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Osama bin Laden’s death and its impact on U.S. foreign policy

Osama bin Laden was killed Sunday in a daring raid into a wealthy suburb of Islamabad, Pakistan. While there will be a lot of information to process in the coming weeks  — bin Laden’s personal history, his impact on global security, the particulars of al Qaeda’s operations and so on — there are, broadly speaking, five key takeaway points when assessing the impact of bin Laden’s death on U.S. foreign policy.

Osama bin Laden in a 2002 broadcast for Middle East Broadcasting Corp. Photo: AP/MBC via APTN

This won’t end the war on terror

While bin Laden was instrumental in al Qaeda’s rise as the world’s most feared terrorist group, he hasn’t had much of a role in the organization’s day-to-day operations for several years. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s second in command, handled most of the operational planning. And while al Qaeda relied heavily on its senior leadership during the 1990s, the terror group has been largely decentralized since 2001, and there are now semi-autonomous cells operating in Yemen, Somalia, North Africa, even in Iraq (and hints of cells growing in Europe). Even within Pakistan, the major terror groups — such as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Toiba (Let) and others — looked to al Qaeda for inspiration but did not rely on them for training and operations. While bin Laden is dead and gone, his organization and its offshoots are very much alive.

This won’t end the war in Afghanistan

President Obama has said the war in Afghanistan is all about al Qaeda — and while it’s true that al Qaeda continues to set up shop inside Afghanistan — the war in Afghanistan is really about the Taliban. As Kandahar-based researchers Alex Strick van Linschoten and Feliz Keuhn have argued (pdf), the Taliban is very much a separate organization from al Qaeda, and there are signs of a growing division between the groups. If nothing else, the senior leaders of the Taliban (Mullah Omar, Jalaluddin Haqqani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and others) do not take marching orders from al Qaeda. Even with bin Laden gone, the war against the Taliban (and its justifications) remains.

Now, there is the possibility that President Obama will use bin Laden’s death as a chance to accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. troops, but it is important to keep in mind that the on-the-ground reality of the war in Afghanistan hasn’t changed. After all, the Taliban is still launching attacks, and the process to remove them as parties to the conflict remains murky, at best. So the impact that bin Laden’s death will have on al Qaeda’s operations will not significantly alter the fundamental dynamics of the war against the Taliban.

What Pakistan did (or didn’t) know

There are conflicting reports about the raid. President Obama went out of his way to note that he informed the Pakistani government only after the fact. The discovery of bin Laden living in relative luxury — and in close proximity to the Pakistan Military Academy (their West Point equivalent) — raises some truly troubling questions about what the Pakistani government knew about bin Laden’s whereabouts before Sunday’s raid. Former President Pervez Musharraf famously told CBS’s Lara Logan in 2008 that he “wasn’t much looking for” bin Laden; Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Pakistan’s foreign minister, told Wolf Blitzer in 2009 he had no idea where the terrorist was living (when, in fact, he was safely ensconced in his Abbottabad mansion). However, it is inconceivable to think that the U.S. could launch a raid near Islamabad and engage in a 40-minute firefight without the Pakistani government’s consent. What remains unclear right now is who in the Pakistani government knew this was happening, and why others, including, apparently, President Asif Ali Zardari himself, were excluded.

The U.S. army isn’t defeating al Qaeda

It wasn’t the U.S. Army that got bin Laden, but an elite team of Navy SEALs. When U.S. forces in Afghanistan decided to eliminate a small al Qaeda base, they didn’t send in a company of Army soldiers; they sent in a small Special Forces team. In 2002, it wasn’t the U.S. Army that arrested Khaled Sheikh Muhammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks; it was the CIA. In the almost decade-long, U.S.-led war on terror, what has become clear is that elaborate military operations are actually not very effective in defeating terrorists. Rather, as Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, an al Qaeda expert, argued this week,  expensive military campaigns are part of al Qaeda’s grand strategy of bankrupting the U.S. The greatest victories over al Qaeda and other terror groups have come via intelligence collection and analysis, police work in the U.S. and Europe, and small, targeted operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. The Special Forces alone cannot win a war, but for a strict counterterrorism mission, nothing beats them.

The next six months are crucial

Bin Laden’s death is an important milestone, but it does not radically alter the big picture from a U.S. foreign policy perspective. Within al Qaeda itself, there will probably be a pause while the leadership reorganizes itself, but that won’t necessarily halt operations that are already underway. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the al Qaeda franchise in Yemen, has been largely insulated from this organizational reshuffle thus far, and considering the role it might play in a post-crisis Yemen, the group warrants close monitoring in the coming months. The summer fighting season in Afghanistan has just begun, and whatever comes of that (we can assume it will be very violent) will undoubtedly affect American perceptions of the region.

Within the U.S., too, there will be substantial changes to President Obama’s national security team. Over the next six months, General David Petraeus will leave Afghanistan to take over the CIA, Leon Panetta will leave the CIA to take over the Department of Defense, and, in all likelihood, someone — we don’t know who yet — will replace Admiral Mike Mullen as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. These moves will substantially reorient Obama’s foreign policy, but it’s yet unclear how. Then there’s Libya, which hasn’t gone away. Nor have the crises in Yemen, Bahrain or Syria.

Finally, there is Pakistan. The militant groups that claim fealty to al Qaeda — the TTP, TNSM (Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi), LeT and others — could face some setbacks as a result of the intelligence gleaned from the computers seized at bin Laden’s compound. But more importantly, the Pakistani government has some very difficult questions to answer regarding bin Laden’s residence in its country and close proximity to its capital at the time of his death. (It is hard to envision a scenario in which Pakistan does not look complicit with bin Laden to some degree.) And the U.S. will have to make some tough decisions about its relationship with its nominal ally in the wake of Sunday’s raid.

President Obama can and should celebrate bin Laden’s demise, but his work is far from over.