May 2, 2011
The Death of Osama bin Laden: What Could Have Been
The biggest story of Osama bin Laden isn’t his death. It isn’t the “precision” raid by U.S. Special Forces. It isn’t where he was found. Who, what, where and why form their own galaxies, but beneath them lie the unifying principle of when.
The biggest story of Osama bin Laden’s death is how much bigger it could have been.
The Big Story
Whoever put the bullet through bin Laden’s head seems like someone who will never face the public spotlight. How bin Laden’s end actually unfolded, however, is surely coming to theaters across America. Bin Laden’s body didn’t explode in a routine drone strike - even a daring cross-boarder raid pales in comparison to his real-life Hollywood finish. Now is a good time to qualify all forthcoming information.
According to an amalgamate of U.S. and international news, a U.S. Special Forces Team (supposedly SEALs) was inserted by helicopter into Abbottabad, Pakistan, a military city roughly 30 miles from Islamabad. A moderate city of 100,000 people. Abbottabad houses three Pakistani regiments and thousands of military personnel. Here U.S. Forces found Osama bin Laden living in a 3,000 square foot “mansion” surrounded by 18 foot walls. According to Pakistani officials the complex stood 100 yards away from Kakul Military Academy, a training center for top Pakistani officers.
At first bin Laden was reported as the sole casualty, but it was soon reported that two of his bodyguards, his son Saad and a woman used as a human shield had been killed in the process. As U.S. officials continue spilling the tale to reporters in pieces, the consensus is that lethal force was applied after meeting heavy resistance inside the house. Bin Laden was eventually shot in the head, while U.S. forces reportedly used facial scanning to confirm the target. The word from the SEALs themselves is that, after countless briefings, they recognized his body and appearance immediately.
Despite the massive attention surrounding the hunt for bin Laden, the totality of his death equals and potentially surpasses the wildest imagination.
As for the body itself, reports have it going anywhere except America, and that it will be buried under Islamic law. One U.S. official said bin Laden has already been buried at sea, with further reports claiming that Saudi Arabia feared his burial would enhance his martyrdom.
The where, however, can be broken down immediately. Caught red-handed in a military hotbed, the location of bin Laden’s hideout has placed Pakistan under a wholly new level of pressure. Raymond Davis, an off-grid CIA agent caught up in a January murder case, was automatically linked to the equation as well, mostly as an explanation of why Washington went through such extreme lengths to rescue him. The truth is, in retrospect, much clearer though. Davis’s arrest exposed the scope of America’s clandestine network in Pakistan, an estimated 400 out of 1,200 operatives/contractors (FBI, CIA, JSOC) working outside Pakistani knowledge.
These agents caused a great deal of irritation behind the scenes of Davis’s case, and it seems they were looking for one man in particular. Thus the emerging claims from Pakistani intelligence are difficult to believe regardless of the military’s attempts to share credit. U.S. officials say that Islamabad worked the case without knowing the target, and wasn’t alerted until after the raid on bin laden.
His location’s combination - deep inside Pakistan and outside Afghanistan - has everyone in both countries asking what comes next.
The Bigger Story
It’s hard to predict exactly what the Obama administration is thinking in Afghanistan. Just as U.S. momentum had begun to reverse in the face of the Taliban’s spring offensive, Bin Laden’s death will provide an enormous morale boost to U.S. troops. However his sudden void is also liable to further polarize U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. al-Qaeda has maintained a minimal presence for years, leading President Barack Obama to sell his surge on attacking al-Qaeda’s "allies." With bin Laden dead the war now enters a state of limbo.
Civilian reactions reported through Al Jazeera are coalescing around the belief that U.S. troops occupied the wrong country from the beginning. Afghan President Hamid Karzai delivered such a message during his own national address.
Meanwhile Qais Azimy of Al Jazeera reported that one Taliban fighter minimized al-Qaeda’s capabilities, saying they didn’t need help from foreigners. His bravado could hint at the Taliban’s public reaction to bin Laden. His death is so multifaceted that every direction can appear true: the Taliban has many reasons to keep fighting, yet its leadership also has reason to finally negotiate a public renouncement of al-Qaeda.
The final outcome, then, depends on whether the Obama administration uses bin Laden to justify his surge in Afghanistan, and whether he will justify postponing or accelerating his July withdrawal. He will find himself under immense pressure to both postpone and confirm July’s deadline, to expand and sever negotiations with the Taliban leadership. Obama warned during his address, "There is no doubt that al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must and we will remain vigilant at home and abroad.”
His dilemma in Afghanistan, however, is how little bin Laden’s death alters the tactical and strategic battlefield. Obama still must decide whether to negotiate with the Taliban, because surrender remains a distant possibility.
One other telling pattern is the countless analysts lauding U.S. drone activity for “smoking him out.” One man who had been abducted in Pakistan recounted his story of how everyone he met, Taliban or not, told him that bin Laden was "too big" to hide. This account corresponds to various information that he was living in a Pakistani suburb under military watch, now proven to be the case. Although U.S. officials were right in declaring Pakistan his residence, rumors allege that bin Laden’s house was built specifically for him five years ago.
Whatever the case, drones don’t appear responsible for “flushing him out” of Pakistan’s border region. This emphasis is likely meant to counter Pakistani push-back against drone strikes, an “I told you so” designed to keep the drones flowing in the FATA. Bin Laden’s location, and the subsequent freeing of assets, will almost certainly accelerate the hunt for Mullah Omar and his Shura, whether in Quetta or Karachi.
All of these events portend a seismic shift in U.S.-Pakistani relations, for better or worse, and will trigger corresponding effects in Afghanistan.
The Biggest Story
It is difficult to minimize bin Laden’s death and still be taken credibly - and dangerous to block the rising tide of patriotism and optimism. However the emotional and personal reactions to bin Laden’s death must be disconnected from its strategic implications. His death, as in 9/11’s aftermath, has already been excessively manipulated by senior newscasters and droves of commentators speaking in unison. The narrative is 9/11, American, upbeat. While we understand the jubilant feeling in the streets, those in a position of power are supposed to provide the necessary context.
Very few raised the hard questions.
When Obama chose to evoke the justice of 9/11 as his dominant message to the world, he overtly avoided the injustices committed in Afghanistan and Iraq, where over a million people have been killed or wounded in the name of al-Qaeda. The ten years that have passed since 9/11 display more than America’s resolve to kill bin Laden.. Although his death is undeniably significant for a variety of reasons, his personal motivation remains as high as the morning of September 11th, 2001. As U.S. pundits across America declare victory in “The War on Terror” and mock bin Laden for never repeating a spectacular attack, they should stop and consider the possibility that we’re witnessing the completion of his plan.
The normally intelligent Peter Bergen went so far as to declare the “War on Terror” is over, while Christiane Amanpour claimed that bin Laden’s support will fade. Ross Douthat wrote in the New York Times, “They can strike us, they can wound us, they can kill us. They can goad us into tactical errors and strategic blunders. But they are not, and never will be, an existential threat.”
Even a brief study of bin Laden’s grand strategy reveals that creating “existential threat” was never his goal. 9/11 posed as a lure into Afghanistan, one that caught Iraq in the process. Bin Laden’s ultimately objective goal was to cause tactical errors and strategic blunders on a global scale, a plan intended to bleed America’s finances and credibility by first deploying hundreds of thousands of troops into a hostile Middle East. Then, after a certain point, uprisings in each state would eject the ruling government and spawn an international wave of pan-Islamism.
He wasn’t that far away from his vision.
One must realize that bin Laden expected to die, not run free forever. He was probably surprised that U.S. forces took so long to kill him, and has busied himself preparing heirs to the throne. But what bin Laden really wanted to leave behind were multiple conflicts in Muslim states, with independent leaders combating U.S. and local government forces. Were he to visit Pakistan, Somalia, North Africa and Yemen one last time, bin Laden would find groups that take al-Qaeda’s name and ideology while barely obeying its command.
al-Qaeda did globalize its network out of Afghanistan, which was bin Laden’s plan the whole time. He expected to die and he has. Whether his strategy succeeds or fails, it appears to have gone off as planned.
Now, as a revolutionary wave gives birth to an Arab Spring, America continues to prop up friendly dictators even though bin Laden’s ideology revolves around disposing of “Western” stooges. His ancient grievances against Saudi Arabia, including its collusion with America, continue to manifest in the Gulf. While the U.S. people and their representatives generally believe now is the time to steal al-Qaeda’s thunder, the Obama administration already had three months to do so.
The most striking angle of bin Laden’s death is how early Obama received an advance. First hearing of a lead in August 2010, new information in January (right before Davis’s arrest) ramped up Pakistani operations into February and March. Five secret briefings were then held at March 14th, March 29th, April 12th, April 18th and April 29th. In short, the Obama administration believed it had unearthed a legitimate lead on bin Laden before the Arab Spring hit the world.
With ample time and motivation to respond, Obama should have seized control of America's message during the Arab Spring rather than let his hawkish officials speak for him. The narrative could have been fundamentally altered in favor of pro-democracy protesters. Unfortunately for U.S. policy and the people it affects, Egyptians, Libyans, Bahrainis, Yemenis, Syrians, Palestinians and many others find themselves disappointed with Obama’s "orderly" transitions. Hunting for bin Laden doesn’t excuse protecting Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh or suppressing Bahrain’s uprising with Saudi troops.
Instead of climaxing a euphoric revitalization in U.S. policy and Muslim history, bin Laden’s death will now be exploited to overturn the revolution’s negative backlash in America.
Whether bin Laden’s death inspires or deflates his followers largely depends on the health of his ideology. Replacing him is impossible; bin Laden possessed a unique combination of familial connections, finances and personal charisma. A power struggle is unlikely with Ayman al-Zawahri sliding over from his number 2 position, however he cannot replace bin Laden completely. And yet revolutions in the Middle East tapped into the same rage that he experienced growing up - he just channeled it differently.
Thus it will take more than killing bin Laden to defeat his ideology, and the Obama administration has failed to deal a blow throughout the Arab Spring. Why will U.S. strategy change after bin Laden’s death if no preparation was made before it?
Obama never mentions the Arab Spring during his address, even though his administration has played up al-Qaeda’s disadvantage in the revolutions by reflecting its democratic message. Consider if Obama had handled the revolutions with the appropriate care and with adequate speed - if his poll numbers in Egypt and Yemen didn’t clock below 30. Is there any doubt that he would build on this narrative instead of avoiding it?
To hunt down bin Laden at the expense of Muslim awakening represents a tactical success and strategic failure. His death cannot make up for the absence of sound strategy based on consistent U.S. values. Obama spoke of those values tonight without any mention of the dictators America continues to support; this type of thinking will keep bin Laden’s dream alive. His head topped a hydra, not a snake, and the sudden victory of World War 2 will never come.
Bin Laden’s death doesn’t mark the end of the “War on Terror,” but takes Muslim revolution as the setting of its new book.
Washington could have worked to end the “War on Terror” at any time by repairing a decayed U.S. foreign policy. Killing another cannot fix the faults of oneself - this war is an inward struggle at America’s core. 9/11 didn’t spawn from thin air, but the accumulation of decades of justified anti-Americanism. Knowing that bin Laden could wander into its sights, the Obama administration should have engaged the Muslim world with far greater clarity and support during such a historic period. The reward is nearly unthinkable.
Obviously bin Laden’s death offers one final chance to salvage America’s reaction to the Arab Spring, a reaction that will set the tone for bin Laden’s legacy. Were these revolutions to produce minimal change in U.S.-allied regimes, this pent up energy will feed right into bin Laden’s ideology and fuel his immortality.