“Al-Qaida. Bin Laden. Old news. This is the time to move forward.”
So said President Obama’s counterterrorism adviser John Brennan on Monday, and his words couldn’t be more true.
For Americans, for President Obama, for the landscape of security threats we face, for the war in Afghanistan, bin Laden’s death is a game-changer. Yes, there is still a terrorist threat, but the death of this killer changes so much in such fundamental ways.
For Americans, this news is like the lancing of a huge boil that finally allows a wound to heal. Bin Laden has been an American obsession for a decade, a reminder that, for all the blood and treasure expended in the Iraq and Afghan wars, the mastermind of 9/11 remained free, and we couldn’t catch him.
He had come to symbolize a nagging sense that America no longer had the competence to manage its security. We let him elude us in Tora Bora. We made a mess in Iraq, and failed to stabilize Afghanistan after a decade of fighting. And all the while, bin Laden was supposedly laughing at us from his cave.
The success of this complex mission restores belief in American competency — among our own citizens, and abroad, where that belief was also eroding.
The cool nerves of the Navy SEALs, who switched to a backup helicopter after the first one suffered mechanical failure, are inspirational. They also help erase the memory of the U.S. helicopter failure that doomed the Iran hostage rescue three decades ago.
Besides giving Americans a much-needed morale boost, the death of bin Laden finally allows us to see him for what he was, a leader far less invincible than myth would have it. The image of the indomitable ascetic has been smashed as we learn he was living comfortably in an urban mansion.
Moreover, the timing of the takedown reminds us that he was in hiding even as the revolutions sweeping the Arab world were carrying on without him.
These revolts were not inspired by al-Qaida. Nor have the grassroots groups fighting Mideast autocrats looked to the group for inspiration. Bin Laden had become almost irrelevant to the upheavals shaking the Middle East.
That is not to say he was an insignificant figure. He was the world’s most important terrorist leader, and provided the inspiration and ideology for al-Qaida central and its many global franchises. But his death finally frees us to put this terrorist movement in perspective.
Al-Qaida is not (and was not) invincible. Bin Laden’s likely successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is not a fighter, but an intellectual who is unpopular with many jihadis, and is unlikely to inspire recruitment the way his predecessor did.
With bin Laden gone, “we have a lot better opportunity to destroy the organization and to create fractures within it,” says Brennan.
Yes, terrorism will remain a threat in many parts of the world and reprisals for his death are likely. And al-Qaida groups in Yemen and North Africa will still try to mount operations in Western countries. But with their corporate chief gone, and virtually irreplaceable, it is easier to combat these smaller terrorist franchises in their local or regional context. The problem becomes more manageable.
The GWOT (global war on terror) is over, as we knew it. The problem has been cut down to size.
Of course, this leads us to questions about the war in Afghanistan. This war was billed by Obama as aimed at destroying al-Qaida, and creating enough stability in Afghanistan to prevent the return of the Taliban, who might offer shelter to al-Qaida again.
We all knew the real problem lay in Pakistan, where al-Qaida leaders were hiding, even though Pakistan’s intelligence agency denied it. Now they can’t deny it anymore.
Thus, the death of bin Laden opens up whole new possibilities for ending the Afghan war.
For one thing, it puts enormous pressure on Pakistan’s military and intelligence officials to stop protecting militant leaders. Bin Laden was living in Abbottabad, a large city near Pakistan’s capital and home to many retired military officers, along with its top military academy.
It beggars belief that Pakistani intelligence was unaware of his presence. As Brennan noted, “It is inconceivable that bin Laden did not have a support system in a country that allowed him to stay there for a long time.”
The killing of bin Laden makes clear to Pakistani officials that if they won’t go after top Islamist leaders themselves — whether al-Qaida or Afghan Taliban — we will. It also opens up new opportunities for a political solution to the Afghan war.
How so? Now that the United States has proven it can and will find extremists who kill Americans, Afghan Taliban leaders may feel more vulnerable and more willing to negotiate for a peace settlement under terms that Afghans find acceptable. And the operation may jolt the Pakistanis into finally realizing that they can’t maneuver their Taliban protégés back into power in Kabul.
Perhaps this is too much to hope for. Yet bin Laden’s death clears the air for more realistic thinking, about terrorism, Afghanistan — and our ability to cope with our security problems. Bin Laden is dead and America is finally free of his shadow. Time to move on.