If he were still alive today, Osama bin Laden would no doubt be quietly celebrating in his Abbottabad bunker. Three years after the al Qaeda founder was killed by US forces and his body floated to the bottom of the North Arabian Sea, bin Laden’s own strategy for "degrading and destroying" his enemy continues to succeed.
As President Obama involves the American people in another hasty and legally dubious war in Iraq with no clear end point, it’s useful to go back and look at what bin Laden had said the first time the US embarked on this course of action under Bush. Bin Laden had always been surprisingly candid about his game plan when it came to his struggle against America.
It’s common knowledge by now that bin Laden and those who would form al Qaeda and the Taliban cut their teeth in the Soviet war in Afghanistan during the 1980s. However, it wasn’t just battlefield experience that bin Laden had mined from Russia’s doomed foray into that treacherous country – the war had also given him insight into how to go about toppling a superpower.
Reflecting on his time in Afghanistan a year and a half after the US’ invasion of Iraq, bin Laden noted that his struggle with the Soviet Union had given him and other future al Qaeda fighters "experience in using guerrilla warfare and the war of attrition to fight tyrannical superpowers." In this way, they had "bled Russia for 10 years until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat." In that same way, he explained, al Qaeda was now "bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy" by goading it into involving itself in every skirmish in the region. "All that we have to do is to send two Mujahedin to the farthest point East to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda in order to make the generals race there," he concluded. The US would subsequently "suffer human economic and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note."
Despite bin Laden’s openness about his strategy, American policymakers – driven by a combination of hysteria, hubris and inertia – have appeared to do their utmost to play into bin Laden’s hands. In 2010, Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes estimated the cost of the Iraq War at $3 trillion at the least, while a 2013 report from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government put the combined total of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars at between $4 and $6 trillion. This enormous cost has played no small part in the US’ debt crisis, which has seen its credit rating downgraded for the first time in history – something not even the economic devastation wrought by the Great Depression was able to do – and has routinely put the country on the brink of government shutdown.
President Obama’s decision to re-intervene in Iraq in order to "degrade and destroy" ISIS is just the latest episode in the process of America’s gradual overstretch in the name of combating terrorism. Since bin Laden’s prophetic statement, in order to stymie potential terrorist threats wherever they may be found, the US has: carried out drone wars in several different countries; intervened for the sake of regime change in Libya; armed rebel groups in Syria; and expanded its military presence in Africa. This is alongside the substantial military aid the US provides to states around the globe, as well as the ongoing costs of maintaining the world’s biggest and most expensive military – a little over $700 billion a year over the last few years.
What makes this particular intervention stand out is how quickly it has escalated. What began with humanitarian airdrops and the sending of around 300 "advisers" to assist the hapless Iraqi army has, in a matter of months, morphed into airstrikes that will last indefinitely and approximately 1,600 American personnel in Iraq – and if history is any indication, it’s doubtful this mission creep will stop here. Even more problematic is the fact that these measures are a result of exactly that which bin Laden described 10 years ago – an American overreaction to terrorism that will ultimately cost the US far more than the extremists who incited it.
With ISIS in ascendance, it has become the inheritor of al Qaeda’s role in more ways than one – not only in terms of is public profile, but also in the part it’s playing in inducing American overreach. After all, it’s clear that the calls for action against ISIS are less a product of the actual threat it poses and more of precisely the kind of thing terrorism excels at – its ability to strike irrational fear into otherwise clear-thinking individuals. ISIS numbers a relatively puny 30,000 fighters at the most, is unable to wield much of the high-powered weaponry it’s collected, and has no way of striking within the US itself. To boot, intelligence and security officials haven’t been shy in pointing out that it poses little to no threat to the US homeland.
Instead, much of its reputation is based on a sophisticated media campaign waged by the extremist group, of which its graphic videos of hostage beheadings are perhaps the most crucial part. The images of innocent American and British journalists and aid-workers being brutally murdered on camera, coupled with ISIS’ relentless publicization of its military successes, have helped create the image of a vicious, savage and barbaric juggernaut that cannot be reasoned or bartered with – and American policymakers appear to have swallowed the hype.
ISIS has already been deemed "the most lethal and powerful terrorist group ever to have existed" by one congressman, been likened to Bond villains by another, and declared to pose an "imminent threat to every interest we have" by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. It’s this kind of hyperbole which has pushed a war-weary American public to reluctantly support military action against the group. The Obama administration, ever sensitive to being labeled "soft" or "weak" on terrorism, has quickly followed suit. As bin Laden had said about al Qaeda’s "spectacular gains" in bringing the US to gradual bankruptcy, the group itself could never justifiably claim wholesale credit for this success – "rather, the policy of the White House that demands the opening of war fronts….has helped al Qaeda to achieve those enormous results."
When bin Laden died, he quickly became a figure of widespread ridicule, diminished by revelations of the squalid nature of his final years and the decline of al Qaeda. Yet as long as the public and its leadership allow themselves to be panicked into military action, instead of relegating bin Laden and his goals to the obscurity they deserve, they will only ensure that – even in death – he is more successful than he could have ever imagined.