So Osama bin Laden is dead. The man who spawned the "war on terror," launched a thousand drones and a new industry called Homeland Security has been shot in the head and killed by U.S. forces at his home in Abbottabad, north west Pakistan. Despite the loss of a U.S. helicopter due to mechanical failure, on the surface it appeared as neat and clean an operation as humanly possible. But nothing that has anything to do with Osama bin Laden, 9/11 and the war on terror can remotely be described as neat or clean and this operation is no exception.
So what was this all about? Why now and why kill the world's most wanted criminal when capturing and putting him on trial would have proven to the world that in the end justice prevails and the U.S. rule of law triumphs?
The U.S. is at a critical turning point in its AfPak end game. U.S. allies in the Gulf region are under siege by radical Islamists. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood poses a major political threat. In Libya they've joined with Al Qaeda and are fighting to topple Kadafi. In Tunisia, Bahrain, and Syria the instability spreads.
On April 27 the Wall Street Journal reported that Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani had urged Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai to dump the United States and look to Pakistan and China for help in making peace with the Taliban and building a viable economy. Preceding that was the bombshell dropped only days before by the International Monetary Fund that predicted China's economy would overcome the U.S. by 2016.
Everything is on the table for the U.S. in its AfPak war, the grand plan that began some thirty odd years ago with the Soviets trapped in their own Vietnam has come full circle but the cards are looking slim. The U.S. wants a long term agreement to stay in Afghanistan after 2014 and has been building bases as it did in Iraq for the long haul. The Russians and Iranians are opposed. They don't want the U.S. military on their border indefinitely. So that's China, Pakistan, Iran and Russia lobbying against U.S. interests. And what are those interests? If it's geopolitical control of the region, how likely is it that China will loan the U.S. the money to make that happen? Not likely. But what about Saudi Arabia?
Osama bin Laden's entire movement was originally about overthrowing the House of Saud. Al Qaeda is said to work with other Saudi dissident groups. There is a lot of pressure to initiate democratic reform in Saudi Arabia. In March one hundred Saudi intellectuals, activists and academics called on the leadership to launch major economic and political reforms. The Saudis didn't need Al Qaeda's poster boy, Osama bin Laden rousing up the opposition at such a critical moment.
The timing raises another question. According to U.S. government files released by Wikileaks U.S. government officials were warned that Pakistan's security service, the ISI tipped off bin Laden whenever his trail got warm. Hillary Clinton voiced suspicions that Pakistan's military knew where Al Qaeda's hideouts were and did nothing to get at them. Did Pakistan finally cross the threshold where the United States could no longer pretend that Pakistan was a trusted ally, or did the timing coincide with a looming deadline that the administration could not ignore.
If President Obama ever needed a touchdown it was now. With polls at an all time low and the frustration of the birther debacle just behind him, bin Laden's killing was a Hail Mary pass. But whether it will resolve anything in the muddle of policy confusion and a growing opposition to American presence in Central Asia is highly unlikely.
For now Washington will bask in the warm glow of triumphalism, just the way it did following the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
But just as George Bush's landing on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln was intended to convey the false impression that the U.S. had actually achieved victory in Iraq, it should be warned to avoid the illusion of triumph, when the victory it seeks is further from its grasp than ever.
Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould are the authors of Invisible History: Afghanistan's Untold Story and Crossing Zero The AfPak War at the Turning Point of American Empire both published by City Lights Books, www.citylights.com.
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