The death of Osama bin Laden today is a welcomed breath of fresh air in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theatre for the U.S. in general and the Obama Administration specifically. Osama’s death vindicates America’s sacrifice of time, resources, and effort in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It also provides the Obama administration a huge political boost after being hammered left and right on the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, the administration’s ineffectiveness in the Middle East, high oil price, and various other domestic and international headaches.
The biggest temptation for the Obama administration, which it has to avoid, is to gloat and hang the “mission accomplished” banner. While we cannot underestimate the impact of Osama’s death on global terrorism and al-Qaeda in particular, it is also dangerous to overestimate the impact of his death.
First, let us talk about the impact of Osama’s death. It, of course, will have a devastating impact on Al Qaeda’s morale. No longer will it feel invulnerable, as they now know their top leader can be killed by the US. Sure, Osama had prepared the organization for his eventual demise by developing a cell-based system, which prepared the organization for his ultimate demise by granting subordinates some freedom of action. That said, it cannot be denied that his ability to escape from being captured by the strongest nation on earth was his biggest appeal. Everyone loves the “David vs. Goliath” tale, especially as long as David prevails. Now that “David” is dead, al-Qaeda will have more difficulties in finding new recruits or replacing Osama with someone else as charismatic or as influential as he is. It is not far-fetched to argue that the al-Qaeda will be finished as a major player in global terrorism.
Now the bad news: The death of Osama will not eliminate Obama’s headache in Afghanistan. The Taliban in essence is a local independent entity working together with al-Qaeda, and so Osama’s death may be a blow to the Taliban’s morale, but not as much as if they lost Mullah Omar. Worse, Osama’s death may actually lead to two things: the Taliban might increase its assertiveness in order to show the U.S. that they are not badly impacted by Osama’s death; and the U.S. public might heighten its expectation that America’s military involvement in Afghanistan will end in near future. The public’s mood on Iraq soured rather quickly because it expected a quick end to the conflict after the stunning defeat and capture of Saddam Hussein. Osama’s death may create this kind of euphoria, which could be dashed very quickly as the Taliban keep causing trouble in Afghanistan, regional politics remain at flux, and Karzai’s government remains ineffective.
One other reason to be cautious is that the only reason why the Pakistani Intelligence Agency was willing to help the U.S. to kill Osama is that al-Qaeda is not that important for them. It is one thing for the Pakistani Intelligence Agency to sacrifice Osama, but it is a vastly different matter for them to sacrifice the Taliban’s top leaders such as Mullah Omar. For Pakistan, Osama is just another pawn to sacrifice in their cosmic struggle against their real enemy, India. Now that they delivered Osama to American hands, there will be expectations that the U.S. will pull out and will leave both Afghanistan and Pakistan alone. On the other hand, it would be simply irresponsible for Obama to just pack up and leave Afghanistan, even though it is highly probable American public demands for Obama to leave Afghanistan will keep increasing. To be sure, the discord between the US and Pakistan on the matter of Afghanistan will not be over any time soon.
The second piece of bad news is that the U.S. and other nations may find very fragmented global terrorist movements that are no longer controlled or answerable to Osama. While Osama’s demise may be a death blow to Al Qaeda’s network, it will free up local terrorist organizations. No longer do they need to follow or to get input from Osama.
Following Indonesia’s experience, after the arrest and execution of SM Kartosuwirjo, the charismatic founder and leader of the Islamic State of Indonesia (NII), the movement collapsed and many of its remaining leaders went into hiding. After a few decades, the movement had split into many factions that have their own interpretations of the original teachings of Kartosuwirjo, how to commit Jihad, and how to build a relationship with the government. Such fragmentation on a global level may cause harmful effects due to its unpredictability: each faction will command huge resources, and may pursue actions that Osama might reject in the first place, such as building a link with global criminal organizations that may not share the same faith but possess a similar interest in survival (not dissimilar to Peru’s Shining Path rebels). Some factions may even join up with the unsavory states, like North Korea for instance. Such combinations will create long term problems that the U.S. may not have the will to tackle.
Therefore, it is very premature for Obama to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden. Should Obama believe that by killing Osama he may coast to victory in the 2012 election and all his foreign headaches will disappear, he will find himself experiencing a rude awakening not dissimilar to George H.W. Bush after his victory over Saddam Hussein in 1991.