Bin Laden’s Death Not Likely a Catalyst for Change in U.S. Strategy
The consensus inside the Beltway since the news broke about U.S. forces taking out Bin Laden is that the event is a huge symbolic victory, but will not fundamentally change U.S. policy or compel the Obama administration to scale back overseas counterterrorism efforts.
“We are still going to face all sorts of challenges,” says Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Killing Bin Laden was not a “decapitation of the terrorism threat,” he says in a conference call with reporters. “It doesn’t change the reality that there are successors.” The victorious U.S. raid on Bin Laden’s compound in fact may fuel a “greater willingness by the United States to act independently when it’s warranted,” says Haass.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the administration will back away from long-term counterinsurgency and nation building in Afghanistan, in favor of narrower counterterrorism strikes, as Vice President Joe Biden advocated two years ago. Pakistan’s apparent willingness to provide sanctuary to U.S. enemies may raise serious questions about whether the United States should stick with the costly COIN strategy. “This may change the debate heading toward July 1 [when U.S. troops are supposed to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan] about the proper trajectory of U.S. policy in Afghanistan,” Haas says.
More broadly, though, the “scourge of terrorism remains,” he says. “We have to be prepared for the long haul.” The Bin Laden operation, further, makes a case for strengthening intelligence sharing among government agencies, for greater emphasis on homeland defense and for finding more creative ways to discourage young Muslims from becoming terrorists, Haass points out. The biggest payoff from this significant achievement by the U.S. military would be to use it as a vehicle to “delegitimize the choice to become a terrorist,” he says, or to “get more people to act like the Nigerian father who tried to turn in his own son” — who eventually attempted to bomb a U.S. airliner in December 2009.
The killing of Bin Laden in itself is not a “transformational event” that should make the U.S. public feel safer from terrorism, Haass says.
The public also should not falsely conclude that this means the United States is getting out of Afghanistan.
Obama might take advantage of the political momentum that this victory affords him to bargain with congressional Republicans in the coming debt-ceiling debate. “This strengthens the president’s hand,” says Haass. If he decides to push for more drastic cuts to the defense budget, the removal of Bin Laden may reinforce the view that the world is less dangerous, and could make it more difficult for those who contend that defense spending should be off limits in the grand fiscal bargain.
Foreign Affairs Editor Gideon Rose says Obama now has “slightly more room to maneuver.” If he decides to “change course and retreat a little bit, he may be able to sell it more easily” without leaving himself open to criticism of being weak on defense.
A retired U.S. military officer says there is now an opportunity to begin to assess the price the nation has paid to get Bin Laden: nearly $2 trillion, more than 7,200 American and allies’ lives, more than 30,000 wounded, in addition to tens of thousands of civilians killed. “President Obama, fresh off a major victory, has received his Pavlovian reward,” he says. “He now feels invincible as commander-in-chief, and is, therefore, unlikely to severely scale back those who handed him a watershed win — the military. … We'll have to wait and see what his marching orders are for the new defense secretary, Leon Panetta, who is also experiencing a major high.” He speculates that the world might be “even more dangerous in the wake of Bin Laden's death because his successors are more extreme than him.”
Juan Zarate, former deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism under President George W. Bush, says Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaida's number-two, will take over. "He is ideologically committed to al Qaida's agenda, has been a vocal spokesperson for the movement over the years (especially recently in the wake of the Arab Spring)," Zarate says in a Washington Post online forum. "That said, Zawahiri lacks the charisma and recognized likeability and mythology of Osama Bin Laden for the broader Sunni extremist movement." A key question, says Zarate, "will be whether Zawahiri can galvanize the movement at this critical moment or if he will preside over the further splintering of al Qaida," he says. Bin Laden's death "closes a key chapter in the war on terror."
As to what the next chapter holds, the guesswork has begun.
“The natural reaction of investors to the death of Osama Bin Laden may be to view defense prospects less favorably,” but it is too soon to tell, says Byron Callan, a defense industry analyst. “If al Qaida can be further attacked and weakened, then it may indeed make it easier for the U.S. to proceed with a withdrawal from Afghanistan later this year and in 2013-2014,” he writes in a memo to investors. “Details of Pakistani involvement and reaction are going to very interesting to see in coming days. The fact that bin Laden was living in Abbottabad [home of the Pakistan Military Academy] suggests some elements in the ISI [Pakistan’s intelligence services] or the Pakistani Army had cooperated with him,” Callan says. “This particular victory has not ended the war.”
According to the Congressional Research Service, the United States has spent $1.283 trillion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11. There are more than 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan today. Obama said the plan is to “begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July 2011,” but the extent and pace of withdrawal has not yet been defined. The cost of the Afghan war has risen dramatically since 2006 — from $19 billion in 2006 to $60 billion in 2009, says CRS. Assuming administration requests are approved, total war funding will rise to $105 billion for 2010 and $119 billion for 2011.