Further Thoughts on Bin Laden’s Death

After posting a quick link on this subject previously, I have some additional thoughts on the events surrounding Bin Laden's death.  Foreign Policy has a good post up by Josh Rogin that covers the events leading up to, and including, the raid on the compound inside Pakistan that killed Bin Laden.  I would recommend checking it out.  But there are some other issues to think of moving forward.

  1. Does his death matter?  Yes it does.  Maybe? Even beyond the enormous psychological impact I think this event will have some substantive effect, but telling how much is extraordinarily difficult.  Although some have noted that Bin Laden has moved away from a more active role in al-Qaeda's operational affairs, I'm still inclined to believe that his death will have a substantive effect on al-Qaeda's activities.  I mean it makes sense that a guy this radioactive would not be able to participate directly in operational issues.  This impact will probably be quite small when compared to the seemingly extraordinary announcement that he has died.  Nevertheless, his death may precipitate a further fracturing of al-Qaeda as leaders within the organization struggle for power and/or break off to form their own splinter cells.  Security will need to be seriously reevaluated by al-Qaeda's captains.  Unless those close to Bin Laden know exactly what went wrong, I would have to imagine that whatever relationships between them and their friends in the Pakistani government will become increasingly strained.  However, as others have noted, the fragmented nature of al-Qaeda organizations and their operations suggests that the impact of this event may be smaller than we would like.    
  2. Gitmo.  Kindred Winecoff has some quick thoughts on what Bin Laden's death means for some of our broader policies.  I think this is an important discussion to raise, given that (as Kindred notes) some evidence is suggesting that information that led to Bin Laden's death was obtained from detainees at Guantanamo Bay.  I think this really cuts to the heart of how we evaluate particular policies–if this information is accurate, then do we deem the Guantanamo policy ("enhanced interrogation", rendition, etc.) as a success?  As much as we might like to say that the proper way to evaluate a policy is by measuring the success that it yields, we also need to figure out how we balance these "successes" against the, well, "unsuccesses" that have also come out of it.  There has arguably been enormous collateral damage done by this policy in particular, and I suspect that the weighty significance of Bin Laden's death will be used to further justify this policy.  While it is tempting to use this as a yardstick by which to measure the policy's success, it's important to keep in mind that it may be extraordinarily difficult (if not impossible) to quantify the damage that this policy has done (or not done) to the United States.  
  3. Pakistan.  Many folks have already discussed what this event means for US-Pakistan relations.  The fact that Bin Laden was found in such a massive compound, and so close to the seat of power, does make it a bit more difficult to explain away the Pakistani government's and the ISI's failure to track Bin Laden.  It's unclear to me the extent to which either the Pakistani government or the ISI were involved in these most recent events, though Josh Rogin's article suggests that nobody outside of the US was involved until the event was initiated.  Failing to inform the Pakistanis may stem from two places:  1) we can't trust them, or 2) provide them with sufficient cover so as to prevent a significant backlash.  This NY Times article suggests that the Pakistanis helped to "develop" intelligence that led to the raid, but that they were not directly privy to intelligence about the compound.  As I'm not involved in these discussions, I can't say for sure, but I suspect that there is a desire to keep the ISI around–even in spite of the negative reputation it's developed.  They may be better than having no other assets in the area.  The devil you know, mayhap?
  4. Bin Laden's digs.  This is a smaller point, but I think the revelation of where Bin Laden has been hiding out is interesting, and not because of what it suggests about his relationship with officials in the Pakistani government.  Most of the video footage that we see of Bin Laden tries to portray him as a real salt-of-the-earth kind of guy.  So to find that he has been hiding out for some time now in a fairly elaborate compound in an affluent area of Pakistan reminds us that this guy came from less than humble origins, and that he still had access to a significant amount of capital and support that his compatriots did not.  The bottom line–maybe his death will remind folks that Bin Laden was an aberration/anomaly in terms of the personal protection that can be afforded by a terrorist leader.  Not to say he's alone–it makes sense that the guy at the top of the heap would be well protected, but I think this says something about the reality underlying his image as another brother in the struggle against the great satan.  
  5. Bin Laden's sendoff.  Although I half expected that his body would be rolled out and burned in front of a live studio audience, I have to commend the (reported) way in which his body was disposed of.  I'm sure that there are a lot of people out there that will say he didn't deserve it–maybe so.  But I think that it sends a pretty incredible message and stands in stark contrast to the video tapes that were circulating just a few years ago depicting individuals being decapitated.  

Personally I think this is pretty momentous and incredible, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't simultaneously feel a pit in my stomach while watching the utter jubilation unfold on TV last night.  It's not that I don't understand it, but there's just a degree of personal tension there.  I really think the most significant aspect of this event is not the massive rallies or excitement, but recognizing how, in spite of all of the chaos and destruction that this man has caused, he will quietly and quickly drift off to the bottom of the sea in the wake of some US Navy warship.  Hunting this guy has cost a tremendous amount of blood and money, and I the ability to resist the temptation to make this a flashier experience is pretty incredible.

Also, could this be why Petraeus is leaving Afghanistan?  

About Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2013. His research focuses on the political and economic determinants of foreign economic and security policy, security issues, and state repression.

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