There are too many different narrative threads to keep track of with this bin Laden business. There’s the amazing raid itself. There is the inside story behind the special operations teams that made it happen. There’s domestic politics, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Arab Spring, the War on Terror. The Canadian elections I’m sure fit in somewhere too.
I think the instinct, after the initial euphoria, is to be world-weary and cynical about this news, and to emphasize how this-doesn’t-really-change-the-nature-of-the-threat, etc. Ok, but we must regard this for what it is: a stunning strategic and symbolic military victory. Dan Drezner has a good list of reasons why this is a big f***ing deal. Two highlights I want to comment on:
1. Pakistan: Up to now Pakistan’s blatant frenemy routine with the U.S. could only be played alongside at least a veil of plausible deniability, or with a helpless shrug from Pakistan’s civilian leadership indicating that they are simply unable to control those rogue rival nodes of power in the military and intelligence services. But now, as many have noted, are we to possibly believe that the most wanted man in the world can move himself and his family and his bodyguards and his couriers unnoticed into a giant walled compound a few blocks away from a prestigious officer training academy, in a garrison town swarming with military and intelligence personnel? There was no suspicion or curiousity about a heavily fortified mansion that receives no internet or telephone signals and whose secretive inhabitants never leave and burn their own trash? Is it indelicate to draw the conclusion that Pakistani authorities are either directly complicit, profoundly incompetent, or likely both? Pakistani President Zardari’s op-ed in the Post today is deeply unconvincing and unserious, framing his country as the world’s largest victim of terrorism without acknowledging that elements of his government have done as much to foment terror as to fight it in recent decades.
2. The GWOT narrative: This is a largely symbolic victory, and the benefit is that we may use and interpret it however we like. Why not treat it as a strategic inflection point and reassess the prudence of both the mission in Afghanistan as well as our domestic response to the relative risks posed by terrorism? (Will Wilkinson has a fine related post on "calling it a day" in the War on Terror.)
It is quite true that this doesn’t tidy up our problems in Yemen or Afghanistan or any of the other al-Qaeda franchise outposts. And it is equally true that leadership decapitation has a very uneven record when it comes to sapping the virility of terrorist or insurgent groups. But the regional context in which this particular decapitation occurred is crucial. We are now in the midst of the greatest popular civil/political upheaval the world has seen in a generation, with millions of Arabs rising up and demanding their political rights and individual freedoms. Just as the tenets of bin Ladenism are being repudiated in practice throughout the region, the leader himself is taken out.
Bin Laden claimed to speak and fight for these masses, yet his ideology killed or impoverished or immiserated all who came in contact with it. These masses are now overthrowing the very despots al-Qaeda’s progenitors vowed to topple; the so-called near enemy. Yet they are accomplishing it not with the nihilistic logic of suicide murder and car bombs, but by means of civil protest and demonstration, asserting their claims to dignity and opportunity and justice and free expression. In these people we witness the very essense of civilization and common humanity; a great enemy of both has finally been silenced for good.