James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Seven Questions After the Death of bin Laden

by James M. Lindsay
May 2, 2011

A vendor walks past a sand sculpture of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden created by Indian sand artist Sudarshan Patnaik on a beach in Puri in the eastern Indian state of Orissa May 2, 2011

A vendor walks past a sand sculpture of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden created by Indian sand artist Sudarshan Patnaik on a beach in Puri in the eastern Indian state of Orissa on May 2, 2011. (Courtesy Reuters)

CNN’s “Global Public Square” asked me to comment on Osama bin Laden’s death. My response is available here as well as over at CNN.com:

Americans are cheering the surprising news that U.S. Special Forces have killed Osama bin Laden. The successful military operation is a tribute to the skill of U.S. Special Forces, the perseverance of intelligence professionals who have hunted bin Laden for more than a decade and the nerve of a president to order a military strike that could have failed spectacularly.

The strike on bin Laden’s compound also raises lots of questions.  Here are seven:

1. Does bin Laden’s death cripple al-Qaeda and jihadist terrorism more broadly? Probably not. Al-Qaeda long ago ceased to be a centralized operation. For the last decade bin Laden has been a figurehead than a mastermind. Terrorist attacks, like the bomb plot that German authorities broke up last week, have been planned and carried out by largely independent al-Qaeda “affiliates.” Nonetheless, U.S. Special Forces might have picked up valuable intelligence as they scoured bin Laden’s command post that could help uncover terrorist cells and plots.

2.  Can you kill a symbol? In announcing bin Laden’s death late last night, President Obama noted that “For over two decades, bin Laden has been al-Qaeda’s leader and symbol.” Men die, symbols don’t. In death, bin Laden will continue to inspire jihadists as much as he did in life. The biggest threat to bin Ladenism comes not from American bullets but from the prospect that the Arab spring will remake the political order in the Middle East.

3.  Where is Ayman al-Zawahiri? With bin Laden dead, his chief lieutenant and the man frequently described as al-Qaeda’s “brains” goes to the top of the most wanted listed. Zawahiri reportedly was gravely injured in a missile strike in Pakistan in 2008. Given his deep operational experience and cunning, the Egyptian-born Zawahiri is more than capable of plotting major terrorist attacks on his own.

4.  Is Pakistan a reliable partner for the United States? President Obama said last night that “our cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden.” But the White House didn’t notify the Pakistani government in advance and Pakistani troops did not participate in the attack. Bin Laden’s compound was located just forty miles north of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad—or about the distance from Washington to Baltimore—in a city that hosts a Pakistani military base and military academy. Expect to hear more doubts inside the Washington Beltway about the value and viability of the U.S.-Pakistan partnership.

5. Can we leave Afghanistan now? Sometime in the next several months, President Obama will decide whether and how fast to draw down U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan. Last week the Pentagon reported mildly optimistic news about progress in the Afghan War. Bin Laden’s death gives the president the political opening to order the sizable drawdown that public opinion polls show that most Americans want. He has always justified the war in Afghanistan in terms of defeating and dismantling al-Qaeda, and he can say that with bin Laden’s death that goal has been achieved.

6.  Will Obama benefit politically from bin Laden’s death? The president’s public approval ratings have slipped recently after enjoying a modest bump earlier in the year. Expect another bump in the coming weeks as the public gives the White House credit for a job well done. But if past “rally-‘round-the-flag” dynamics hold true, the boost that Obama gets from bin Laden’s death will be short-lived.

7. Will our current bipartisan moment last? John Boehner, Dick Cheney, and Rudy Giuliani are just a few of the Republican luminaries who have congratulated Obama. As John Kennedy once noted, victory has a thousand fathers. But don’t expect this moment of unity to last. The issues dividing Democrats and Republicans are too deep to be bridged by the death of the world’s foremost terrorist.

Asking these questions does not diminish the significance of what the Obama administration accomplished yesterday. Killing bin Laden brings closure to the families who lost loved ones on 9/11. It shows that terrorists will pay for their crimes. Justice was done.

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  • Posted by EddieJoe

    Thanks for your thoughtful post. One thing I’d like to add is that, while you can’t kill a symbol, the narrative of bin Laden’s death will become its own symbol, and this new symbol will alter what bin Laden represents to al-Qaeda, America, and the world. The zeal of jihadists will no doubt continue to be enflamed by bin Laden’s legacy. The zeal of al-Qaeda’s opponents will no doubt be enflamed by the U.S. military’s victorious operation in Abbottabad yesterday. The nature of the conflict will have to be redefined to accommodate this new, powerful event.

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