One Year after Bin Laden's Demise
One year ago, on May 2, 2011, the elite U.S. Navy SEAL Team 6 unit killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a raid on his hitherto secret residence in Abbottabad, Pakistan. What has been the impact of this event?
Most notable was the exacerbation of the already considerable tension between the United States and Pakistan. For the U.S. government and the American public generally, the discovery of Bin Laden in Pakistan — where he had apparently been living for several years — has heightened suspicion that, despite their many denials, Pakistani government officials not only knew about his presence in their country, but must have facilitated it. For the Pakistani military and security establishment, by contrast, the U.S. military raid that killed Bin Laden was not only an embarrassment for revealing that Bin Laden was comfortably ensconced in Pakistan, but also an affront. The United States undertook it without obtaining prior permission from Islamabad, or even informing the Pakistani government about it until after U.S. forces had exited the country. A year later, Pakistani-American mutual suspicion and mistrust remain intense.
Another impact of Bin Laden’s death has been its effect on American public opinion. The capture or killing of the al-Qaeda leader had been seen by many Americans as one of the most important aims of the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan. A May 2011, USA Today/Gallup poll indicated that nearly 60 percent of the American public saw the achievement of this goal as reason for withdrawing U.S. armed forces from an increasingly unpopular war. American public opinion has not changed in the year since then.
Both Pakistani-American relations and American support for the war in Afghanistan, though, were already souring before U.S. forces killed Bin Laden. His death may have accelerated these developments, but it did not cause them.
Otherwise, Bin Laden’s death has principally been noteworthy for its lack of impact. His demise certainly has not ameliorated the War on Terror. Its component conflicts — Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, etc. — are ongoing. Al-Qaeda itself and its various regional affiliates all continue as well. On the other hand, the death of Bin Laden has not exacerbated the War on Terror either. Consumed by the Arab Spring since its inception in January 2011, the Arab world appears to have barely noticed or cared about Bin Laden’s death.
The Obama administration incurred a serious risk in killing Bin Laden instead of capturing him: In death he could have been regarded as a revolutionary folk hero inspiring others, like Che Guevara after he was killed by Bolivian government forces in 1967. News reports from a year ago made clear that the Navy SEALs could have captured Bin Laden instead of killing him, but they did not. Perhaps the Obama administration did not want Bin Laden to make a circus of his trial and even elicit a degree of sympathy, as Saddam Hussein did after his capture.
But whatever the reason the Obama administration chose killing instead of capture, Bin Laden has so far shown little sign of achieving the status of Che Guevara, still the poster boy for world changers everywhere. And since this has not happened yet, it probably isn’t going to.
There is a lesson in all this. Although so many (including Osama bin Laden himself) saw the founding father of al-Qaeda as the mastermind directing a global jihad against America and its allies, he was really more an exploiter than a leader. What Washington needs to do now is focus on ameliorating the conditions in the Muslim world that Bin Laden was able to exploit so that anyone seeking to emulate him has less opportunity to do so. Sooner or later, someone is bound to try.
Mark N. Katz is the author of Leaving without Losing: The War on Terror after Iraq and Afghanistan (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012) and the multi-part series The War on Terror In Perspective.