Not Just a Figurehead
What Osama Bin Laden's death means for al-Qaida and for U.S. relations with Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Also in Slate, Daniel Byman analyzes the future of Al-Qaida, Anne Applebaum applauds America's use of human intelligence over expensive technologies, and John Dickerson notes the silence from those who criticized Obama's military tactics. And don't miss Christopher Hitchens' article on Bin Laden's legacy, or David Weigel's coverage on the scene outside the White House. For the most up-to-date-coverage, visit the Slatest. Slate's complete coverage on the Osama Bin Laden assassination is rounded up here.
The killing of Osama Bin Laden is no mere act of symbolism. Besides finally disposing of the world's No. 1 terrorist target and idol, the deed opens up some opportunities for a broader breakthrough in the war against al-Qaida—and, potentially, for a settlement of the war in Afghanistan.
An important caveat: Bin Laden's presence and influence were much diminished in recent years as he had to isolate himself from network technology (lest he reveal his location) and as his movement fractured into increasingly self-directed franchises. Bruce Hoffman, counterterrorism expert at Georgetown University, notes that, historically, decapitation has had little impact on the fate of violent organizations. Capturing Saddam Hussein, for instance, did nothing to impede the Iraqi insurgency.
And yet, Bin Laden was not just the nominal leader of al-Qaida but its holy and enduring inspiration. As Peter Bergen noted on CNN Sunday night, those who join al-Qaida take an oath of fealty to Osama Bin Laden personally. Some followers will find sustenance in his martyrdom, but others must have awakened today demoralized or at least disoriented.
On the leadership level, al-Qaida's loose hierarchy, which has been in one sense a source of resilience, could spur a trend toward breakdown and dysfunction. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian who has served as Bin Laden's No. 2, may regard himself as the heir to the throne, but he, too, has long been on the run (probably also in Pakistan) and less able to transmit orders speedily. He may also be feeling a bit more paranoid today than yesterday, and he may regard his affiliates—in Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere in the region—less as comrades in a cause than as rivals in a power struggle. Skilled diplomacy, to say nothing of a few more Navy SEALs, could exploit this moment—though it may last no longer than a moment—to heighten the insecurity and exacerbate the fissures.
In and around Afghanistan, it's a near-certain bet that officials and commanders are re-opening lines of contact with various Taliban factions to test whether they might now be more amenable to cutting their ties to al-Qaida. The timing for such probing is ripe, according to David Kilcullen, a prominent counterinsurgency consultant. Some of those ties (for instance, Mullah Omar's) have been based on personal relationships with Bin Laden—and may not be transferrable to others in an organization full of what many followers see as Arab interlopers.
U.S. commanders (as well as President Barack Obama) have long said that the war in Afghanistan will end not with a decisive military victory but with a political deal. Reconciliation has been offered to any Taliban fighters and leaders who agree to break off from al-Qaida, abandon violence, and abide by the Afghan Constitution. The death of Bin Laden—and the fact that it was caused by a daring U.S. raid in a demonstration of U.S. strength—could nudge some Taliban to reassess the war's costs and benefits.
Another angle in Afghanistan: President Hamid Karzai must be worrying that Bin Laden's demise will create political pressures for the United States to declare victory and go home. This may be the best time in years for Obama to exert leverage on Karzai to enact the political reforms—providing services to his people, cleaning up corruption, firing incompetent ministers and district leaders—that he has persistently resisted but that are necessary if NATO's counterinsurgency strategy is to have the slightest chance of succeeding. (Can Obama's new ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, be sent over there right away?)
A key player in all these calculations is Pakistan, where most Taliban leaders (and many of their fighters) have sanctuary. It is very clear that the raid on Bin Laden's compound has put Pakistan in a spot, but it is not immediately clear what kind of spot.
The fact that Bin Laden has been living not in a cave along the mountainous Afghan border but rather in a highly secure compound 30 miles from Islamabad—in a city of 1 million people that includes not just a slew of military officers but the site of Pakistan's military academy (its equivalent of West Point)—raises suspicions, to say the least, about the complicity of Pakistan's political and military leaders.
Even if Bin Laden's stay had been arranged by mid-level officers, someone of higher rank would surely have taken a look at this huge house—eight times larger than any other in the area, flanked by two security gates, surrounded by walls 12 to 18 feet high and topped with barbed wire—and at least asked, "What's going on there?"
The question, and for now the biggest unknown, is whether Pakistan's leaders—political and military—were embarrassed and gratified, or defiant and angry, when Obama called to tell them that he'd just killed Bin Laden and how.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph by AFP/Getty Images.