The world after bin Laden

The Post asked experts about the implications for U.S. security and policy.

Osama bin Laden’s death changes the political geography of the region around Pakistan and requires a fundamental rethinking of U.S. policy and interests.

The evidence is mounting that Pakistan was complicit in sheltering bin Laden. He was, in large part, Pakistan’s meal-ticket to billions of dollars in U.S. aid. Islamabad has been doing just enough to keep the money flowing but not enough to kill the golden goose. This is no longer tenable.

Did Pakistan ever seriously intend to stop al Qaeda and the Taliban from using its territory as a sanctuary?

If U.S. policymakers determine that the answer is no, efforts to foster a viable regime in Kabul or “win” the war in any other sense of the word could be seriously undermined. Moreover, such a determination would mean that the principal rationale for going into Afghanistan — to keep it from becoming an al-Qaeda base — is no longer salient, because Pakistan has been, and is, its base.

The death of bin Laden is understandably prompting a reexamination of America’s engagement with Afghanistan and Pakistan from all angles. At a time of fiscal stringency, Congress will cast a particularly sharp eye on the Afghan war’s $100 billion-plus annual cost.

What’s needed is an international conference of all the regional players that have a greater stake in the outcome of the Afghan/Pakistan conflict than does the United States. The participants should include China, Russia and India, and the goal should be a deal that will stabilize the region and provide leeway for whatever rate of withdrawal of U.S. forces the Obama administration determines is prudent.

By David Aaron, senior fellow at the RAND Corp., former ambassador to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and former deputy national security adviser.

The basis of our war in Afghanistan and elsewhere has been Congress’s decision, seven days after Sept. 11, 2001, to authorize force against those who “planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks” and those who harbored them. This was intended to destroy al-Qaeda and deprive it of sanctuaries in Afghanistan.

Osama bin Laden’s death puts paid to the war authorized by this resolution. Even before his death, the original rationale provided only tenuous support for military operations in Afghanistan. Indeed, CIA director Leon Panetta publicly said months ago that there were only 50 to 100 members of al Qaeda in the entire country. Would the resolution continue to apply even if only one al-Qaeda fighter remained?

The resolution also includes those who harbored the attackers. In 2001, this surely included Afghanistan’s Taliban government. But Afghanistan has a different government and constitution now. We are helping President Hamid Karzai fight a variety of insurgents, but it’s a big stretch to say they are all part of the entity that “planned, authorized, committed, or aided” the Sept. 11 attacks or harbored those who did. Is this really the basis of our continuing war in the region?

If the answer is yes, it raises a deeper question: whether we still have a constitutional system of checks and balances on big decisions over war and peace. To his credit, President Obama has not claimed, as Bush administration officials did, that the Constitution gives the president exclusive power over warmaking. He has relied on increasingly strained readings of the 2001 resolution. But with bin Laden’s death, this strategy has degenerated into sheer legal fiction. If Obama’s continuation of the war under radically changed circumstances goes unchallenged, it will transform a limited congressional mandate into a magic wand authorizing a never-ending and worldwide conflict in response to a constantly changing threat.

Now is the time for President Obama to declare victory over those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks and return to Congress for a new resolution defining the extent and limits of our military operations as we enter a second decade in the struggle against terrorism.

By Bruce Ackerman and Oona Hathaway, professors of law at Yale University.

Osama bin Laden is dead. And so, therefore, is al-Qaeda. U.S. intelligence experts have for years weighed what the consequences for al-Qaeda would be when the United States finally captured (unlikely) or killed (more likely, and much better) Osama bin Laden. The argument turned around varying assessments of what al-Qaeda had become.

The operative view within the intelligence community has been that bin Laden had become a figurehead who had inspired Muslims to wage jihad against the United States. He wildly succeeded in that objective, and al-Qaeda had become a franchise and a movement, with jihadist terrorist groups around the world sometimes acting on Bin Laden’s general guidance but always acting as part of a global jihadist-al-Qaeda “movement.” This view was sometimes fuzzy; at times it held that al-Qaeda “affiliates” acted coherently as part of a movement and at times acted independently, albeit inspired by al-Qaeda “central.” This perspective will argue that bin Laden’s death will not fundamentally change the nature of the jihadist threat. Bin Laden fathered an organization, an ideology and a movement. The threat lives on.

The alternative view (a summary of which I wrote for a national intelligence estimate in 2006, but which was deleted before publication for being too alternative and not supported by enough of the intelligence community) has been that al-Qaeda almost literally is Osama bin Laden. It is his creature and tool; his disciples and murderous idealists have orbited around him, cohered because of his inspiration — and will not long survive his death. It is true that bin Laden’s direct operational control, and the power of al-Qaeda, have been much “degraded” since Sept. 11. Yet al-Qaeda has been competent and ruthless, too, and it has been able nonetheless to maintain its structural and operational integrity.

But this is because of the man. Without bin Laden, we will progressively find that his movement becomes like a hive without its queen: Jihadists will be angry and may seek to sting, but they will lose any global coherence or operational structure. Most al-Qaeda members, and almost all aspiring members, will revert to their former, perhaps angry and idealistic, lives, but as fundamentally directionless young men who will focus on local and regional grievances. What remains of al-Qaeda’s leaders (al-Qaeda’s number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is a deeper, more strategic thinker than bin Laden ever was but has always lacked charisma, focused heavily on his own Egypt-centric agenda and spent much of his energy demonstrating a lack of leadership skills) will issue stentorian dispatches and try to carry on for a time. But they also will most likely return to local and regional jihadist concerns. They will progressively recede in influence, increase their bickering and lose their “global” relevance. Al-Qaeda has become less and less relevant among Muslims over the years. The organization’s solution to the frustrations and woes of the world is, fundamentally, death. And most people, non-Muslim and Muslim alike, will in most cases choose life.

This local focus has always been the nature of the jihadist threat. With the sole exception of al-Qaeda — in recent years called “al-Qaeda central” by U.S. intelligence authorities and now, to some extentn of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — jihadists have focused on regional historical and political issues, not attacks on the United States. And now, without Bin Laden’s mystique to hold the only global jihadist organization together, so will we find it to be again. Al-Qaeda, except for its death rattles, died in Abbottabad when a Navy SEAL’s bullet reached Osama bin Laden’s zealous brain.

Glenn Carle, former deputy national intelligence officer for transnational threats on the National Intelligence Council and author of the forthcoming book The Interrogator, about his experience leading the interrogation team for a top al-Qaeda detainee.

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