experts from Gen. David Petraeus on down have said for years that a political solution -- one that gives Afghans a stake in their government -- as opposed to military intervention is the key to scaling back the administration's 2009 surge and ultimately ending U.S. combat operations there. But given that the war in Afghanistan was about more than just finding bin Laden, our withdrawal will likely occur independently of his death.
Then there is the challenge of Pakistan. No one who watches Pakistan closely was surprised to learn that bin Laden was living comfortably there or that he was found in a place where the country's security establishment could have kept a careful eye on him. The truly interesting questions -- Did the U.S. manage all this independently, or did Pakistan's government somehow decide to "give bin Laden up" to us? How manageable will the public response be? How much more strained will Pakistan's weak civilian government be? -- remain unanswered.
But two pieces of perspective are important. First, bin Laden was not a beloved figure in Pakistan. Among Muslims there, confidence in him to "do the right thing in world affairs" fell from 52 percent in 2005 to 18 percent last year. Second, Pakistan is not going away. To the contrary, it will soon surpass Indonesia as the world's most populous Muslim-majority country. It will still have nuclear weapons; a key piece of strategic real estate between India, China, Afghanistan, and Iran; and the cell-phone numbers of many vicious extremist groups. Experts struggle again and again with the question: Must we continue to engage with a society that is helping and thwarting us so vigorously at the same time? The answer, for all the reasons above, is yes.
Bin Laden's al-Qaeda, at its height, seemed to present a twinned global threat to the U.S.: the ability to appeal to a plurality of mainstream Muslims far beyond bin Laden's Saudi home and to maintain that broad appeal while cultivating a narrow but vicious band of fighters aimed at toppling U.S. ally and partner governments, killing and terrorizing Americans, establishing bin Laden's caliphate, and ultimately -- if you believed the most purple rhetoric -- "flying the flag of Islam over the White House."
When the sun rose on Sunday morning, it seemed there were as many Americans who feared this possibility becoming reality (especially those who get their news from Glenn Beck) as there were people in the Islamic world willing to give their lives for it. Even outside Pakistan, enthusiasm for bin Laden had fallen dramatically as Muslim-civilian casualties of al-Qaeda piled up, and change failed to materialize. Among six predominantly Muslim nations polled between 2003 and 2011, confidence in bin Laden to "do the right thing in world affairs" fell from an average of 44 percent in 2003 to 17 percent in 2011, according to the Pew Research Center. While President Barack Obama's 2009 "Muslim world" speeches in Cairo and Istanbul and his appearance in Jakarta increased his global popularity among Muslims that U.S. policies have since been unable to sustain, the downward drift for the U.S. wasn't matched by a return to favor for bin Laden.
Moreover, bin Laden died having seen the citizens of Egypt and Tunisia do more to change their own governments and galvanize the region in three months than al-Qaeda had achieved in 25 years. The Arab Spring movements demonstrated clearly that history had passed al-Qaeda by. As the Brookings Institute's Martin Indyk said: "[Bin Laden's death] comes at a time when Al Qaeda's narrative is already very much in doubt in the Arab world. ... Its narrative was that violence was the way to redeem Arab honor and dignity. But Osama bin Laden and his violence didn't succeed in unseating anybody."
Just about every government and elected official's statement in response to bin Laden's killing has noted that terrorism will continue to pose a threat to the U.S. From Anwar al-Awlaki and al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen (source of the Detroit underwear bomber and the more recent printer-cartridge plot), to the thousands of young men in Europe and the U.S. who trained in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan (like the young men arrested last week in Germany), to resurgent extremists in Indonesia, groups that wished us ill before will wish us more ill now. They will retain as well the perception that even small-scale attacks are adequate to unnerve us, throw us off balance, and force us to publicly abandon the principles and constitutional norms for which the rest of the world once admired us.
September 11 Commission Chairmen Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton issued a report last September saying that "it is also important to acknowledge that how Americans respond to terrorist attacks can influence the worrisome trend by terrorist groups to radicalize and train recruits to carry out less sophisticated operations on U.S. soil. If any attack can succeed in generating significant political and economic fallout, then there is a greater motivation for undertaking these attacks. Alternatively, terrorist attacks that have limited potential to inflict serious casualties or cause disruption become less attractive if Americans display a greater degree of resilience by being better prepared to respond to and recover from these attacks."
These groups can cause us a great deal of pain -- and they can bring fatal agonies to the weak or transitional societies in which they are hosted. But experts don't see and have not seen for some time these al-Qaeda franchises having the ability to mount an attack that can threaten the foundations of our society as September 11 appeared to. Bin Laden's death seems to confirm the experts' view. It raises the bar for what a successor would have to do and the charisma he would have to have to reunify and build command linkages among the diverse al-Qaeda offshoots.
Finally, bin Laden's death will have its own ripple effect in our domestic politics, which are as important to our national security as anything we do abroad. President Obama and the Democrats will get a ratings boost. How much and for how long we will soon find out, but we do know, as I first wrote in 2002, that Democrats are never more trusted on military affairs than when they are wielding the military.
It would be wonderful if the public-confidence boost shepherded terrorism -- and associated obsessions with the supposed threats to the U.S. from Sharia law and the Muslim Brotherhood -- out of our politics. This would have enormous implications for our leaders' ability to pursue negotiations in Afghanistan and to lay down the parameters for a viable Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. It would also help them rally global opprobrium to pressure Iran for its nuclear and human-rights misdeeds without empty saber-rattling and to assist open governments to emerge across the Middle East. Above all, it provides an opportunity for us to reorient our global vision, to turn us away from the obsession with extremist violence and toward the economic and moral foundations that undergird our global stature and way of life.
But this outcome is not a given. Our national-security bureaucracy was geared up to fight bin Laden. Our political parties were deathly afraid of the terrorist attack that would prove them to have been soft on national security. Public discourse has ignored larger issues of strategy, economy, and the U.S.' place in the world for so long that it can hardly be blamed for defaulting to the familiar. Our political culture for 60 years now has sent us abroad in search of monsters to destroy, as John Quincy Adams warned 190 years ago. Some will find that enemy in a successor to bin Laden or in Al-Awlaki in Yemen. Some will find it in China or Russia or Iran.
If that need to elevate and demonize a single enemy could die with bin Laden, it might be the single greatest contribution to our national security. But unlike in the killing of bin Laden, we cannot send the Navy SEALS to do it. We will have to do it ourselves.