The execution-style slaying of Osama bin Laden has been touted as a great success for United States intelligence operatives and also for the special operations soldiers, sailors, and airmen who executed the plan. But it also leaves one feeling a bit uneasy about where this is all going now that the world’s most wanted fugitive is dead. A retrospective look at the fifteen year manhunt mounted by the US government estimates that it cost something like $3 trillion to kill him. An effort is being made to confirm that bin Laden was still a very dangerous man, plotting with his associates and “coming up with ideas” about attacking transportation hubs in the US, but there is little to suggest that the aging terrorist was well positioned to mount any effective operations against anyone. As he relied on couriers to communicate his wishes he was not even able to send instructions or advice to his remaining associates in under a week, hardly qualifying him as a hands-on master of terror.
Most Americans have welcomed the death of bin Laden because the reality of his crimes against the American people would appear to be undeniable. That said, there has also been a certain level of unease becoming more evident in discussions of the assassination because an unarmed bin Laden was killed without any due process, a pattern of behavior that has been characteristic of both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. The White House clearly did not want to permit bin Laden to appear in a show trial, in which he would inevitably be the star and would have been able to make a powerful case against US policy.
Many Americans also have begun to question the White House narrative about how and why bin Laden was killed, particularly as the story has changed a number of times. Indeed, the first accounts that he was resisting with an AK-47 in hand have now somewhat mellowed into a version that has him hiding in a bedroom with his son and his wife, where he and they were shot dead. As the president put it in his official statement on the end of the terrorist leader, “After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden.” The word “after” and its placement is significant as it implies that there was some shooting followed by a targeted assassination. The subsequent rapid disposal of the body at sea also will lead to more questions than answers and is already beginning to do so.
But what is particularly disquieting about the bin Laden story is how it is being used by some media commentators and politicians to support the reactionary war on terror policies of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. In the press and on Capitol Hill there have been suggestions that the successful tracking of bin Laden came about because of torture, that the key information that led to his hideout in Pakistan was developed in a CIA secret prison. Demagogic politicians like congressman Peter King are extolling the virtues of enhanced interrogation and calling for more of it.
The fact is, however, that there is no evidence that the significant information that eventually led to bin Laden’s hideaway came through the harsh treatment of anyone. Senator Joe Lieberman and others who have become cheerleaders for the targeted killing are praising the war against terror and are calling on the administration to expand it to include more operations by delta soldiers and navy seals, but they have long favored a more aggressive policy overseas just about everywhere. They may be envisioning and hoping for more assassination operations to kill undesirable leaders in countries that are currently in turmoil, like Yemen and Syria. If that is so, they are opening a door that should remain closed for many good reasons including one in particular: if we start assassinating them they will start assassinating us.
But amidst the euphoria over the death of America’s great enemy, many Americans have, perhaps surprisingly to some, not embraced the more war all the time agenda and instead are seeing the death of bin Laden as an opportunity to restore some measure of normality and sanity to our fractured foreign and defense policies. President Obama has scored a great success in the eyes of most Americans. He has killed the terrorist leader who has been the target of the worldwide thrashing about that US government forces have engaged in for the past ten years. With bin Laden gone, it is time to cash in the political capital and bring about some real change. This should be a liberating moment, a moment of transfiguration, not a recipe for more of the same.
Minus the always overinflated threat posed by bin Laden, there is a good opportunity to end the phony war on terror started by Bush and continued as overseas contingency operations by his successor. The timing is perfect if only the President of the United States has the courage to seize it because the raid casts light on several false assumptions being made by the administration to support continued conflict in Asia. First is the true nature of the relationship with Pakistan, which the White House has seen as an essential ally, an absolute sine qua non for success in Afghanistan. The raid on Abbottabad did not only kill a terrorist and his associates, it revealed the true depth of the folly that the United States is engaged in in south and central Asia vis-à-vis its would-be friends in Islamabad.
Pakistan recognizes that the United States will not remain in Afghanistan forever and is acting in support of its own interests, which means establishing working relationships with every side to every dispute in central Asia. The full story of Islamabad’s concealment of bin Laden may never come out, but no one in the intelligence community who knows anything about Pakistan believes that he was not being protected by someone at some level in the country’s government. If elements in the Pakistani government have been capable of hiding for nearly ten years the man being desperately sought by the US, they are capable of anything in support of their own interests, which should surprise no one.
Pakistan’s understandable failure to fully comply with Washington’s “you are either with us or against us” challenges the other major assumption, that the Taliban can be defeated militarily leading to some sort of viable quasi-democratic regime in Kabul. But with Islamabad playing an ambivalent role and quite likely providing safe havens for the Taliban on its territory there can be no military victory. Taking the two assumptions together and turning them on their heads, President Obama should be coming to the conclusion that killing more young Americans and Afghans while spending billions of dollars in a pointless war is not only a waste of resources, it is a course of action that will likely end up very badly indeed, making bloody and corrupt Iraq look like a model government in a civics class. Obama should take the opportunity provided by the death of bin Laden and the political space that his new-found popularity affords him to declare victory and get out of central Asia. And leaving a battlefront might become addictive, leading to some serious questioning of what is going on in Libya. The removal of the bin Laden threat will not undo ten years of bad policies and persistent blundering but it could well spark a revolution in the way Washington sees the rest of the world and could actually bring about some change for the better. Let us hope that President Obama has both the wisdom and the courage needed to grasp the nettle.