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After Osama bin Laden

The long-term consequences of the Al Qaeda leader's death will be complicated and not always what Americans hope for.

May 03, 2011
(Pete Souza, White House )

The dramatic killing of Osama bin Laden after a 40-minute gun battle in a Pakistani hill station mansion is, as President Obama rightly said, a triumph of justice. It is a symbolic and historic milestone in the war on terror, marking the end of a frustrating, decade-long manhunt.

By continuing to pursue Bin Laden years after 9/11, the United States sought to demonstrate that it has staying power and won't be outlasted by its enemies, including Bin Laden and his successors. That's an important message from a country with a reputation for losing interest in its overseas entanglements before they are fully resolved. The killing of such an elusive and implacable enemy lends credibility to Obama's declaration that "we will never tolerate our security being threatened, nor stand idly by when our people have been killed."

But the long-term consequences will be complicated and may not be exactly what Americans hope for or expect. Obama went to great pains in his address to say that the killing of Bin Laden was not an act of war against Islam. But that was a preemptive remark; he knows well that some in the Muslim world might not be so nuanced or discriminating in their view of the operation.

How Pakistan will respond is of particular interest. Bin Laden's move to that country from Afghanistan has led to the spread of the U.S. war effort across the border, especially in the form of targeted assassinations of suspected terrorists. Although Obama praised Pakistani counter-terrorism efforts in his statement Sunday night, Pakistani intelligence services are widely believed to harbor Al Qaeda sympathizers. Pakistani officials opposed to U.S. operations on their soil will no doubt cite the killing of Bin Laden as further evidence that the necessity for U.S. raids has lessened.

Bin Laden's death also could affect the pace of U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan. Obama has promised to begin the redeployment in July, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has set 2014 for the handing back of all responsibility for security. The rationale for the war is to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a haven for Al Qaeda. Bin Laden's death doesn't undermine that objective because Al Qaeda is a loosely organized force that will survive decapitation. But in public and congressional debate, Bin Laden's death could lead to pressure for a faster withdrawal or serious political negotiations with the Taliban.

Beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan, the killing of Bin Laden is likely to reverberate in countries touched by the Arab Spring — Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere. It's unclear to what extent the opposition forces in these countries harbor Islamic fundamentalists in Bin Laden's mold, but Yemen already is a haven for an Al Qaeda offshoot, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; the killing could embolden the group to launch more terrorist attacks in the United States. In the Gaza Strip, the Islamic militant group Hamas has been under pressure in recent months from several more radical, Al Qaeda-inspired groups; perhaps that's part of the reason that Hamas leaders Monday were so quick to denounce the killing of Bin Laden.

After the attacks of 9/11, the world seemed — at least the way President George W. Bush explained it — very simple. There was us and there was them. There were the forces of good and the forces of evil, and everyone was expected to choose sides.

Today, it's clear that the Islamic world is a much more complicated place than Americans once thought it was, and that it's changing rapidly. In the intervening 10 years, the United States fought an unpopular war in Iraq and became bogged down in Afghanistan. Relations with Pakistan, a critically important ally, are badly strained, and the Arab Spring is changing the political landscape of the Middle East in ways that are not yet understood.

Bin Laden's villainy was obvious, but other enemies are more shadowy — if they're enemies at all.

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