More Questions than Answers

2 May 2011


The targeted assassination of Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad, a tourist resort known for its many retirees and an elite Pakistani military training facility, leaves the world with more geopolitical questions than answers. While the decapitation strike against Bin Laden gives closure to the ten year hunt for the terrorist mastermind, it is only the hunt that has ended. The movement that the man embodied and symbolized goes on; there is no closure for world history, even if it is — especially if it is — just one damn thing after another.

The obvious political questions, essentially rhetorical but intended to make a point, are already being asked in the media: How did Bin Laden live undetected in a sleepy resort city in Pakistan? How could Bin Laden have lived so close to a military training institution without being known to Pakistani military intelligence? Did Pakistan help or hinder the operation? Did the ISI help or hinder the operation? Did someone collect the reward on Bin Laden’s head?

There are already lots of questions being asked about Bin Laden’s burial at sea. The answer to this ought to be just as obvious as the need for the US military to retain the body in the first place. If the US military had not taken possession of Bin Laden’s body, there would be persistent rumors that he had somehow survived and escaped. And if he had been buried in the conventional manner, his grave would have become a focus of resistance and a place of pilgrimage. These questions are easy to answer. There are other questions that will be much more difficult to answer.

Will the killing of Bin Laden provoke militants to greater efforts, as they seek revenge for Bin Laden through spectacular acts of violence?

Deprived of their symbol and rallying point, will the militant Jihadists lose interest and disperse? Will the ideology of militant Jihadism come to an end with the end of Bin Laden?

Will a leader of comparative stature emerge to take the place of Bin Laden? Would another leader be able to command the loyalty and ideologically inspire new generations of militant Jihadism?

What will become of Ayman al-Zawahiri? He was, after all, the ideological brains behind the operation. Will al-Zawahiri find another leader to mentor, or will he, too, be run to ground and killed on the spot?

Taliban supremo Mullah Mohamed Omar, like Ayman al-Zawahiri, is still at large. He essentially surrendered his nation-state rather than deliver Osama Bin Laden into the hands of the US. How will he respond to the development? Several commentators are already calling this the moment for the US to strike a deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Will Mullah Omar count this as a weakness on the part of the US, or will he, too, see it as an opportunity?

Will the ideology of militant Jihadism and transnational terrorism ultimately be come to be seen as a mistake, as a dead end (like Nassar’s Pan-Arabism), or will it always retain its ability to inspire individuals and groups of individuals to violent action?

How will the events of the Arab Spring influence the perception of Bin Laden’s death? Will the movement of the Arab Spring provide an alternative ideological direction for the frustrated youth of the region?

Will Bin Laden become a folk hero, or, rather, will he retain his status as a folk hero? Will his reputation increase over time, or will he be forgotten? Will Osama Bin Laden the folk hero be cleansed of his crimes by time, or will his name be forever linked to violence, death, and infamy?

Will militant Jihadism become a “Lost Cause” to be celebrated in romanticized literature and film? Will someone someday film the Jihadist re-make of Gone with the Wind?

History is an exercise in non-abstraction. Everything is tangled together and impossible to separate. When we read history it is easy to lose track of the other things going on at the same time. But then, as now, many strategic trends were running in parallel. And given the fact that our world only becomes more complex over time rather than less so, there are always more strategic trends in play.

We must remind ourselves of this non-abstract character of contemporary history — for we are, all of us, living contemporary history — so that we do no succumb to the temptation to consider any historical event in isolation. The now-finished hunt for Osama Bin Laden, the War on Terror, the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the open sore of Kashmir, the rising price of oil, the terminal decline of monarchical government, the perennial desire for ethnic self-determination, the spreading of industrialization and the institutions of industrialized society, and a hundred other strategic narratives are all developing simultaneously, and all influencing each other as they develop. All are strands in the rope between the past and the future that is history; there is no central strand, and no strand that runs the entire length of the rope.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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