A few thoughts on bin Laden’s death

What does the death of Osama bin Laden signify? It is naturally premature to assess the importance of the event, but it seems worth considering some aspects related to bin Laden’s death.

A fatal blow for al Qaeda or a Pyrrhic victory?

As mentioned in an earlier post (Al Qaeda: pyramid or hydra?), while the death of bin Laden is a blow for al Qaeda, however, I think this organization resembles a hydra, and there are still many active members spread across the globe. The question is how significant bin Laden was for the organization, and more specifically in galvanizing its adherents. I think there is a danger in believing that bin Laden controlled everything, and that the organization will collapse because of his death. Nevertheless, Al Qaeda has lost its leader, and it will take some time before it can regroup and reconstitute itself with a new leadership, a recognizable figurehead. So while it’s not fatal, it’s still a major victory for the US and the West.

As argued in the post mentioned above, the fate of al Qaeda probably depends more on the outcome of the revolutions in the Middle East. The peoples of the region have rejected both military dictatorships and al Qaeda’s proffered solution of fundamentalist Islamism. They want democracy, liberty and prosperity. If the revolutions turn out well, it will deprive al Qaeda of new recruits. However, if this were to happen, al Qaeda may shift its centre of gravity, as it has already done to some extent, to places like Pakistan and Somalia. The war against al Qaeda isn’t over yet, but there is a chance to weaken it as an organization.

A death that suited everyone?

I doubt that the US government would admit that it had intended from the launch of this operation to kill bin Laden. It would make more sense to explain that bin Laden resisted and fired against the members of the special forces, so he had to be killed. Though it remains the case that capturing him alive would have been a nightmare. A trial would have caused much complications: who, where and how would he have been tried? For al Qaeda, a captured leader probably does not have the propaganda value of a leader fighting until the end and dying a martyr.

Did Pakistan know?

The answer to this question depends on which bits of Pakistan we are talking about, and which bits of Pakistan knew about what. Surely, it is inconceivable that absolutely no one in Pakistan knew anything about bin Laden’s location. Are the Pakistani army and intelligence services so utterly incompetent? It’s probably a mixture of incompetence, collusion, and not wanting to know about it.

Did Pakistan know about the raid? I think it makes sense to hold to a line, even if a lie, that Pakistan knew about and permitted the raid. Otherwise, it can create tensions about a state injuring another state’s sovereignty to capture (and kill) a person. It will be fascinating to see how different messages will be played to different audiences.

Get out of Afghanistan card?

Taliban are a different group from al Qaeda, with a different set of objectives, and it remains to be seen if Taliban in Afghanistan will change their policies. The war in Afghanistan has been a quagmire, and everyone wants to get out as quickly as possible. A deal with Taliban is not inconceivable, but it will be hard to sell to the public, especially if they were to impose the strict Sharia law again, and treat women as savagely as they did previously.

Sea burial

Was it a good idea? This is hard to answer. Humans have a strange capacity in believing what they want to believe. There will be a large number of people who will refuse to believe that bin Laden is dead. Whether King Arthur or the Twelfth Imam, there has been a strong tradition of leaders going into hiding, but would come back in time of need. A shrine dedicated to bin Laden may have been irritating and offensive to many, however, at least it’s more likely that people would have accepted his death as fact.

The following has been added after the initial posting of this article

Bin Laden was unarmed and Pakistan didn’t know

More information has become available, and from various reports, it seems that Osama bin Laden was unarmed, though resisted capture, and Pakistan wasn’t aware of the operation. Was the policy to kill rather than capture? This is a moot point. More serious is the relationship between the US and Pakistan. Keeping Pakistan out of the loop was probably necessary in the planning stages of the operation, but carrying it out without any forewarning may create tension within Pakistan, and between Pakistan and the US. It is interesting that both sides are denying that Pakistan knew about the operation, and presumably both are playing to their respective audiences. It is a clear indication that the US considers Pakistan as a liability than an asset, and Pakistani leadership believes that denying any association with the death of bin Laden is preferable than claiming credit for it. What next for Pakistan? This is the question that may become more and more urgent in the coming months and years.