Big news: U.S. commandos have killed Osama bin Laden. He’s certifiably dead. Never mind the adage that goes: “Don’t believe anything until it has been officially denied.” I belive this news, in part because even Al Qaeda has conceded that it’s true.
Frankly, I thought he died long ago in the caves of Tora Bora, in 2002, and yet I still think his killing now is important news. I think it’s big news even though I have long been saying, it doesn’t matter if he’s alive or dead becuase he’s been irrelevant for years. I never bought the Bush Administration theory that Osama bin Laden was a terrorist mastermind with sleeper cells in every American city and terrorist tentacles in every corner of the globe. I did (and do) believe he was a ruthless, cold-blooded bastard, who was out to spawn a war and succeeded. I did (and do still) fear the violence, chaos, and hatred he helped to set in motion. But I never lost any sleep worrying about Osama bin Laden per se. As a personal threat to me or my loved ones, he ranked somewhere south of lightning.
And yet, I do predict that his death will mark a dramatic change–even though I doubt bin Laden has been directing much of the violence that has been plaguing the world in these last ten years. I don’t even think it’s even al Qaeda stoking the violence anymore. It’s not even radical Islamists. In fact, in the years since 9/11, the proliferating warfare has been driven far more by Western aggression in the Islamic world as by Islamist aggression in or against the West.
But here’s the thing: many American leaders have wanted to extricate the country from this quagmire, but they couldn’t. Domestic politics tied their hands. In the feverish aftermath of 9/11, Bush recklessly declared a shapeless, undefined war against a shapeless, undefined enemy. He then cast himself as the decision-making, mission-accomplishing, butt-kicking cowboy. He soon found he had backed the country into a terrible corner, but by then it was too late. Having whipped the nation into a frenzy, he and his cohorts could not withdraw from war-making until they could say “We’ve won.” And the nature of the war they had declared meant that the “We’ve won” moment could never come. It could not come because there was no specifiable goal, no way to identify victory, no one over whom to triumph.
If you’re fighting another country, you’ve won when you take their capital. If you’re fighting a criminal organization, you’ve won when you’ve captured their leaders and/or shut down their operations.
But in the war-on-terror declared by Bush, the other side was never going to say “We surrender” because there was no “we”. The “other side” was not a state or syndicate or even a fixed entity. It was a condition: a potent brew of poverty, impotence, resentment, humiliation, and anger cooked into a movement by a socially created ideology that had accumulated over time and had come to permeate the Islamic world. No command headquarters were needed to preach it or promote it. Anyone with a grievance could dip into this common store of rancor and take from it what they needed to excite a few cadre into a “mission.”
That being the case, anything the United States did to break the insurgency could only add to the humiliation and resentment fueling the fire on the Muslim side. Fighting the war was causing the war. Fighting it harder was making it burn hotter.
What’s worse, over these last few years, local grievances with a long local history have overtaken the “Jihadist” character of the violence. In Afghanistan, for example, the supposed Taliban have fragmented into a myriad groups driven more by xenophobic localism than be any narrative of apocalyptic struggle. And this is an old drama in Afghanistan, a drama that the United States and NATO cannot solve in the short term. In fact, the growing number of foreign troops in Afghanistan has correlated alarmingly to a growing and spreading insurgency. It’s a quagmire. Everyone knows it.
And yet any U.S. President who simply stopped the war and brought the troops home knew his rivals would say he was accepting a defeat for America and drive him from office. Even those who thought the war should be stopped and troops brought home would say it becuase it would be way to drive this guy from office and take his seat. And then, having driven a president from office for being a quitter, his successor could not do anything but keep fighting.
That’s why the death of Osama bin Laden is such big news. It doesn’t change much of anything on the ground. Al Qaeda had already fragmented and had been superseded by many other groups, and yet the war raged on, hotter than ever. The death of Osama bin Laden has only symbolic importance. But the symbolism is huge. The death of Osama makes Barack the Osama-killer. He can claim credit for achieving the single definable goal of the war on terror which gives him, for the moment at least, political maneuvering room that neither he nor Bush ever had. It gives him the opportunity to say “We won, we can bring the troops home.”
Of course, it’s not as if the world will be filled with peace and light the moment America withdraws its troops from Afghanistan. But that’s another question for another time.