What’s it going to look like? More to the point, what’s in it for us? How much safer can we expect to be?
In Slate, David Byman sounds a note of cautious optimism. Without bin Laden’s “star power” to help in raising funds, al-Qaeda and its affiliates will suffer a significant hit in the finance department. Also, bin Laden’s heir — most likey Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri — will find consolidating support difficult, given the risks involved in communicating. However, he also warns that we still face grave danger from al-Qaeda’s Yemen-based affiliate, which has operated independently of bin Laden’s leadership:
With Bin Laden’s death, these affiliates retain their operational capacity. They will continue to try to undermine U.S. allies and some, such as AQAP, will attempt to strike U.S. targets beyond the region in which they operate. Bin Laden worked hard to try to knit these disparate organizations together. His success has made them all far more lethal, but keeping the ties strong depended heavily on Bin Laden’s charisma and his access to funds. Zawahiri is less charismatic than Bin Laden. Perhaps more important, he and other potential new leaders may not have the fund-raising powers that Bin Laden’s star power gave him (particularly in his native Saudi Arabia). Leaders like AQAP’s Anwar al-Awlaki, who reportedly masterminded the recent attempts to bomb U.S. cargo planes and the “underwear bombing” that almost destroyed a passenger airplane heading to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, may use Bin Laden’s death to further increase their own stature and leadership role in the global organization. Such leaders will seek to draw new recruits and funding to their cause instead of to the al-Qaida core.
Also in Slate, Fred Kaplan goes further. Osama bin Laden, he claims, was al-Qaeda’s “holy and enduring inspiration,” and predicts some followers “must have awakened today demoralized or at least disoriented.”
On the leadership level, al-Qaida’s loose hierarchy, which has been in one sense a source of resilience, could spur a trend toward breakdown and dysfunction. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian who has served as Bin Laden’s No. 2, may regard himself as the heir to the throne, but he, too, has long been on the run (probably also in Pakistan) and less able to transmit orders speedily. He may also be feeling a bit more paranoid today than yesterday, and he may regard his affiliates—in Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere in the region—less as comrades in a cause than as rivals in a power struggle. Skilled diplomacy, to say nothing of a few more Navy SEALs, could exploit this moment—though it may last no longer than a moment—to heighten the insecurity and exacerbate the fissures.
In and around Afghanistan, it’s a near-certain bet that officials and commanders are re-opening lines of contact with various Taliban factions to test whether they might now be more amenable to cutting their ties to al-Qaida. The timing for such probing is ripe, according to David Kilcullen, a prominent counterinsurgency consultant. Some of those ties (for instance, Mullah Omar’s) have been based on personal relationships with Bin Laden—and may not be transferrable to others in an organization full of what many followers see as Arab interlopers.
Kaplan also suggests that this latest victory could give President Obama new leverage with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has dragged his feet in enacting vital reforms, such as “providing services to his people,” “cleaning up corruption,” and “firing incompetent ministers.”
Regarding Pakistani complicity, he writes that Pakistani leaders may find it in their best interest to play ball with the U.S. As Zachary Roth, writing for Yahoo! News confirms that bin Laden’s approval ratings among Muslims have been falling since 2003:
A Pew poll conducted a month ago in six predominantly Muslim countries found strikingly low levels of support for bin Laden–far lower than what the same survey recorded back in 2003.
Only 34 percent of Muslims in the Palestinian territories expressed confidence in bin Laden to do the right thing in world affairs, according to the recent poll. In 2003–not long after bin Laden had rocketed to post-9/11 world prominence–that number was 72 percent.
A similar decline was seen among Indonesian Muslims, where those numbers went from 59 percent in 2003 to 26 percent last month. Likewise, a big drop-off occurred in Jordan, where confidence in bin Laden went from 56 percent to 13 percent–with a big intermediate trough in 2006, after suicide attacks by al Qaeda members in Amman, the capital.
Perhaps most crucially, the numbers in Pakistan–often seen as the epicenter of the fight against Islamic terrorism–fell from a high of 52 percent in 2005 to just 18 percent last year. (This year’s numbers aren’t yet in for Pakistan.)
Like rodeo people say, you’re a rooster on Monday, a feather duster on Wedneday.
That’s something President Obama would perhaps do well to bear in mind. In the Washington Post, Chris Cillizza predicts bin Laden’s takedown will give the president a short-term bounce in the polls — much like the one 9/11 gave President Bush, or the Oklahoma City bombing gave President Clinton. Also, it should protect him from any allegations of softness on defense:, although those attacks don’t seem to have been very effective:
Polling over the last decade has shown a large Republican advantage on which side is better equipped to handle terrorism shrink during the 2006 and 2008 elections.
In exit polling from the 2010 midterms, nine percent of voters said the “recent terrorism attempt” — the bombs intercepted in packages in the waning days of October — was the most important issue in the election; of that group 55 percent voted for Democrats while 43 percent sided with Republicans.
And, in a January 2011 Post/ABC survey, 45 percent said they trusted Obama more to deal with terrorism while 39 percent said they trusted Republicans in Congress more.
“He obviously will be careful never to politicize any of this but he doesn’t have to,” Matt Bennett, a Democratic strategist, said of Obama. “Any attempt by his political opponents to attack him as weak on security is now laughable.”
Personally, I don’t expect this will make much difference. Regardless of what did or didn’t happen in Afghanistan, the War on Terror won’t be the number-one issue in 2012. My own guess is that strength or weakness on terror has become more of a character issue than a practical one. During a recession, nothing inspires voters less than character — just ask Bush 41.
Update: Peru’s president is giving Blessed John Paul credit for bin Laden’s death. If I were a SEAL, I’d feel a little insulted.