If your understanding of our mission in Afghanistan was that the entire operation was to capture or kill bin Laden, then it will seem as if the mission has been accomplished. All of our problems have been solved. Finis.
Not that the death of bin Laden isn’t a good thing. The monster is dead… or is it? I have often said that bin Laden was a poster child, a lightning rod for those who share his world view. Those people are still alive. All of the pieces that have been assembled over the years are still in place. I’m sure that morale is currently low and anger is correspondingly high. Bin Laden was, indeed, more than just a poster child. But he was obviously not exerting the same degree of command and control that he had at one time. Al Qaeda was still plugging away, doing the things that al Qaeda does.
What does this mean to Afghanistan? Well, I’m sure that morale is higher amongst the troops. My morale is higher… in a way. The question of whether or not this is a game-changer remains to be seen. Is this going to change what the local insurgent commander or shadow provincial governor in Afghanistan does? Probably not. This is waaay above his pay grade.
I’ve had the opportunity to speak with a lot of Afghans about bin Laden. First, they never viewed him as being their main problem. Sure, bin Laden supported the Taliban. Al Qaeda funded, recruited, equipped, trained and fielded a “brigade” that fought against the Northern Alliance in the years prior to 9/11. That much we know. Al Qaeda and bin Laden were shielded from the rest of the world and provided for by the Taliban when the Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan. In recent years, al Qaeda wound up with better relations with the Haqqani network than they did with the Quetta Shura Taliban. At least it appeared so. Admittedly, al Qaeda’s actual presence in Afghanistan was limited to a couple of hundred individuals. Afghans have more immediate problems with people who do intend to stay there and rule them, such as Gulbuddin and Mullah Omar.
I don’t think that the death of bin Laden is a game-changer in Afghanistan.
External support for the Taliban and/or their affiliates may suffer in some way, but I’m in no way convinced that this will be disabling to the Taliban, et al, in any meaningful way. It does not change the threat to Afghanistan from the Taliban, Haqqani and Hizbi Islami Gulbuddin (HiG). Nor does it defeat the criminal patronage networks. It does not magically improve the capability of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA). The degradation of even al Qaeda remains to be seen.
The many Afghans I had the opportunity to speak with over the years I’ve spent in Afghanistan expressed concern that if we ever did catch up with bin Laden that it would be to the detriment of Afghanistan. Already, there are calls in Congress to abandon Afghanistan. While this is predictable, it is shallow and short-sighted. These calls have been coming from a not insignificant group for some time.
Once the complexity and difficulty of Afghanistan became clear, the “good war” came under fire. Most of us who were personally involved in Afghanistan while it was still the “forgotten, good war” (as opposed to the “bad war” in Iraq), knew that the goodwill towards Afghanistan would wane as the nature of the conflict proceeded to baffle the minds of the ill-informed and idealistic. Now there is a more plausible reason to declare victory and abandon Afghanistan to its fate, as if it will never again influence the world it is a part of. This opportunity to cut and run will not be wasted, and it will likely gain adherents rather than lose them.
It boils down to the struggle between two schools of thought. One contends that the world hates us (particularly Muslims), and that they have good reason to. This school believes that withdrawal and accommodation will assuage this hatred. This school of thought argues that instability does not impact other nations, and certainly is not a threat to the national security of more developed countries.
The other school of thought agrees that instability, in a globalized world that is only getting smaller, has the demonstrated ability to provide festering grounds for non nation-state actors who are now capable of exporting violence on a scale that was formerly the realm of nation-states. Japan used six aircraft carriers and over 400 planes to cause a similar number of American dead in the attacks on Pearl Harbor; this compared to four aircraft-cum-cruise missiles acquired for the price of a few airline tickets on 9/11. That was not the last attack, nor has Afghanistan been the only country to harbor such plotters. But we have seen what “leaving Afghanistan to its fate” has accomplished for us.
Predicting the future is impossible. Could the “Mission Accomplished” crowd be right? I don’t have a crystal ball, but I don’t agree with them. So my answer is, “No.” What we have done in the past was not successful.
So what does the death of bin Laden mean?
It means that we have had some measure of revenge. We have had some resolution for part of our anger. We have cut the head off the snake, and whether that snake is a hydra or a cobra remains to be seen. Many insurgent leaders have been killed in Afghanistan, only to be replaced by less reticent commanders who were more brutal than the ones who we killed. Will that happen with al Qaeda? Only time will tell. We cannot predict that.
More damage may be done to al Qaeda by the “Arab Spring” uprisings in the Middle East than by the death of bin Laden. Al Qaeda has called for uprisings against the regimes in power for years. Al Qaeda wished to inspire general uprisings based upon Islamic rage, not upon the principles of personal liberty and government accountability. The uprisings of the past few weeks in the Middle East were not at all what al Qaeda and bin Laden wished to inspire. If regime changes in the Middle East replace repressive regimes with an opportunity for hope, the very hopeless rage that drives young men into the arms of al Qaeda will come unglued. The death of bin Laden is icing on that cake.
The final results of the Arab uprisings in the Middle East are far from clear. This could still all go horribly awry. The United States has an opportunity to support the development of enduring institutions, non-military institutions, in these countries. In our recent history, our first answer has been to provide military assistance. But the lack of responsive, accountable institutions has been a key factor driving the disaffected to seek solutions to their problems that often wound up being religiously driven. Who can save you from hopelessness? God. Whatever name to use to refer to God, when the world is too big and too hard, many seek explanations and solutions from religious leaders. Christians have had many such as Jim Jones and David Koresh. Muslims have had such leaders as well, and those who find themselves seeking solutions to the intractable problems of their world are drawn to them. Bin Laden counted on these people as his recruiting base.
What happens if this base suddenly gains hope from another source? What happens if they create and sustain institutions that provide accountability and responsiveness? What happens if the governments and economies of these countries begin to offer opportunities and hope? Bin Laden was already beginning to lose his appeal. Now that he is dead, his survivors in al Qaeda will have to deal with this lost traction.
Our struggle remains with competing visions of our role in the post-Cold War world. The death of bin Laden does not end that argument, but will add artificial lubricant to the side which espouses self-centered navel gazing above striving to find a productive way to add to stability in a shrinking world.