Monday 26 Feb 2018 | 04:47 | SYDNEY
Monday 26 Feb 2018 | 04:47 | SYDNEY

The ripples of bin Laden's death



3 May 2011 08:28

The crimes of Osama bin Laden on 11 September 2001 had lasting, devastating strategic impacts. His death in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad will also have ripples across the international security landscape — and not all the effects will be benign.

For now, Americans and their friends around the world are variously rejoicing or relieved at the bloody end of this iconic adversary of the civilised world. It would seem a vindication of some aspects at least of the much maligned war on terror. It was fascinating to see President Obama rehabilitating some of his predecessor's martial rhetoric in announcing a successful military operation on foreign soil.

But, perversely, the elimination of bin Laden at this time may turn out to be bad news for the people of Afghanistan.

For the moment, expect American self-confidence to be restored. Even Americans who were children when the Twin Towers fell — including many thousands in uniform — will feel there has been a proper reckoning. In an era of economic gloom and geostrategic uncertainty, where many pundits exaggerate America's decline and China's supposedly unstoppable ascendancy, there will be a willing audience for Obama's boast that an act of patient vengeance proves that America can do anything.

Temporarily, all of this will be a shot of confidence to US and allied forces in their UN-mandated efforts to help Afghanistan provide for its own security. On the eve of the traditional summer fighting season, it is a much-needed morale boost.

It is proof that a decade of hard experience has taught America how to do counterterrorism of the most surgical kind. By all accounts, this was a painstakingly planned and well-executed mission, using intelligence from multiple sources to direct a helicopter-borne combat team.

The message to senior al Qaeda figures as well as the leadership of the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Toiba is simple: wage war and you are safe nowhere.

Certainly, the Abbottabad operation and its rapid announcement by Washington was an exceptional public relations victory in a conflict where the terrorists almost always seem to have the initiative. For once, the website of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — the Taliban's propaganda vehicle — was slow with the news.

Yet there is a risk that these positive consequences will be short-lived. After all, American, Australian and other special forces in Afghanistan have long demonstrated their ability to target terrorist leaders.

In the longer run, the narrative that has propelled the war on terror and the Western presence in Afghanistan may now prove harder to sustain. With America's defence budget under great strain, and a population weary of costly and strategically-questionable military commitments, the constituency for withdrawal from Afghanistan will now grow. 

Political success in America thrives on symbolism and simple narratives. There will have been many Americans who accepted the cost of the Afghanistan conflict is worth paying in order to get bin Laden. Now that he is categorically gone, these voters will see American honour and credibility restored, and might be well satisfied with a military drawdown sooner rather than later.

Of course none of this means that the threat of terrorism has now diminished. The fugitive bin Laden has not been able to direct global terror operations for years. Instead, al Qaeda long ago shifted to a franchise model. Many attacks have been copycat operations by other groups or fanatical individuals. These days, Western agencies are deeply concerned about Lashkar-e-Toiba, the vicious organisation originally groomed by Pakistani intelligence to bleed India in Kashmir, but more recently reported to have been scouting targets in Europe.

Indeed, jihadists everywhere will now feel under pressure to strike back — to show that they are still in the game. They will claim bin Laden as martyr, one reason why President Obama was wise to emphasise that the man was a mass murderer of Muslims.

So, for the time being, there will be a heightened risk of attempted terrorist atrocities in many places. But these are unlikely to be well-planned, sophisticated attacks. They will be desperate deeds. Despite rumours of al Qaeda planning retaliatory 'nuclear hell', it is far from clear why insensate extremists in possession of an atomic bomb would not have used it long ago.

Still, there is every chance of continued terrorism within Pakistan. Whatever the truth about the complicity or otherwise of the Pakistani Government in the lethal American raid, the jihadists are bound to feel betrayed by the Pakistani military that they have sometimes seen as partner.

But it is the rest of the world that should be left deeply worried about the loyalties of the Pakistani security establishment. The fact is that Osama bin Laden had felt secure, for months or years, in a residential compound within earshot of Pakistan's Military Academy, not some remote cave or village. His death confirms that all roads in the struggle against terrorism still lead to Pakistan.

Photo by Flickr user outtacontext.

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