Osama bin Laden's death
is a significant blow for al Qaeda, removing a figurehead who had evaded the
largest manhunt in world history for almost a decade, and who seemingly managed
to remain operationally relevant up until he was killed. In the torrents of
commentary that will follow his announced death, many will agree with the
puzzling proclamation that analyst Peter Bergen made on CNN last night that
this marks the end of the war on terror.
In fact, bin Laden's
death does not close this chapter in history. Two points are worth bearing in
mind. First, bin Laden's strategic ideas for beating a superpower (which U.S.
planners never fully understood) have permeated his organization, and are
widely shared by al Qaeda's affiliates. Second, one critical lesson of 2001 is
that we should not allow bin Laden's death to cause us to lose sight of the
continued threat that al Qaeda poses.
Bin Laden's paradigms
for fighting against a superpower foe were forged during the Afghan-Soviet war.
Multiple factors prompted the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan,
including an Islamist insurgency that threatened the country's pro-Soviet
regime and infighting among Afghanistan's communists that culminated in bloody
internecine clashes. Although the Soviet general staff opposed the invasion, Soviet
leader Leonid Brezhnev insisted that operations in Afghanistan would end
successfully in three to four weeks. But the war didn't turn out as he predicted:
The Soviets would withdraw after nine years of costly occupation, experiencing
stiff resistance from Afghan mujahidin backed by the United States, Saudi
Arabia, and Pakistan.
Bin Laden traveled to
Pakistan in the early 1980s, soon after the war began. Bruce Riedel, a
Brookings Institution senior fellow and former CIA officer, notes in his book The Search for al Qaeda that once he
arrived, bin Laden became "a major financier of the mujahidin, providing cash
to the relatives of wounded or martyred fighters, building hospitals, and
helping the millions of Afghan refugees fleeing to the border region of
Pakistan." But it was his first trip to Afghanistan's front lines in 1984 that
left a lasting impression on young Osama, and gave him a thirst for more
When bin Laden and his fellow
Arab comrades-in-arms unexpectedly held their ground in the face of several
attacks by Russian special forces (spetsnaz)
near Khost, Afghanistan, in the spring of 1987, the skirmish launched bin Laden
to prominence in the Arab media as a war hero. In reality, that battle was
insignificant to the outcome of the Afghan-Soviet war -- and though bin Laden
subsequently emphasized his own role in the conflict, every serious history
concludes that the "Afghan Arabs," fighters from the Arab world who traveled to
South Asia to join the war against Soviets, were not a military factor in
Russia's defeat. Nonetheless, bin Laden's time on the Afghan battlefield was a
formative experience for him, one that shaped the approach he would later bring
to running al Qaeda.
One lesson bin Laden
learned from the war against the Soviets was the importance of his enemy's
economy. The Soviet Union didn't just withdraw from Afghanistan in ignominious
defeat, but the Soviet empire itself collapsed soon thereafter, in late 1991.
Thus, bin Laden thought that he hadn't just bested one of the world's
superpowers on the battlefield, but had actually played an important role in
its demise. It is indisputable that the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan did
not directly collapse the Soviet Union; the most persuasive connection that can
be drawn between that war and the Soviet empire's dissolution is through the
costs imposed by the conflict.
Indeed, bin Laden has
spoken of how he used "guerrilla warfare and the war of attrition to fight
tyrannical superpowers, as we, alongside the mujahidin, bled Russia for ten
years, until it went bankrupt." He has compared the United States to the Soviet
Union on numerous occasions -- and these comparisons have been explicitly
economic. For example, in October 2004 bin Laden said that just as the Arab
fighters and Afghan mujahidin had destroyed Russia economically, al Qaeda was
now doing the same to the United States, "continuing this policy in bleeding
America to the point of bankruptcy." Similarly, in a September 2007 video
message, bin Laden claimed that "thinkers who study events and happenings" were
now predicting the American empire's collapse. He gloated, "The mistakes of
Brezhnev are being repeated by Bush."
A second aspect of bin
Laden's experience in the Afghan-Soviet war that influenced his strategic
understanding of his fight against America was the breadth of the anti-Russian
resistance. The Soviet invasion outraged the Muslim world, including heads of
state, clerics, the Arab media, and the man on the street. In January 1980,
Egypt's prime minister called it "a flagrant aggression against an Islamic
state." By the end of the month, the foreign ministers of 35 Islamic countries,
as well as the Palestine Liberation Organization, passed a resolution through
the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) holding the invasion to be a
"flagrant violation of all international covenants and norms, as well as a serious
threat to peace and security in the region and throughout the world." The
Soviet-installed regime in Afghanistan was expelled from the OIC, the delegates
of which urged all Muslim countries "to withhold recognition of the illegal
regime in Afghanistan and sever diplomatic relations with that country until
the complete withdrawal of Soviet troops." On Jan. 30, 1980, the Christian Science Monitor described this
condemnation of Soviet actions as "some of the strongest
terms ever used by a third-world parley."
stream of Arabs who flocked to South Asia to help the Afghan cause -- about
10,000 in total, according
to Mohammed Hafez, an associate professor in the Naval Postgraduate
School's National Security Affairs Department -- was a testament to the
widespread outrage caused by the invasion. Hafez has written, "They
included humanitarian aid workers, cooks, drivers, accountants, teachers, doctors,
engineers and religious preachers. They built camps, dug and treated water
wells, and attended to the sick and wounded." There was of course also a
contingent of Arab fighters, of which bin Laden became a part. But the
volunteers who went to the theater were not the only Arabs to support the
Afghan resistance. The Afghan jihad was also aided by a donor network known as
the "golden chain," whose financiers came primarily from Saudi Arabia and other
Gulf Arab states.
Essentially, bin Laden
sat at the top of a major multinational organization during the Afghan-Soviet
war. Its members included fighters, aid workers, and other volunteers. It
enjoyed a significant media presence, external donors, and widespread support. And
when al Qaeda later engaged in a global fight against America, bin Laden and
his companions similarly understood the media and the struggle for sympathy and
allegiance throughout the Muslim world as crucial battlefields. In a 2005 letter
to al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi, bin Laden's deputy Ayman al
Zawahiri noted that "more than half of this battle is taking place in the
battlefield of the media." Zawahiri said that when it comes to attaining the
caliphate, one of al Qaeda's overarching goals, "the strongest weapon which the
mujahidin enjoy, after the help and granting of success by God, is popular
support from the Muslim masses."
Had American strategists
understood from the outset these twin strategic perceptions, they might have
been able to avoid some early costly blunders. But it is not apparent that American
planners clearly saw the link between al Qaeda's war and the U.S. economy even
after bin Laden boasted of it on the world stage. Moreover, had U.S. officials understood
al Qaeda's goal of broadening its fight against the United States, they might
have raised more objections to the invasion of Iraq, which created a far
broader battlefield for America.
These twin pillars of al
Qaeda's strategy have not died with Osama bin Laden. Rather, they permeate the
organization and its affiliates. To comprehend this, one need look no further
than Inspire, the English-language
magazine of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's (AQAP), the group's Yemen
affiliate. A special issue of the publication released in November 2010
commemorated a plot that managed to place pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN)
bombs inside printer cartridges that were flown on FedEx and UPS planes. The
issue outlined the great disparity between what the plot cost the terrorists
and what it cost their enemies -- a $4,200 price tag for AQAP versus, in the
magazine's estimation, a cost of "billions of dollars in new security measures"
for America and other Western countries.
In fact, Inspire warned that future attacks would
be "smaller, but more frequent," an approach that "some may refer to as the
strategy of a thousand cuts." In this strategic vision, the fact that the ink
cartridge plot killed nobody did not mean that it had failed: Rather, AQAP's
ability to get the disguised explosives aboard planes, and thus significantly
drive up the West's security costs, made the plot a success. This illustrates
AQAP's embrace of bin Laden's vision of economically undermining America, as he
thought he had done to the Soviet Union.
This raises a second
critical point: We should neither declare al Qaeda dead nor declare the fight
against jihadi militancy over. In 2002, as America was preparing for war with
Iraq, many observers wrongly believed that the war in Afghanistan had been won,
and al Qaeda significantly degraded.
Former U.S. vice
president Dick Cheney, speaking at the Air National Guard Senior Leadership
Conference in December 2002, described the Afghanistan war as "America's most
dramatic victory in the war against terrorism," and
claimed that "the Taliban regime and the al Qaeda terrorists have met the fate that
they chose for themselves." Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA intelligence analyst who
then directed the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings
Institution, wrote a March/April 2002 article in Foreign Affairs entitled "Next Stop Baghdad?" In it, he wrote, "[T]he
key to victory in Afghanistan was
a U.S. air campaign that routed the Taliban combat forces." Advancing the theme
that the Afghanistan war was won, he warned that "too much delay" in invading
Iraq "could be as problematic as too little, because it would risk the momentum
gained from the victory over Afghanistan."
As a result of this
flawed perception, a significant amount of military and intelligence assets
were diverted from Afghanistan to the Iraq theater. Robert Grenier, a former
director of the CIA's counterintelligence center, has noted that from late 2002
to early 2003, "the best experienced, most qualified people who we had been
using in Afghanistan shifted over to Iraq," including counterterrorism specialists,
as well as Middle East and paramilitary operatives.
At the same time,
preparation for Iraq caused such units as Delta Force and Navy Seals Team Six,
as well as aerial surveillance platforms like the Predator drone, to be shifted
into the Iraq theater. The result of this shift in resources was predictable: It
weakened American efforts in Afghanistan and allowed an insurgency to thrive.
Iraq would continue to cause resources to be diverted from the Afghanistan
campaign not just as America and its allies geared up for the new war, but also
In February 2011, I interviewed
Andrew Exum, an Arabic-speaking counterinsurgency expert at the Center for a
New American Security who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan as an Army Ranger
officer. When I asked him why U.S. efforts in Afghanistan have been so uneven,
he replied without hesitation, "One word: Iraq. I remember in 2002 coming back
from Afghanistan and being immediately forgotten. We had just fought the
largest set-piece battle since the Persian Gulf War, Operation Anaconda, and it
was the first time our regiment had been in battle since Vietnam. But the focus
was on Iraq." The U.S. had been in Afghanistan for more than nine years at the
time we spoke, but because of the focus on Iraq he felt that the military
hadn't really been there for nine
years. "It's been an economy of force mission, really since 2002," Exum said.
"The vast majority of our efforts and our resources -- not just military but
also intelligence assets -- have been focused on Iraq."
Bin Laden's death is a blow to al Qaeda. Will
America again celebrate prematurely, and provide its enemies an opportunity to
regroup? That remains to be seen.