By William Tucker
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, and at times that doesn’t seem to bad a premise, you are well aware that Usama bin Laden was recently killed by U.S. Special Operations Forces in Pakistan. The media has covered the raid that resulted in the terror leader’s death since President Obama confirmed the news last night. While the media is very good at telling us what happened (and they will likely persist in covering this story until Charlie Sheen does something ridiculous) we in the national defense industry must focus on what bin Laden’s death means both to al-Qaeda and to the larger geopolitical picture. As an individual bin Laden didn’t mean much, but as a terror leader used by a nation-state he became much more than an armed idealist. We must remember that bin Laden had his successes because his actions were tolerated, and in some instances supported, by a nation-state.
It is here we consider bin Laden as a useful, but expendable individual. When the al-Qaeda leadership was operating out of Africa they enjoyed the patronage of Sudan. When international pressure became too much Khartoum simply gave him the boot. In Afghanistan his government supporters were forced from power, but some in Pakistan (the extent of this is debated) saw an opportunity and seized upon it. An account from a commander of the U.S. Army Special Forces Detachment D, commonly known as Delta Force, claimed Pakistani soldiers grabbed a wounded bin Laden from Tora Bora in 2001 and spirited him across the border. This certainly bolster’s the claim of Islamabad’s complicity. But as happened in the past, bin Laden’s usefulness would run out. Last week Pakistani government officials publicly stated that they intend to take the issue of U.S. drone strikes on Pakistani territory to the UN Security Council because of the destabilizing effect they were having on the country. Five days later President Obama announces bin Laden’s death. In this instance coincidence is highly doubtful.
At issue is the continuing destabilization of Pakistan as a result of the war in Afghanistan. Pakistan and Afghanistan quite literally share a population in their borderlands which essentially means that what affects one will affect the other. These nations are intrinsically linked and no amount of U.S. aid, pressure, or military presence will change this. Further adding to the issue is the need for the U.S. to withdraw its forces and transition its presence in Afghanistan to one that will continue with a counterterrorism focus (as opposed to counterinsurgency). But for the U.S. to withdraw from Afghanistan some semblance of accommodation of its national needs must be met. The best solution for both the U.S. and Pakistan came down to the elimination of Usama bin Laden. Essentially both nations have specific needs that could not be reconciled, but they did have corresponding goals that could eliminate some of the diplomatic strain. The death of bin Laden gives the U.S. enough political cover to complete its withdrawal from Afghanistan by this July which means an end to the drone strikes that cause so many problems for the Pakistanis.
We now turn to the issue of the original al-Qaeda network. A few weeks after the 9/11 attacks the U.S. had managed to kill 80% of the members of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The initial offensive against the network was so devastating bin Laden began spreading money to regional affiliate groups at an increased rate so as to remove some pressure from the group in Afghanistan. This strategy led to an increase in terror attacks around the world, but diminished the importance of the original al-Qaeda core leadership over time. Today we see these regional affiliates, many who carry the al-Qaeda name, as the more active terrorist threat. Bin Laden’s relevance had significantly waned and now with his death it is likely that al-Qaeda will once again morph into something else entirely. This isn’t to say that the group will die, but it will be forced to adapt.
Terrorism is strange phenomenon. Not because it is difficult to understand, but because in the historical record stretching back at least three thousand years it has never worked. It is true to say that terrorist attacks have occurred, but never has a terrorist group realized its overall goal. That is, the actual reasons behind the attacks. Some of these actors have sworn off violence and became legitimate political entities, but active terror groups constantly fail in their goals. Thus far al-Qaeda appears to be no different. The al-Qaeda name will live beyond the death of bin Laden, and the professed goals will live on in one form or another, but the original organization is unrecognizable compared to what was created over twenty years ago. In time a new organization will rise and claim the mantle of al-Qaeda and cycle of terrorist violence will begin anew.
As a comparison we can consider the white supremacist movement in the United States. Groups that once dominated headlines such as the KKK, CSA, and the Order have been dismantled or forced to operate in a profoundly different manner. Both the CSA and the Order began to decentralize as a way to avoid law enforcement and instead of large scale attacks focused on lone wolf strikes. What followed was an uptick in individual violence, but because these individuals did not receive proper militant training they repeatedly failed. The recent uptick in Islamist terror attempts in the U.S. that began in September 2009 bears a close resemblance to this decentralization. In fact, one could easily find the ideas of Louis Beam in the writings of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s magazine Inspire.
In the nearly ten years since the 9/11 attacks Russia has managed to return its influence through many of the former Soviet states, China is asserting itself in the East Pacific, and Iran is working to expand its influence throughout the Middle East. This has occurred primarily because the world’s lone superpower has been fighting a global counterinsurgency.
From the perspective of the U.S., this must change. Understanding this we return to the occasional support of terrorism by the nation-state. We often spend much of our time trying to learn about terrorism movements, their leadership, and their methods of operation, all important things, but we often do this without addressing a simple question. If terrorism constantly fails in its goals, and people are still prompted to participate in this illicit form of warfare, who really benefits? The actions of several regional powers over the last decade show just how important this question is to the U.S. and why the momentum exists to ultimately withdraw from Afghanistan.