[See Amy Belasco, The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11, Congressional Research Service, March 29, 2011.]
Media started reporting this evening [May 1] that American military have killed Bin Laden in Pakistan.
Of course, it's a big story, a major development in the "War on Terror," and clearly a courageous and competently executed major military accomplishment.
However, the remarkable thing, it seems to me, is not just that the American military, CIA and its allies have succeeded in killing him, it is that it has taken us nearly 10 years to track him down and do so.
Especially is this so when we discover that he was found, not on the run, moving from cave-to-cave in northwestern Pakistan, but inside a million-dollar compound with 12-18-foot walls, a few blocks from a military academy (the Pakistan version of West Point), 40 (or 75?) miles from the national capital. (Photo credit: T. Mughal/European Pressphoto Agency and New York Times.)
The White House, having learned its lessons regarding the limitations on the persuasive capacity of birth certificates, reports that our military apparently has not only the paperwork and photos, but is prepared to show the world Bin Laden's DNA and body.
Oh, they're not? They "buried" his body at sea? They're now saying, "Trust us. We've matched his DNA. Sorry about the body"? Oh, well, never mind. Maybe the White House didn't master the birth certificate lessons as well as first thought. Maybe they will soon be making public Bin Laden's long-form death certificate.
But the story is being hyped by the media I've been reading and watching as the virtual end of our "War on Terrorism" -- a "Mission Accomplished!" as it were, and a cause for jubilation.
That part is not clear to me, at least not at this point.
(1) Al Qaeda is not a hierarchical organization, like the U.S. Department of Defense, or a major corporation with a single CEO. Bin Laden has not been "running" the day-to-day operations of Al Qaeda. Nor will his replacements do so. Think a U.S. presidential campaign, or the "environmental movement" -- thousands of people sharing a belief, an ideology, a goal, who are otherwise pretty much on their own in coming up with activities they think will advance that end. Bin Laden has been a symbol, an icon, "the founder," a way to increase tee shirt sales by displaying his photo. This role was not buried at sea; it will, if anything, increase following his death. Think Elvis, and how much more money he earns in death than he did in life. ("The King's earnings after death topped what he made while alive by 1988." "Richest Dead Celebrities," Feb. 23, 2011.)
We need to pay attention to the statement by Ehsanullah Ehsan, spokesperson for the Pakistani Taliban: "If he [Bin Laden] has been martyred, we will avenge his death and launch attacks against American and Pakistani governments and their security forces. If he has become a martyr, it is a great victory for us because martyrdom is the aim of all of us." Issam Ahmed and Owais Tohid, Osama bin Laden killed near Pakistan's West Point. Was he really hidden?; The world’s most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden, was not hiding in a cave along the lawless border with Afghanistan, as many believed. Instead, US forces killed him 75 miles north of Pakistan's capital, Islamabad," Christian Science Monitor, May 2, 2011.
So much for the blow we've struck against Al Qaeda; a loss, for sure, but one that provides advantages to Al Qaeda as well, and increased risks to us.
(2) To the extent the movement needs a leader, there lots of "second in command" to fill that role.
(3) Indeed, there is as great a likelihood -- if not more -- that his having been killed will increase terrorist recruitment and intensify terrorist attacks against America and its allies, rather than reduce them. To the extent there are both moderate and extremist elements in that part of the world who express objection to Americans' values, our military presence, their civilian deaths from our unmanned but well-armed drone planes, what they view as our offenses against Islam (e.g., the minister's burning of the Koran), there is no reason to believe their hostility toward us will change for the better.
That does not diminish the courage, extraordinary skill and accomplishment of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), including Navy Seals, or the congratulations, awe and appreciation they are owed.
But it may mean that we should moderate our celebration and postpone the jubilation until we get a firmer fix on what Bin Laden's death means for our future.
We're still awaiting the President's promised remarks at this point in time. Presumably he'll cover many of these points -- and possibly move me to have more to say.
[May 2, 2011, 9:25 a.m.: The text of his remarks is now available, "Remarks by the President on Osama Bin Laden," Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, May 2, 2011. Apparently he felt that was not the time or occasion to address some of the issues raised above.]