War Stories

Not Just a Figurehead

What Osama Bin Laden’s death means for al-Qaida and for U.S. relations with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Osama Bin Laden

Also in Slate, Daniel Byman analyzes the future of Al-Qaida, Anne Applebaum applauds America’s use of human intelligence over expensive technologies, and John Dickerson notes the silence from those who criticized Obama’s military tactics. And don’t miss Christopher Hitchens’ article on Bin Laden’s legacy, or David Weigel’s coverage on the scene outside the White House. For the most up-to-date-coverage, visit the Slatest. Slate’s complete coverage on the Osama Bin Laden assassination is rounded up here.

The killing of Osama Bin Laden is no mere act of symbolism. Besides finally disposing of the world’s No. 1 terrorist target and idol, the deed opens up some opportunities for a broader breakthrough in the war against al-Qaida—and, potentially, for a settlement of the war in Afghanistan.

An important caveat: Bin Laden’s presence and influence were much diminished in recent years as he had to isolate himself from network technology (lest he reveal his location) and as his movement fractured into increasingly self-directed franchises. Bruce Hoffman, counterterrorism expert at Georgetown University, notes that, historically, decapitation has had little  impact on the fate of violent organizations. Capturing Saddam Hussein, for instance, did nothing to impede the Iraqi insurgency.

And yet, Bin Laden was not just the nominal leader of al-Qaida but its holy and enduring inspiration. As Peter Bergen noted on CNN Sunday night, those who join al-Qaida take an oath of fealty to Osama Bin Laden personally. Some followers will find sustenance in his martyrdom, but others must have awakened today demoralized or at least disoriented.

On the leadership level, al-Qaida’s loose hierarchy, which has been in one sense a source of resilience, could spur a trend toward breakdown and dysfunction. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian who has served as Bin Laden’s No. 2, may regard himself as the heir to the throne, but he, too, has long been on the run (probably also in Pakistan) and less able to transmit orders speedily. He may also be feeling a bit more paranoid today than yesterday, and he may regard his affiliates—in Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere in the region—less as comrades in a cause than as rivals in a power struggle. Skilled diplomacy, to say nothing of a few more Navy SEALs, could exploit this moment—though it may last no longer than a moment—to heighten the insecurity and exacerbate the fissures.

In and around Afghanistan, it’s a near-certain bet that officials and commanders are re-opening lines of contact with various Taliban factions to test whether they might now be more amenable to cutting their ties to al-Qaida. The timing for such probing is ripe, according to David Kilcullen, a prominent counterinsurgency consultant. Some of those ties (for instance, Mullah Omar’s) have been based on personal relationships with Bin Laden—and may not be transferrable to others in an organization full of what many followers see as Arab interlopers.

U.S. commanders (as well as President Barack Obama) have long said that the war in Afghanistan will end not with a decisive military victory but with a political deal. Reconciliation has been offered to any Taliban fighters and leaders who agree to break off from al-Qaida, abandon violence, and abide by the Afghan Constitution. The death of Bin Laden—and the fact that it was caused by a daring U.S. raid in a demonstration of U.S. strength—could nudge some Taliban to reassess the war’s costs and benefits.

Another angle in Afghanistan: President Hamid Karzai must be worrying that Bin Laden’s demise will create political pressures for the United States to declare victory and go home. This may be the best time in years for Obama to exert leverage on Karzai to enact the political reforms—providing services to his people, cleaning up corruption, firing incompetent ministers and district leaders—that he has persistently resisted but that are necessary if NATO’s counterinsurgency strategy is to have the slightest chance of succeeding. (Can Obama’s new ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, be sent over there right away?)

A key player in all these calculations is Pakistan, where most Taliban leaders (and many of their fighters) have sanctuary. It is very clear that the raid on Bin Laden’s compound has put Pakistan in a spot, but it is not immediately clear what kind of spot.

The fact that Bin Laden has been living not in a cave along the mountainous Afghan border but rather in a highly secure compound 30 miles from Islamabad—in a city of 1 million people that includes not just a slew of military officers but the site of Pakistan’s military academy (its equivalent of West Point)—raises suspicions, to say the least, about the complicity of Pakistan’s political and military leaders.

Even if Bin Laden’s stay had been arranged by mid-level officers, someone of higher rank would surely have taken a look at this huge house—eight times larger than any other in the area, flanked by two security gates, surrounded by walls 12 to 18 feet high and topped with barbed wire—and at least asked, “What’s going on there?”

The question, and for now the biggest unknown, is whether Pakistan’s leaders—political and military—were embarrassed and gratified, or defiant and angry, when Obama called to tell them that he’d just killed Bin Laden and how.

We do know that Pakistan played no role in this raid. As a “senior White House official” revealed in a press briefing Sunday night, the Obama administration kept Pakistanis (like everybody else outside a very small group of U.S. officials and special-ops forces) totally in the dark about the attack until afterward—no doubt for fear that Bin Laden might be tipped off if they were notified in advance. Obama tried to soften the edges in his televised speech, saying “that our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to Bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding.” But this could refer to the two countries’ broad cooperation, not to any specific action, and even so, it only “helped” lead us to Bin Laden.

Obama said in his speech that he’d called President Asif Ali Zardari after the raid and that his team had also spoken with their Pakistani counterparts. “They agreed,” Obama said, “that this is a good and historic day for both of our nations.” Yet this sentence, too, is a bit vague, starting with just who “they” are. Did all the Pakistanis in those conversations agree that this was a “good” day, or did some of them think otherwise? Ex-President Pervez Musharraf, our great former ally of many years, denounced the raid as a flagrant violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. Surely he’s not alone in this sentiment.

Will Pakistan’s current leaders react by getting serious about rounding up top-level jihadists in their midst? Or will the attack embitter powerful factions in the government and alienate them further from the notion of an alliance with the United States?

Much may depend here on the leaders’ calculations about their own domestic politics. According to a Pew Global Attitudes poll taken in December, support for Bin Laden among Pakistani Muslims has plunged deeply in the last few years—from 52 percent in 2005 to 34 percent in 2008 to a mere 18 percent in 2010.

Similar declines have occurred in other predominantly Muslim countries, except for Nigeria, where support for Bin Laden has remained strong—at about 48 percent of those polled—and fairly level.

This, too, creates an opening for a possible breakthrough, or at least a further breakdown in support for al-Qaida and its affiliates. Many have noted that the “Arab spring,” with its protests against Western-backed dictators and its prospects for democracy or at least some form of political transformation, had no backing whatever from al-Qaida. The very fact of the protests, and their consequences, in fact contradicted al-Qaida’s central premise—and source of appeal—that only violent jihad could expel these tyrants. Bin Laden himself was conspicuously silent during the protests. Many commentators, Western and Arab, wondered if the spring spelled doom for al-Qaida. Bin Laden’s doom amplifies the question.

Then again, whatever the trends in the medium-to-long term, the death of Bin Laden may well spawn greater violence in the short term. His survivors and successor-wannabes may feel a great need to pull off a large attack, or a string of small attacks, against Westerners or Western interests—to demonstrate that they are still alive. There may, in fact, be a competition among the rivals to see who can pull off the biggest or fastest attack. (This may be why the State Department has issued a travel warning.)

In Afghanistan, the Taliban announced last week that their spring offensive was about to commence. The most militant will no doubt proclaim that their most successful strikes were done in the name of the latest, greatest martyr..

The war on Osama Bin Laden is won, and that significant. The struggle against those like him is not yet over. But the end may be closer than it was before.