When you cut the head off a snake, it dies. U.S. officials would be wise to stop making allusions to decapitated reptiles when referring to al-Qaida after Osama bin Laden’s death because this organization remains alive and active across the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Europe and, yes, the United States.
Killing bin Laden deals a significant blow to al-Qaida, but be assured, it lives to fight again.
That said, rarely since the 9/11 attacks has the United States gained such a sizeable strategic advantage over this potent foe. Although some critics of the war in Afghanistan will argue that there’s no better time to withdraw, smarter minds must prevail within the Pentagon and White House. It is essential to pressure the enemy and minimize its ability to regroup.
That doesn’t necessarily mean more troops and bigger expenditures. Future steps should include wiser deployments of military and intelligence assets to keep al-Qaida permanently off balance. Still at large are bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Taliban’s Mullah Muhammad Omar and American-born Anwar al-Awlaki, the Islamist preacher who has inspired several recent attacks on U.S. soil. Hundreds of other, more obscure jihadists also are vying to lead the fight.
The Taliban in Afghanistan hosted al-Qaida ahead of the 9/11 attacks. Ending the war in Afghanistan is directly related to bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table and gaining assurances that it will never again embrace terrorism. Taliban leaders no doubt have had their confidence shaken by bin Laden’s death; this is no time to relax the pressure on them.
The United States lacks the resources to deploy overwhelming military force in other host countries, which include Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Drone strikes, smaller rapid-reaction forces and patient intelligence-gathering procedures hold a higher chance for success than bulldozing through villages with tanks and troops. Sunday’s operation against bin Laden provides a glimpse of where this war might be headed.
Washington must play a cautious diplomatic game to avoid alienating governments that grant covert access to U.S. forces. Populist sentiment might lean toward freezing aid to Pakistan until its leadership corrects the practices that allowed bin Laden and other al-Qaida operatives to gain sanctuary there.
John Brennan, the president’s counterterrorism adviser, made clear to reporters Monday that Pakistan remains a crucial ally in the terrorism fight, despite its obvious shortcomings. American criticism of the Pakistani government must be tempered with the reality that Sunday’s operation would have had minimal chances of success without significant behind-the-scenes cooperation by Pakistani authorities.
The same holds true in Yemen, where President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government has, at best, a tenuous grip on power and where al-Awlaki is believed to be hiding and expanding his base of support.
If only the solution were as easy as cutting the head off a snake. American euphoria over bin Laden’s death must not make us lose sight of the significant challenges ahead in what continues to be the long war.
(The Dallas Morning News, May 4)