Put aside, for the time being, the fact that the United States—with a $80 billion-a-year intelligence system, a $600-billion-plus military budget and a vast law enforcement apparatus—couldn’t find and kill Osama bin Laden for more than fifteen years, including ten years since 9/11. It’s wonderful that he’s dead, killed by a US Special Forces team that spent a mere forty minutes on the ground in a military city just thirty-five miles outside Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad.
In the hours and days to come, many of the questions swirling around the events will be answered. Where did the intelligence come from, as long ago as last August, that put the United States on bin Laden’s trail after so long? What role did Pakistan play? Was there any effort to capture bin Laden, or was this simply an assassination team sent in to eliminate him?
There’s little doubt that this is a world-changing event, even though it’s easy to exaggerate the role of Al Qaeda and bin Laden. For years, especially during the Bush administration, the United States inflated Al Qaeda to the level of an existential threat, even though the organization has been shattered since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, with a membership in the hundreds. Even President Obama, who has prudently refused to describe US counterterrorism efforts as a “war on terror,” has himself placed too much importance now and then on Al Qaeda’s role, including in justifying the expansion of the war in Afghanistan. Still, bin Laden’s elimination means that the symbolic leader of Al Qaeda–style terrorism worldwide, and the inspiration for follower and copycat groups in Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, North Africa and elsewhere, is gone.
Along with the victory celebration, manifested concretely in the spontaneous street festival outside the White House at midnight, there’s another reaction building across the country: Now we can come home. The war in Afghanistan, which long ago lost any sane rationale, no longer has even a pretext: even if the Taliban take over—a highly unlikely prospect, even were the United States to pack up and leave—there simply won’t be any Al Qaeda to provide shelter to. If President Obama needs any more reason to order an accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan in July, the killing of bin Laden provides a perfect opportunity to declare victory and end the war.
Lots of questions remain about Pakistan. Since January—when the controversy over a CIA-linked US contractor who killed two Pakistanis erupted—US-Pakistan relations have sunk to new lows. The Pakistanis have stepped up criticism of drone attacks, tightened surveillance of US officials and CIA officers, and recently told the Afghan government to cut back its ties with the United States and join Pakistan and China in brokering a political deal to end the war, one that would involve an accord with the Taliban. Obama says that Pakistan cooperated with the raid against bin Laden, and Pakistani ISI intelligence officials are taking credit and claiming that they took part in the raid, but it remains to be seen exactly how involved Pakistan was in the death of bin Laden. Clearly, Al Qaeda had at least some protection from some Pakistani officials, and sorting out all that will take some time.
For links to The Nation's complete coverage of Osama bin Laden's death, click here.