Monday, May 2, 2011

What Bin Laden's Death Means

Bin Laden's death at the hands of American special forces sheds insight in two ways: learnings for the present, and implications for the future.

The Present (Answering the question "What does this demonstrate about the current state of the world?"):
1) Arab Muslim Sentiment: There has been little Arab outrage over the death of Bin Laden, or any other signs of upswollen support for the Al Qaeda movement. It's a sign that Al Qaeda has low popularity among the Arab Muslim world, which will cause it to be increasingly marginalized: "grassroots" movements like Al Qaeda rely on some popular support for both resources and sanctuary. It's a sign that Al Qaeda's message of global Jihad is falling on relatively deaf ears... and a sign that its ability to commit high-casualty transnational attacks is severely limited (as much as from pressure in Afghanistan as from losing the "propaganda war" for the hearts/minds of the Arab Muslim population).

2) Pakistan: one must be asking, "How did Bin Laden make it for nearly 10 years in Pakistan without being caught?" He wasn't even deep in a remote mountain area; he was in a relatively safe and populated town near Islamabad (people less than 1km away were tweeting about the noise from the American helicopters). Is Pakistan's intelligence service lacking in competence, or loyalty? Did Bin Laden have inside help? The US will need to figure this out.

Implications (Answering the "So What?"s hanging out there):
1) Al Qaeda Leadership: Damaged some, though not necessarily in any serious operational capacity. Al Qaeda became a relatively independent "cell" network that did sometimes interact with central leadership, but not terribly often. Tactics are generally left to the cells, and strategic (even if not "visionary") leadership is currently delegated to regional authorities (like Al Qaeda of the Arabian Penninsula, Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb, etc).

Visionary leadership may well end up being lacking for Al Qaeda, but it may have been lacking for some time now. Bin Laden's grainy audio messages to go bomb this country or that country have largely failed to inspire any results, even if a few extremists were inspired to try.

2) The ground situation in Afghanistan: Little to no effect. Al Qaeda has been driven into Pakistan, and NATO is currently fighting a nationalist Islamist movement (the Taliban) rather than a transnationalist movement. The Taliban are certainly "bad guys" in the Western moral sense (in a much more clearly morally outrageous way than, say, the Viet Cong), but don't answer to Bin Laden and largely don't support his views of transnationalist Jihad. The Afghanistan "ground" situation won't change--the US hasn't beheaded the Taliban's leadership.

3) US Strategy: Ultimately, the signs are generally pointing to the fact that we may be slow to accept: that Al Qaeda, while still technically "in existence," is largely eliminated as a threat to the US. Other Islamist networks exist (in Algeria, in Yemen, in Saudi Arabia), but they have little traction to go transnational.

Not because of Bin Laden's death, but based on leading indicators from the response worldwide to Bin Laden's death, it may be increasingly clear: the War on Terror is won. Transnational terror movements are fractured and unpopular; the Arab world is more concerned with nationalism and democratic reform than it is with beating back the spread of Western culture through jihad.

Not to say there aren't many, many problems remaining in the Middle East. The US cannot ignore the region, but it can largely move towards a state where it is no longer burning its resources--and losing its sons--to the region.
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