Can We Now Learn the Real Lesson of Bin Laden's Death?

05/05/2011 10:01 pm ET | Updated Jul 05, 2011
  • Johann Hari Author of 'Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs'

Scramble the film backwards. Rewind. Go back to the day 10 years ago when the air here in Manhattan was thick with ash and Osama bin Laden was gloating. There were two options for the United States government -- to pick up a scalpel, or to pick up a blowtorch. With the scalpel, you go after the fundamentalist murderers responsible with patient policing and intelligence work, and steadily drain them of their support. With the blowtorch, you invade a slew of countries with a great blunderbuss of slaughter and torture -- and swell the army of enraged jihadis determined to kill. History branched in two possible directions that day.

We know which Osama bin Laden preferred. He wanted to draw the West into endless bloody wars that hemorrhaged billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives. He told his supporters: "We conducted a war of attrition against Russia for 10 years until they went bankrupt. We are continuing in the same policy -- to make America bleed profusely to the point of bankruptcy." To achieve this, "all we have to do is send two mujahideen [to a remote, irrelevant area] and raise a piece of cloth on which is written 'al-Qa'ida' in order to make the [US] generals race there, to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses." He knew that every ramped-up attack would appear to vindicate his narrative about the "evil" West waging "war on Islam" and swell his army of recruits.

When bin Laden's favorite son, Omar, defected, he told many unflattering stories about his father -- including that he tortured his pets to death. So it's highly unlikely to be a double bluff when he explained that the day George W. Bush was elected, "my father was so happy. This is the kind of president he needs -- one who will attack and spend money and break [his own] country."

The West reacted to 9/11 by giving bin Laden precisely what he wanted. We tossed aside our best values, making them look like a hollow charade. And every time we did it more, the number of jihadis grew. The detailed studies by terrorism experts Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank have found that the invasion of Iraq, and the torture used there, caused a seven-fold increase in jihadism globally.

Yet last weekend, we saw how it might have been. The operation wasn't perfect: I would much rather bin Laden had been taken alive and put on trial, rather than summarily executed. But it was a precise raid. It took real risks to minimize the deaths of civilians. It didn't use torture. Most people in the world can support an action like this. This should have been the primary -- and almost certainly sole -- use of violence in response to 9/11. Instead, over a million people have died in the torrent of aggression. They were just as innocent as the civilians in the World Trade Center, and their families will never get their day dancing in the streets in vengeance over the men who ordered it.

I wish I could say that this is the contrast between Bush and Obama -- but that wouldn't be honest. This raid was an anomalous moment in Obama's foreign policy. Most of the time it has been a clear continuation of Bush's -- and in several crucial areas, a ramping up of it. He has doubled the troops in Afghanistan. He has more than trebled the aerial bombardment of Pakistan and Yemen, even though it kills 50 civilians for every alleged jihadi -- and creates far more jihadis in the process. There is still no end in sight in Iraq -- where 50,000 U.S. troops remain, and Obama has canceled the deadline for bringing them home -- or in Afghanistan, where the war is entering its tenth year. Osama bin Laden is dead, but our foreign policy is still giving him what he wanted. We are still bleeding cash, creating bleeding countries and more enraged people.

Why? Even General David Petraeus, the new head of the CIA, says there are only 100 al Qaeda fighters in the whole of Afghanistan. One senior military official, speaking to the Washington Post, compared their intelligence on them to "Bigfoot sightings." Crunch the numbers, which the conservative writer George Will reported recently, and you find we are spending $1.5bn a year on each al Qaeda fighter in Afghanistan. Is there anyone alive, except the private defense contractors making a fortune, who thinks that is a sensible use of cash?

The angry, fighting people who really are in Afghanistan are -- according to leaked CIA reports -- simply "a tribal, localised insurgency" who "see themselves as opposing the US because it is an occupying power". They have "no goals" beyond Afghanistan's borders. It's not hard to see why they fight. The situation in Afghanistan is now so dire that even the president installed as a puppet by the U.S., former oil-man Hamid Karzai, has been reduced to begging the occupying forces: "Stop bombarding Afghan villages and searching Afghan people!" while publicly threatening to "join the Taliban."

The fear that the country will become a hive of "jihadi training camps" after a withdrawal is based on a basic fallacy. First, they don't need training camps. The 9/11 attacks were plotted in Hamburg and Florida using box-cutters. The 7/7 attacks were plotted in Yorkshire. Bin Laden was living in a mansion. Second, there will always be somewhere in the world to set up training camps -- from Somalia to Yemen to Pakistan. The logic of this position is to invade and indefinitely occupy all the world's most dangerous places -- bin Laden's plan to the letter.

Many people are angrily asking whether the Pakistani authorities knew about bin Laden's presence. But few people are asking how our governments' actions may have made this more likely. For the past three years, the U.S. -- with the support of her allies -- has been sending unmanned robot-planes swooping over the country, incinerating thousands of civilians and increasing jihadism. When the country experienced its worst floods in living memory, it was used as a pretext to increase the bombings. If that was happening in your country, would you be more or less likely to cooperate with the people attacking you?

If we want to be able to dump bin Ladenism at sea, rather than just his corpse, we need to stop pursuing the strategy of expensive aggression he longed for. For the past decade, right-wingers have been chest-thumping about being tough on jihadism, while promoting policies that create far more jihadis. It's like bragging about how much you hate lung cancer while demanding everybody smoke forty cigarettes a day.

If you really hate jihadism -- as I do -- then you need to search for the policies that actually undermine it. The single most important thing we can do to undercut the jihadis is to make a key structural change in our societies -- by breaking our addiction to oil. Today, we need the petrol from the Middle East to keep the wheels of our civilization turning -- and that sets up an inevitably conflict. The people of the Middle East want to control their own oil, and spend the revenues on their own societies. We want to control the oil for ourselves. Only one can prevail. For our governments to win, they have to support the suppression of the Middle Eastern peoples, no matter how inspiring their democratic revolutions, and instead arm and fund their vilest tyrants, like the Saud crime family. This is going to create shards of violent hatred of us for as long as the policy continues.

As soon as the news of bin Laden's death broke, I headed to Times Square here in New York, and witnessed a scene that hinted at these complexities. A 28-year-old man was darting through the cheering crowds and the weeping fire-fighters selling the Stars and Stripes for $25 each. He was an Afghan refugee named Awal. He told me -- in fractured English -- that he had left "because of the war," which was "very bad", but he loved America "because here you are free." A drunk guy who was standing nearby overheard us and yelled with a smirk: "I'm a marine. I probably killed your cousin!" A few people sniggered; more scowled. Later, some of the crowd began to chant about the troops: "Bring them home! Bring them home!"

Who does al Qaeda really fear in this scene? If we follow the marine's course --- of more callousness and aggression and racist contempt -- the remaining scraps of al Qaeda may yet revive with new rage-recruits. If we follow the path of returning to sanity, they will wither. Bin Laden knew that. We know that. Now that he is gone, will we finally stop playing into his cold, dead hands?

Johann Hari presents a regular podcast, uncovering the news you won't hear elsewhere. You can subscribe via i-Tunes or click here.

For updates on this issue and others, follow Johann on twitter at Johann Hari is a writer for the Independent. To read more of his articles, click here or here. You can email him at j.hari [at] and follow him on Twitter at