Wednesday, May 11, 2011

What does Osama bin Laden's death mean?

Osama bin Laden decided, apparently years ago, to stop running, and elected to "hide in place." It is unclear what led to this decision. One possibility is that he was indeed sheltered by Pakistani leadership who had convinced him that they would be able to tip him off to any impending raid. Thus there was no need to run. Another is that he truly believed his hiding spot was so good that he'd never be found. Lastly, and most likely in my personal view, he may have tired of running. That kind of life would be dreadful. He may have decided that he would hide, but no longer run, come what may. At any rate, the decision ultimately cost him his life and gave the US a great victory.

Aside from the "kept promise" and "justice, no matter the time" messages, what does his death mean, in practical terms, in the war against al Qaeda and the war in Afghanistan?

We are fighting in Afghanistan to prevent the return of Taliban rule. Taliban rule of Afghanistan is intolerable because they are likely to host al Qaeda, who would use that base to launch attacks against us. This is what happened the last time the Taliban ruled, and there is little reason to believe the Taliban and al Qaeda would behave differently given a second chance. While al Qaeda has been devasted since the loss of their Afghanistan base, with many of the top cadre killed or captured, the critical top of the organization, the very few folks who originally built it into the organization that launched 9/11, remained free. If they built it once, they could again. The question is, has the situation changed with the death of Osama bin Laden?

Some things to consider. Al Qaeda, even at its top level, was never a one man show. Bin Laden's #2 man for years has been Ayman al-Zawahiri. Zawahiri had built his own capable and dangerous terrorist organization prior to merging it with al Qaeda. Speaking of 9/11, Montassar al-Zayyat, a former close associate and biographer of Zawahiri, says, "I am convinced that he [Zawahiri] not bin Laden is the main player in these events." Zawahiri, of course, is still at large. In addition, bin Laden and Zawahiri, knowing of their vulnerability, have certainly planned for succession and the possibility that one or both of them might be removed from the battlfield. That might lead one to conclude that there has NOT been any strategic change to the situation.

On the other hand, bin Laden was the founder and leader. He was the key to al Qaeda's foundation and funding. According to preliminary reports, he was still actively involved in planning and coordination of operations and al Qaeda organizations even to the very end. His personal relationship with Mullah Omar was a primary factor in the Taliban hosting and protection of al Qaeda in Afghanistan. His loss is an undeniable and significant blow to al Qaeda.

Too many questions remain for us to draw any long-term conclusions about the effects his death will have. Some include:

--Will al Qaeda retain the ability fund and recruit at a level needed for significant operations without bin Laden?
--Given freedom to operate, does Zawahiri have the ability to reconstitute al Qaeda to be a major threat?
--Are al Qaeda's succession plans sufficient, and will they be able to carry them out effectively?
--Given bin Laden's apparent continued role in planning and coordinating al Qaeda operations, will they be able to continue without him?

For its side, al Qaeda has been quick to claim that they will continue without him. Only time and further intelligence will tell. Much depends on al Qaeda's ability to cope with the loss and adapt to the new reality.

Consequently, until we have evidence that al Qaeda has, in fact, been irreparably damaged, we must continue the current strategy in Afghanistan. I suspect, that by the time the evidence is clear, Afghanistan will be a long way down the road of holding off the Taliban on their own. So my analysis is that this event, while a great victory, does not significantly alter the strategy the US needs to pursue to protect itself from a Taliban/al Qaeda threat.

It DOES present an opportunity for the Taliban to come to the negotiating table. The Taliban have stubbornly resisted calls to publicly sever ties with al Qaeda. It is possible, that this was due to personal loyalty between Mullah Omar and bin Laden. With bin Laden dead, there's a chance that the Taliban could actually, and finally break with al Qaeda. If this happened in a significant and verifiable way, then it would go a long way toward allowing the Taliban to join in Afghan society without continuing armed conflict.

-Card-Carrying American

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