With the death of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, the United States and Western governments scored a major but still underappreciated victory in the nearly decade-and-a-half-old war against al-Qaeda. Bin Laden’s death did not eliminate all of the features of al-Qaeda that make it dangerous as a factor in terrorism internationally. Its role in assisting regional jihadist groups in strikes against local governments and by inspiring “lone wolf” would-be martyrs in acts of violence will remain with us for many years. Yet the manner in which U.S. intelligence and military operatives found and eliminated bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, was devastating to three of the five most critical features of al-Qaeda:
· Its legitimacy as a core organization capable of choreographing catastrophic global terrorist events;
· Its brand name rights as the ultimate victor should any of its loosely affiliated Salafi jihadist regional movements ever achieve success in a local insurgency;
· Its ability to claim that it was the base for certain victory– much one able to less reestablish a credible unfettered training area for global jihad – in the area most critical to its own mystical lore: Afghanistan and western Pakistan;
Bin Laden’s demise also degraded by half – but did not eliminate – the fourth and fifth elements of al-Qaeda’s essence: its role as a “vanguard” of a wider network of Sunni Salafi groups and its ability to serve as a key point of inspiration for “lone wolf” terrorists around the globe. As a consequence, the death of Osama bin Laden has produced an 80 percent solution to the problems that this unique terrorist organization poses for Western policymakers.
This 80 percent solution has multiple, important implications. Globally, it means that al-Qaeda’s growing isolation from alternative, nonviolent approaches to political change in the Muslim world must be reinforced – and is best reinforced – with a deliberate and visible reduction in the U.S. military footprint in Islamic countries worldwide. Washington can best isolate al-Qaeda and limit its ability to reclaim relevance in the struggle for reform in the Islamic world by quietly enabling security forces in Muslim states to counter al-Qaeda affiliates while simultaneously providing judicious and enduring support for Muslim voices for nonviolent political change.
Yet the most immediate implications of the historic development of May 2, 2011, matter to the trajectory of U.S. policy in South Asia. Bin Laden’s demise fundamentally alters the current framework of U.S. and coalition strategy in Afghanistan, and challenges the underpinnings of U.S. policy toward Pakistan. Bin Laden’s unique and pivotal role in grafting al-Qaeda’s aspirations onto the regional and local aims of the Afghan Taliban and extremist groups in Pakistan means that the U.S. understanding of the major security risks in South Asia must change in the wake of his death. Absent bin Laden, the risks of al-Qaeda’s return to unfettered sanctuary in Afghanistan or western Pakistan have dropped dramatically, while the risks of a devastating proxy war between India and Pakistan over their relative positions in Afghanistan continue to grow. The United States and its Afghan coalition partners must better appreciate this altered risk calculus, and reframe diplomatic, military, and economic plans accordingly. The United States must reduce its present focus on killing off every last al-Qaeda affiliated leader or mid-level Haqqani Network operative[i] in Pakistan and pay far more attention to the factors necessary to inhibit proxy war in Afghanistan: an enduring relationship with Pakistan and diplomatic engagement with Pakistan and India on an acceptable political and security framework for Afghanistan into the next decade.
[i]This is not to say that al-Qaeda and the Haqqani Network are the same entity. American policy treats them as different entities and targets each for different reasons. However, I will assert in this monograph that the intense American policy focus from mid-2011 on attacking these terrorists and radicals in Pakistan harms far more important, long-term policy interests in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
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Dr. Thomas F. Lynch III is Distinguished Research Fellow for South Asia and the Near East at the Center for Strategic Research, part of the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies (NDU-INSS). The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government. Portions of this research paper were first presented at the National Defense University – Conflict Records Research Center (NDU-CRRC) and the Johns Hopkins University (JHU) – Center for Advanced Governmental Studies co-sponsored Conference, “Ten Years Later: Insights on al-Qaeda’s Past and Future through Captured Records,” held on September 13-14, 2011 at National Defense University. Dr. Lynch thanks NDU-CRRC and JHU for permission to use some of that material in this paper.