Tonight, at 11:35pm EST on a Sunday evening, President Obama announced that Osama bin Laden is now dead, thanks to U.S. action taken within Pakistan. This is a tremendous breakthrough in America's self-proclaimed "war on terror," and certainly newsworthy. More importantly, it is a rare but special moment of justice for all of the families who lost loved ones a decade ago. From a practical foreign policy standpoint, however, this development unfortunately raises more questions than it puts to rest.
First is the question of whether drone strikes in Pakistan will stop. According to the President, bin Laden was killed by a coordinated attack in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The President did not directly address the matter, but he did say the kill was successful thanks to coordination between the Pakistani and American governments. It would seem that as of right now, killing Osama bin Laden will not preclude further drone strikes or any other covert operations within Pakistan's borders, since additional al-Qaeda cells are operating in the country -- as long as the Pakistani government continues to provide such assistance as is necessary. If anything, the demonstrated success of using drones to at least locate, even if not kill, bin Laden will suggest to many in the CIA, Department of Defense and White House that their use is a cost-effective measure that clearly can deliver results.
Second is the question of how U.S. military engagement in the Middle East will change. Will forces be pulling out tomorrow? Absolutely not. Will the latest version of the timetable established by the White House be accelerated, bringing troops home sooner? Most likely not. Our troops will remain right where they are, at least for the foreseeable future -- and if they are brought home sooner than expected, it will not be thanks to Osama bin Laden.
This leads into the third question -- how this will impact al-Qaeda. The President said the organization, headed by Osama bin Laden, has been disrupted by our intelligence operatives and military personnel. The reality, however, is that the organization has nevertheless been running strong for the past ten years since 9/11, and of course longer before that. It is as much a matter of discussion in academic and policymaking circles today as it was then -- indeed, my class on terrorism this semester at the Fletcher School dedicated entire class periods to the study of al-Qaeda's ideology, activities and structure. In particular, the death of bin Laden will have little effect on the organizational hierarchy of al-Qaeda, which is sufficiently hydra-headed to ensure continuity of leadership. As it stands, bin Laden was hiding out in Pakistan for the past half-decade or so, and al-Qaeda has continued on. His death will not change anything.
There are additional questions that come to mind, and certainly another post altogether will be devoted to whether Osama bin Laden's death has an impact on the threat of nuclear terrorism as the U.S. security and defense establishment understands it. But this is a start. Any and all thoughts welcome.