Osama is Dead: What Difference Does This Make?

Commentary No. 305, May 15, 2011

Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 2, 2011, Pakistan time. He was killed by U.S. Seals forces in a special operation ordered by the U.S. president. The whole world knows this, and reactions to this event have been extremely diverse. But has this death changed anything anywhere? Does it matter?

The first question that most people are posing is whether this death signals the demise of al-Qaeda. It has become clear for some time that al-Qaeda today is not a single organization but rather a franchise. If Osama directly commanded any group, it was those located in Pakistan and Afghanistan. There are what seem to be autonomous structures calling themselves al-Qaeda in other parts of the world, and notably in Iraq, Yemen, and the Maghreb. These groups have paid symbolic homage to Osama but have made their own operational decisions.

In addition, the actual combative and political power of the various groups seems to have been in decline for some time. The most important reason for this has not been the killing of al-Qaeda leaders by the United States or other governments but the sense among most other Islamist forces that they could achieve more of their aims by more political routes. The killing of Osama may inspire some immediate al-Qaeda attempts at “revenge” but it is not likely that this will do much to slow down the growing irrelevance of al-Qaeda on a world scene.

Will the death of Osama change the situation in either Pakistan or Afghanistan? Pakistan’s government was already shaky before this. There is now public grumbling in both Pakistan and the United States about what did the Pakistani government know and when did it know it. The Pakistani government’s official line is that it knew nothing of Osama’s location for about seven years in a villa next door to their main military academy. And it also claims that it knew nothing in advance about the U.S. raid and deems it to have been an illegitimate infringement of Pakistani sovereignty.

Neither argument is very plausible. Of course it knew where Osama was living, or at least some Pakistani officials knew. How could they not? And of course, the U.S. government knew that Pakistan knew but wasn’t telling them. This was all part of the difficult, ambiguous relationship of the two allies for at least the last ten years. Will Osama’s death change that? I doubt it. The alliance remains mutually necessary.

As to whether the Pakistanis were informed of the pending U.S. raid, it depends on which Pakistanis. Clearly, the U.S. wanted to keep the raid secret from any one in Pakistan who might have interfered with it or alerted Osama. But did no-one know? We have two pieces of contrary information that have come out. The Guardian published a piece after Osama’s death reporting, on the basis of conversations with U.S. and Pakistani officials, that former Pakistan President Musharraf made an agreement with President George W. Bush in 2001, in which Musharraf agreed in advance to a unilateral U.S. raid on Osama whenever it located him, with the provision that the Pakistanis would denounce it publicly afterwards. Musharraf now denies this but who believes him?

There is a piece of even more persuasive evidence. Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, published a story the very day of Osama’s death, citing eye-witnesses that electricity was cut off in the area during the operation – indeed for two hours before it occurred – which could only have been done by some Pakistani agency that knew of the forthcoming raid. The Chinese have at least as good an internal intelligence operation in Pakistan as the United States. So it seems probable that, while some Pakistani agencies were kept in the dark, others coordinated with the United States.

At the U.S. end, some members of Congress are agitated about the fact that the Pakistanis must have known Osama was living in Abbottabad, and wish therefore to cut off, or reduce, financial and military aid to Pakistan. But clearly this would be counter to the maintenance of any U.S. influence in Pakistan, and it is unlikely that any real change in current relations will be made.

As for Afghanistan, it is clear that, for some time, the Taliban have been taking their distance from al-Qaeda and Osama, in order to pursue their own return to power. Osama’s death can only reinforce their position within Afghanistan, and hasten the process by which the United States is being pushed out, something that will make the U.S. military basically very happy. Some in the United States will say that this “victory” permits them to make the necessary political deal with the Taliban. And some who were opposed to U.S. intervention in the first place will say that this proves there is no longer a plausible threat that justifies continuing U.S. presence there. That this scenario is possible can be seen in the anguished outcry among non-Pashtun elements in the north of Afghanistan against drawing either conclusion.

So does the killing of Osama at least make a difference in the United States? Well, yes it does. President Obama took a big political risk in conducting the operation, and especially in conducting it by using a Seals force rather than by bombing the residence. Had it gone wrong in any way, he would have been sunk politically. But it didn’t go wrong. And all the Republican arguments that he was a weak leader, especially in military matters, have been undone. This will no doubt help him in the coming elections. But again, as many commentators have been pointing out, this will help him only a bit. The economy is still the big internal issue in U.S. politics. And Obama’s re-election and Democratic prospects in the Congressional elections will be affected most of all by pocketbook issues in 2012.

So, how much difference does Osama’s death make? Not too much.