Osama Bin Laden is dead. Did he even matter anymore, and more importantly, where do we–the United States–go from here? That is. can we declare victory in the War on Terror, or is terrorism, like the poor, something we will now have with us always?
Islamic terror pre-dates Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, and the sorry state of Bin Laden at journey’s end highlights how little actual threat the 54-year-old hermit was by the time we served an eviction notice from planet earth on him. As Christopher Hitchens writes:
Ten years ago, did he expect, let alone desire, to be in a walled compound in dear little Abbottabad?
Ten years ago, I remind you, he had a gigantic influence in one rogue and failed state—Afghanistan—and was exerting an increasing force over its Pakistani neighbor. Taliban and al-Qaida sympathizers were in senior positions in the Pakistani army and nuclear program and had not yet been detected as such. Huge financial subventions flowed his way, often through official channels, from Saudi Arabia and other gulf states. As well as running a nihilist international, he was the head of a giant and profitable network of banking and money-laundering. He could order heavy artillery wheeled up to destroy the Buddhist treasures of Afghanistan in broad daylight. A nexus of madrassas was spreading the word from Indonesia to London, just as a nexus of camps was schooling future murderers.
And he decided to gamble all these ripening strategic advantages in a single day.
To be accurate, however, Bin Laden gambled often, but September 11 was the day when he finally hit the jackpot. Had the 1993 World Trade Center attack been as successful as Bin Laden hoped, does anyone doubt President Bill Clinton would have been pressed to move the eventual time-table set in motion in 2001 forward by eight years?
Indeed, Bin Laden in all likelihood expected much of what transpired, although it’s possible he thought he US would act as it did after the Beirut barracks bombing and Mogadishu. We would cut and run. More likely, however, as the Atlantic prognosticates,:
It’s clear that September 11 was intended to create a serious economic setback for the U.S. In a wide-ranging interview conducted by Al Jazeera’s Taysir Allouni in the month following the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden spoke at length about the extent of the economic damage the attacks had inflicted. “According to [the Americans’] own admissions,” he said, “the share of the losses on the Wall Street market reached 16%. They said that this number is a record.” His continued musings reveal how much thought he had devoted to the attack’s economic implications. “The gross amount that is traded in that market reaches $4 trillion,” he said. “So if we multiply 16% with $4 trillion to find out the loss that affected the stocks, it reaches $640 billion of losses.” He knew as well that the damage to America’s stock market was not the only economic impact. Factoring in building and construction losses, along with lost productivity, he concluded that the cost to the United States was “no less than $1 trillion.”
That was the immediate impact, the direct cost. America’s response to Bin Laden’s assault has proved much more expensive and must have exceeded Bin Laden’s wildest fantasies. It is ironic that the man’s solitary death–which brings new poignancy to the word “late”–has over-shadowed a more critical news story, America’s looming budgetary default. Although the significant demographic factors driving the American fiscal crisis can scarcely claim any relationship to Bin Laden, even so, our fortunes today are in inarguably worse shape now than on that sunny morning nearly ten years ago.
Likewise, the death toll from Iraq and Afghanistan has exceeded that of the World Trade Center, with Afghanistan’s count worsening by the year. And the home front–once united by Bin Laden in a way not seen since World War II–had the strains of the red-blue fissures of the 2000 election exacerbated to levels which sometimes seem reminiscent of the antebellum 1850s.
One can argue that a spark lacks significance unless it lands in tender, but surely the spark set off by Bin Laden was the most incendiary from an individual mad act since that of Gavrillo Princip in 1914.
Nevertheless, the mad dog has been put down, now, and not all the news since is bad. Throughout the Middle East we can at least hope that the fall of tyrants can lead to democratic springs. And although the new season may not usher in pro-American, peace-loving regimes, Islamic fundamentalism does not seem to be the strong horse it once was either.
In any case, as the debt default shows, we have more pressing problems to deal with. Terrorism is not dead, and it may never die, but it is not the threat to our existence it once seemed. With Bin Laden’s death comes a chance to re-do our risk assessment and consider where best to allocate scarce resources:
- Why are we in Afghanistan? Even were the Taliban to return to power, they were not a threat to us until mixed with the foreign influence of Bin Laden and his organization. Have we not done all required of us to prop up Hamid Karzai and rebuild the rubble we briefly bounced in 2001?
- Why are we giving Pakistan billions in aid?
The aid program promoted by Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, promised Pakistan $7.5 billion over five years, much of it delivered through the civilian government.
But so inadequate is Pakistan’s civilian bureaucracy and so rife are United States fears of corruption in the government that American officials, constricted by layers of their own rules, have struggled to find safe places to actually invest the money available. Instead of polishing the tarnished image of America with a suspicious, even hostile, Pakistani public and government, the plan has resulted in bitterness and a sense of broken promises.
In a scathing report, the Government Accountability Office said that only $179.5 million of the first $1.5 billion of the five-year program had been disbursed by last December.
If anyone had any doubts about who the biggest government sponsor of Bin Laden was, his location in a mansion less than half a mile from Pakistan’s premier military academy should put those doubts to rest. More than $7 billion buys less from corrupt bureaucrats than it once did.
In short, we may not have won the War on Terror by killing Bin Laden, but we have finished winning the September 11 War. We no longer have a vested interest in Afghanistan, and we no longer require Pakistan’s assistance to pursue that war. We are also not in a financial position to outlay colossal expenditures of dubious worth. Continuing the Afghanistan-Pakistan charade carries opportunity costs we can no longer bear.
Declare victory, President Obama, and bring American soldiers home.