Bin Laden's Death: Triumph or Tumult Ahead?
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On September 11, 2001, I stood on the perimeter of Lafayette Park, gazing across the lawn to the White House for a good long while, on my walk home from a temp job in the National Press Building. The subways were shut down in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The workers of Washington filled the streets, tuned out of their office buildings, many with no way home, moving dazedly along the pavement on a brilliant fall day against a sonal backdrop of screaming sirens.
As I write in the wee hours of Monday morning, the screaming outside the White House comes from a gathering of hundreds of young people waving American flags, hooting and hollering gleefully, in celebration of the death of Osama bin Laden, whose demise at the hands of U.S. troops was announced very late Sunday night by President Obama.
It's hard to overstate the symbolic victory, both for the Obama administration, and for the American people, of the news of Bin Laden's death. And for the family members and friends of those whose lives were taken by the al Qaeda attacks, a sense of justice is no doubt felt by most. All the same, one thing that is easy to overstate is whatever negative impact the Bin Laden killing will have on the daily operations of the terrorist organization he founded, which, according to national security experts, he wasn't really running himself anymore, anyway. Meanwhile, his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawarhiri, remains at large.
But it's also hard to estimate the amount of blowback (or lack thereof) the U.S. and its allies will encounter as a result of the killing. Already there are calls for photos of the body, of which Obama said the U.S. has custody, to be released, an act that would likely serve as an incitement to extremists. Those who think the killing of Bin Laden signals an end to the U.S. war in Afghanistan may want to think again, for it's quite possible that Pakistan will be further destabilized by Bin Laden's death at the hands of U.S. forces on a compound so close to the capital. At this point, the Afghan war is no longer about Afghanistan, which many believe to be a lost cause; it's about the nuclear-armed Pakistan, and maintaining a U.S. presence in a tinderbox region that could blow up a good part of the world.
It's difficult to believe that U.S. could have gone in to the compound in Abbottabad, where Bin Laden was found, without the acquiescence of Pakistan's President Zardari, already a weak figure whose reputation is unlikely to be enhanced by any role he may have had in allowing the U.S. to conduct a military operation on his nation's soil.* The U.S. was unpopular in Pakistan long before it began launching drone attacks on villages in the hinterlands of Waziristan, but repeated operations that yielded civilian deaths have soured even moderate Pakistanis on their government's rather tortured alliance with the Western superpower.
Yet while U.S. intelligence operatives likely located Bin Laden's location via government insiders, the location of Bin Laden's hideout suggests that the late al Qaeda leader had more than a little help from inside the Pakistani intelligence community, where he had always found a significant measure of support. On a reporting assignment in 1998, I arrived in Peshawar, Pakistan, where Bin Laden had set up headquarters. Already in the sights of he Clinton administration for bombings in Saudi Arabia and threats against the U.S., the al Qaeda leader had just issued a de facto fatwa against all Americans and their property. The local paper, the Frontier Post, was rife with breathless stories of CIA operatives darting through the local bazaar. The operatives, it was said, knew where Bin Laden was, but he was untouchable because of the support he had in the Pakistani intelligence community.