The Death of Osama bin Laden: A Great Day, but What Next?

Just in case anyone missed it last night, Osama bin Laden has been killed in a Special Forces raid inside Pakistan.  This is a historic event of great importance.  How great is still to be determined—and there are numerous unanswered questions still hanging in the air, both strategically and operationally—but there is little doubt that the death of Osama bin Laden will resonate for years, decades, and perhaps even centuries to come.

As would be expected, this event has given rise to a wealth of commentary on TV, in print, and across the blogosphere.  It would be impossible to parse all that has been said in the few hours that have passed since President Obama’s announcement late last night.  While far from a complete accounting, a small sample of what has been said on the matter can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

The operation itself seems to have been audacious, and performed exceptionally well by Seal Team 6, operating under the command of the CIA.  Spencer Ackerman described the operation early this morning at Danger Room:

In a “compound” near an area deep inside Pakistan called Abottabad — not far from the capital of Islamabad — U.S. operatives engaged in a “firefight” with bin Laden’s handlers, Obama said, and killed the terrorist leader. This was no drone strike. It was a “small team” of U.S. operatives, pulling the trigger and delivering what the president called “justice” on a man responsible for the deaths of nearly 3,000 Americans.

According to a senior administration official, the raid itself took less than 40 minutes. Bin Laden “did resist the assault force,” the official says, but was shot “as our operators came into the compound.” A woman was used as a human shield and died in the firefight, along with one of bin Laden’s adult sons and two “couriers.”

The operation was the result of eight months of intelligence work, with Obama giving the order to carry out the operation last week. Obama didn’t exactly specify, but it appears bin Laden’s death is the result of a joint operation by the CIA and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command.

But, just as with the commentary on the event, descriptions of the operation itself, and the team that pulled off the daring feat, are coming in fast and furious and can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

As with any event of this magnitude—and, for once, one that could be considered a genuinely positive development—it would be nice to be able to savor the moment for as long as possible.  If the War on Terror were a movie it would be easy to imagine the credits rolling following President Obama’s announcement and a montage of Americans reveling in the victory, chanting “USA! USA!” in front of the White House and at Ground Zero.  But just as credits did not roll when East and West Berliners danced together on top of the Berlin Wall in 1989, there is a question that will be on the minds of policymakers and thoughtful analysts as this initial euphoria dies down:  what’s next?

One of the first questions on everyone’s mind will be, what comes next for al Qaeda?  Perhaps one of the most interesting comments came last night from CNN contributor Peter Bergen—that the death of bin Laden essentially renders al Qaeda a defunct property.  Bergen is one of the country’s foremost experts on terrorism in general, and al Qaeda and bin Laden in particular, and his opinion is widely respected.  Denigrating al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader Anwar Al-Awlaki as a mere propagandist, Bergen claimed none of bin Laden’s subordinates, nor any of the affiliate leaders, had the cachet value bin Laden brought to the table and that the organization would eventually unravel without his guidance.  Bergen undoubtedly has a point.  Bin Laden was a unique figure having fought in the jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, but there are reasons why Bergen’s proclamation might be premature.

In a case like this, it may be tempting—and not necessarily out-of-place—to draw a parallel between the recent demise of the Tamil Tigers following the death of their founder, and spiritual and operation leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. The Tigers’ ultimate defeat did come relatively soon following his death in 2009 but this would ignore several important factors in the Tigers demise beyond Prabhakaran’s death.  The Tamil Tigers were a geographically contained group—being generally sequestered on the northern Jaffna Peninsula of Sri Lanka prior to their defeat.  There was also a brutal, scorched earth campaign by government forces—which included concentration camps and the indiscriminate killing of civilians—that put the final nail in the Tigers’ coffin.  Al Qaeda is not constricted by geography—seeing as its affiliates operate in several regions and on several continents—and the U.S. military, to their credit, are unlikely to adopt the type of tactics the Sri Lankan military used in its final push in 2009.

Bruce Hoffman seems slightly less sanguine than Berger, and notes that “decapitation strikes” have been generally unsuccessful at destroying the larger organization—particularly if an extensive, independently operable network has been created.  Hoffman cites Algeria’s war for independence as an example—seeing as the French authorities captured the entire leadership of the National Liberation Front in the late-1950s, yet still found themselves unable to defeat the Algerian resistance.  It is very tempting to think that al Qaeda is essentially defunct without a figurehead as powerful Bin Laden, but groups like al Qaeda are resilient.  Considering bin Laden has been on the run for over a decade, it is likely a succession plan was put in place and its “franchise” groups in Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Islamic Maghreb—as well as related groups like Al Shabab in Somalia and Lashkar-e-Taiba—will likely continue to operate as they have for the past few years.

How active bin Laden has been in al Qaeda’s operational planning has long been a source of controversy.  Many see him as a mere figurehead—meaning operations by affiliates and independent groups will likely be able to continue as they are, even with Bin Laden out of the picture.  Of course, without the overriding presence of Bin Laden serving as a rallying point, it may quickly become more difficult for them to continue recruiting young Muslims to conduct suicide operations.

Beyond the fate of al Qaeda following bin Laden’s death, numerous other strategic questions and concerns will come to the fore.

Perhaps most prominently is, what will bin Laden’s death mean for the War in Afghanistan?  The troop increase President Obama announced at the end of 2009 was ostensibly meant to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat” al Qaeda, but the thrust of operations seems to be geared more toward fighting a domestic Taliban insurgency.  As much as the two groups are generally conflated in most commentary on the matter there are significant differences between the two and recent research suggests that the rifts are much larger than previously believed.

The U.S. role in Afghanistan, of course, leads directly to concerns over the future of U.S.-Pakistan relations—which will likely continue to be a mystery.  As Gideon Rachman notes, a U.S. incursion this deep into Pakistani territory will undoubtedly further fuel rumors that American involvement in the region is really a cover to invade Pakistan and seize its nuclear weapons.  Speculation is also rampant that the Pakistani military, elements of the military or intelligence services, sheltered bin Laden and his entourage in a compound constructed in 2005, seemingly made to repel ground incursions, and in a city of 500,000 located just miles from Pakistan’s military academy.  Pakistan’s biggest strategic concern has always been neighboring India.  Does bin Laden’s death lead Washington to no longer find it necessary to countenance Islamabad’s various double games?  And will a U.S.-Pakistan rift lead Pakistan into closer ties with China as America and India cultivate closer relations of their own?

Speaking of China, if bin Laden’s death is truly the end of the War on Terror—or, at least, the beginning of the end—does China then become America’s main strategic concern?  Does the United States revert to—to borrow Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s famous formulation at the end of the Cold War—a “normal country in a normal time”?  Ryan Lizza’s lengthy New Yorker piece that garnered so much attention among foreign policy watchers last week, described an Obama administration that had come into office with the hope it could quickly disengage from the Middle East and focus its energy on Asia and the challenges posed by the rise of China.  Obama certainly has more breathing room to begin a shift in focus now—and has probably garnered sufficient political capital in less than 24 hours to make such a shift possible.  How then, will such a policy, possibly less encumbered by other concerns, take shape?

The questions that arise from bin Laden’s death are too numerous to cover in their entirety, but these are just a sample of what will be on the minds of policymakers, analysts, and academics going forward.  The implications of those questions will become more apparent over time.  For now, it is completely appropriate to celebrate the death of a man who had contributed to so much death and destruction.  It is appropriate for the Obama administration to pat itself on the back for a moment for taking the steps necessary to bring about this state of affairs.  And, most of it all, it is appropriate to show the utmost respect to those Special Forces operators who demonstrated their skill and professionalism in accomplishing their mission nearly flawlessly.


2 comments to The Death of Osama bin Laden: A Great Day, but What Next?

  • Hal

    What is further symbolized by this event is the U.S. resolve to put an end to organized terrorism. Al Qaeda is just one group that has been directly affected (see my posts on Other such groups may start to feel similar effects.

  • Khalid Javed

    1. Osama was merely regarded as a symbol of resistance by several networks independently operating in many countries against presumably a common single enemy i.e., American Imperialism. Ironically, his death is likely to provide an opportunity to these loosely connected groups to gear up support & converge on one agenda (i.e. to avenge his death). The recent wave of terror attacks in Pakistan killing around 100 people is an indication of this.

    2. Within Pakistan, the common people who are bearing the brunt of these terror attacks, common men consider, American presence in Pakistan to be root-cause of all this dismal state of being. The aid or rather compensation for being the front-line state in this terror, hardly has ever reached or affected the life of the common people. The ever-deteriorating popularity graph of the ruling govt in Pakistan also allude to the same. Anyone who is an ally or seems supporting a foreign presence which has made life of the common people, so difficult is regarded an enemy of people. Most of the people want an end of all this…….they want to see Pakistan disengaging itself from this war on terror. Pakistnis are sandwiched between threats of revenge from the terrorists & never-ending demand of DO-More.