No individual has influenced the course of US military strategy more over the last 10 years than Osama bin Laden. In an age of increasingly narrow ideologies, Osama has been the standard bearer for international terrorism. Beyond that simple equation, however, lies a complex, contradictory chain of events that over the last decade has seen Australian forces caught in the unending US war in Afghanistan.
In what is probably the most accurate statement on his passing, Afghan officials termed bin Laden’s death a "symbolic victory". Afghans have suffered more than any others at the hands of Osama bin Laden, but they are well aware that his death will not bring them a better future.
For a time bin Laden’s ability to evade the most powerful and sophisticated military force in human history gave him a superhuman aura. But as the body count rose the ultimate futility of his terrorism has become ever more evident. For in every conflict in which Osama engaged — from Afghanistan and Iraq to Pakistan and Somalia — even other Islamists eventually realised that his al Qaeda lacked any sustainable vision for Muslim majority societies.
There is no question that Osama’s radical politics were a product of autocratic regimes across the Arab world. Some were aligned with the West, others, like Syria, are still official enemies. Most now face unprecedented challenges from grassroots movements that make a mockery of Western notions of moderate and non-moderate Muslim states.
Al Qaeda’s brand of violent, radical politics too has been swept aside by the soft power of popular politics. Last week the Hamas movement signed a peace agreement with the secular Fatah in Egypt. Both were under immense pressure from ordinary Palestinians to reach such a settlement. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has replaced militancy with political negotiations. Inevitably these developments have their uncertainties. But for societies fatigued by oppression and war they are welcome developments.
It is time the West read these important signals. When the former US pro-consul in Iraq Paul Bremer announced the capture of Saddam Hussein before a packed news conference the hall erupted into loud celebrations. This time, the celebrations are relatively muted.
In a week dominated by the spectacle of the Royal Wedding, one cannot help but feel the theatre of bin Laden’s death obscures the moral and tactical questions we need to answer.
Will his murder reduce the terrorism threat or weaken the insurgency our troops are fighting alongside others in Afghanistan and Pakistan? And why has it taken so long to find bin Laden? That last question is especially prescient given that he was found living in a house in Abbottabad, a settled, urban part of Pakistan’s north-west that is home to many serving and retired military personnel, including some of my own distant relatives.
Only hours after bin Laden’s assassination was announced, unknown assailants torched a NATO supply convoy and killed four policemen in the nearby region of Attock.
Mindful of further devastating attacks, Pakistan’s military has been averse to emphasising its role in the joint operation with US forces that led to bin Laden’s death. Militant groups are expected to mount fresh attacks. That includes Tehreek-e-Taliban, the Pakistani branch of the Islamist insurgency that is more closely aligned to Al Qaeda than its Afghan counterparts.
It is easily forgotten now, but the key moment in bin Laden’s war against the West was 1990. In that year Saudi Arabia invited US troops into the desert kingdom to end Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait. Bin Laden considered it a sacrilege for American soldiers to be present on the same soil as Mecca, for Muslims the most sacred place on earth. Already disillusioned by the Saudi regime, this was what convinced Osama to engage in high-profile terrorism in the hope of arousing global Muslim animosity towards the US.
The tragic irony is that the international community played a pivotal role in giving Osama international prominence well before Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
Underwritten by the US and Saudi Arabia and managed by Pakistan’s military, the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s brought bin Laden and other extremists to the fore. The Soviet Union’s eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan and subsequent collapse convinced militant Islamists that their violence could make politics and the global system redundant.
Recent events prove the opposite to be true. Bin Laden is not the only one who was seeking shelter from this conflict. Millions of innocent civilians remain homeless throughout Pakistan, while in neighbouring Afghanistan and in Iraq and many other places the victims of a decade of war continue to suffer.
Liquidating terrorists like Osama bin Laden will not end the terrorism threat. It is grievance and poverty in all its shades — of livelihoods, of opportunities and ideas — that ultimately breeds the conditions in which terrorism is born.
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