Spinning Osama

One thing is clear from the wildly divergent arguments about what comes next after the al Qaeda leader's killing: You can find a pundit willing to say anything.

This Will Make Al Qaeda Weaker

In an email to its mailing list Monday, the Council on Foreign Relations went out on a limb with this bold headline: "CFR Experts: Bin Laden's Death a Blow to al-Qaeda."

Others went a step beyond the conventional wisdom, arguing that the death of the terrorist leader heralded the closing of a violent chapter in world history. "Killing Bin Laden is the end of the 'war on terror,'" bin Laden biographer and AfPak Channel editor Peter Bergen declared flatly Sunday in an appearance on CNN. Others used similar phrasing, including Daily Beast columnist Peter Beinart, who argued Monday, "The war on terror is over," even if the short-term threat of terrorism might rise. "Now that bin Laden is gone, al Qaeda really has lost its dominant force, its strategic guide," terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank chimed in.

No, It Won't

Perhaps no group of people was more cautious than U.S. officials in making grand, sweeping claims about the meaning of bin Laden's death. "Even as we mark this milestone," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Monday, "we should not forget that the battle to stop al Qaeda and its syndicate of terror will not end with the death of bin Laden. Indeed, we must take this opportunity to renew our resolve and redouble our efforts."

Praveen Swami, diplomatic editor for Britain's Telegraph newspaper, argues "there is in fact little reason for jubilation" in bin Laden's death. "The stark truth is this: a decade after 9/11, the jihadist movement is more powerful than at any time in the past."

Others went for the "Obi Wan Kenobi argument," projecting that bin Laden's power would only grow with his demise. "[I]n terms of his influence in the world, he is no more dead this morning than he was when he first moved into his compound without telephone or Internet access. He's no more dead today than are John Brown or Joe Hill in the US," writes Guardian pundit Andrew Brown. Also in this vein, the Times of India warns: "There is reason to believe that its elaborate network will endure and undertake retaliatory attacks to prove its vitality."

This Means We Can Get Out of Afghanistan

Anti-war Democrats have seized on the news to argue that it's time to end the United States' decade-long counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. "Look, part of the argument against this reduction is that it was reputational, for staying in Afghanistan," said Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank. ‘"We can't look like America was driven out.' ‘We can't go away with our tail between our legs.' All of those metaphors. Well, we just killed Osama bin Laden, and I think that takes a lot of the pressure away -- a lot of the punch away from the argument that ‘oh, it will look like we walked away.'"

Gilles Dorronsoro, an Afghanistan expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a prominent skeptic of the U.S.-led mission there, speculates that bin Laden's death "could help facilitate a political solution in Afghanistan."

" With conditions on the ground making it obvious that a military solution doesn't make sense, this is a chance for Washington to change strategy and do the sensible thing in Afghanistan after almost ten years at war," he writes.

Others making the case for a rapid U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and beyond include Iran and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which urged the United States to "cease its intelligence operations against and to desist from interfering in the internal affairs of any Arab or Muslim country."

No, It Doesn't

B. Raman, a former top Indian intelligence official, counters on his widely read blog that the killing of bin Laden will have little impact on the strategy of the U.S. and its allies. "Obama's decisions relating to Afghanistan will depend on the evolution of the ground situation in Afghanistan and on the proved ability of the Afghan National Army to withstand pressure from the Taliban."

In a statement, Karl Eikenberry, the outgoing U.S. ambassador, sought to reassure Afghans of America's staying power. "This victory will not mark the end of our effort against terrorism. America's strong support for the people of Afghanistan will continue as before," he said. (For his part, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said that bin Laden's discovery proved that Afghanistan is "not the place of terrorism.")

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh-Rasmussen expressed similar resolve. "NATO allies and partners will continue their mission to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for extremism, but develops in peace and security," he said in a statement.

This Shows Why America Should Work With Pakistan

Bin Laden's evidently comfortable presence in an affluent military cantonment just 30 miles outside the capital of Islamabad raises obvious questions about Pakistan's potential complicity in hosting the late al Qaeda leader. But in an interview with the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's loquacious ambassador to Washington, compared the decade-long manhunt for bin Laden with the FBI's fruitless search for Irish mobster Whitey Bolger. "It wouldn't have been possible to get Bin Laden without Pakistan's help," Haqqani argued. "People are piling on this one, but the fact is, it is very plausible for someone to live undetected for long periods of time."

U.S. officials seemed keen to avoid casting public aspersions on their Pakistani partners, with whom relations have been especially tense in recent months. Clinton hailed "our close cooperation with Pakistan"; Brennan, though he said it was "inconceivable that bin Laden did not have a support system" in Pakistan, called for "continued dialogue and communication"; and the president himself said charitably that "our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding."

In a perhaps more fully candid assessment, Ghost Wars author Steve Coll argues for a U.S. grand-jury investigation of bin Laden's local enablers while continuing to grudgingly pursue "the greatest possible degree of coöperation from Pakistan that can be attained at a reasonable price."

No, It Proves That Pakistan Is the Enemy

While the official reaction from New Delhi was carefully calibrated to say "I told you so" without whipping up anti-Pakistan fervor, Indian commentators fairly tripped over themselves in their rush to condemn their nettlesome neighbor for allegedly coddling Osama.

"Osama bin Laden was living a luxurious life right under the nose of the Pakistani army," thundered Arnab Goswami, editor-in-chief of Times Now. "Can we continue to pursue candyfloss-type cricket diplomacy with a nation that has harboured, protected, the world's most dangerous terrorist?"

Salman Rushdie, the well-known British-Indian novelist, warned grimly that if Pakistan didn't provide exculpatory reasons for bin Laden's suspicious presence in Abbottabad, "perhaps the time has come to declare it a terrorist state and expel it from the comity of nations."


It Vindicates Bush

Elliott Abrams, a White House advisor under George W. Bush who is now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, criticized the U.S. president's announcement on his blog. "Mr. Obama might have noted that this work began under President Bush, but as usual he did not," Abrams complained. "It was also a mistake for him to use this occasion to deliver unrelated comments about ‘the pursuit of prosperity for our people' and ‘the struggle for equality for all our citizens.' A shorter and more straightforward announcement would have been more appropriate for this occasion."

Jennifer Rubin, a conservative blogger for the Washington Post, expressed similar sentiments. "It's hard to imagine the sense of relief and satisfaction George W. Bush must feel, after weathering undeserved and vicious criticism throughout his presidency, to see American deliver justice to the greatest evil-doer of them all," she wrote. "It is also regrettable, but not unexpected, that President Obama would mention Bush only in passing and fail to specifically credit him with eight years of tireless work that contributed to this victory. As with so much else, Obama paints moments of success as beginning and ending with himself."

No, It Vindicates Obama

U.S. officials have been fulsome in lauding the president for making the call to go ahead with the mission. In Sunday night's anonymous White House conference call, one senior administration official said, "I'm very proud of the entire team that worked on this operation, and am very thankful to the President for the courage that he displayed in making the decision to proceed with this operation." John Brennan, the White House counterterrorism advisor, said Monday that Obama's decision was "one of the most gutsiest calls by a president in recent memory."

Obama also garnered seeming praise from an unlikely quarter: Rush Limbaugh. The conservative radio host appeared to laud the president for deciding to send a team to kill Bin Laden rather than taking the al Qaeda leader out from the air -- prompting the headline "And Hell Freezes Over" by blogger Andrew Sullivan.

In context, however, it's clear Limbaugh was being sarcastic. "Our military wanted to go in there and just scorch the earth leaving no evidence of anything but President Obama single-handedly understood what was at stake here," he said. But he made sure to credit his Republican predecessor as well: "President Obama has done something extremely effective," Limbaugh declared. "President Obama has continued the Bush policies of keeping a military presence in the Middle East."

Former Bush speechwriter David Frum said bin Laden's assassination ought to put paid to the notion, widely held on the American right, that Obama is some kind of closet Islamist sympathizer. As he put it, "Can we stop questioning Obama's legitimacy now?"


Abbottabad: Bin Laden’s Final Home

Osama couldn't have picked a more unlikely place to hide out.

It is a special irony that Osama bin Laden, who made his name as an enemy of Western imperialism real and imagined, hid and died in a town that is itself a model colonial outpost of the British Empire. Bin Laden may have dreamed of renewing a caliphate, but he was killed in a city founded by and still bearing the unmistakable imprint of the West.

Even in its name, Abbottabad sheds any pretense of local origins: it bears the name of the town's founder, James Abbott, a British army officer who was assigned in 1849 the task of pacifying and governing the Hazare region of the Punjab province that had been annexed by the British Empire after the First Anglo-Sikh War. Abbotabad is today a medium-sized city of nearly one million people, but no urban enclave existed there at all until Abbott decided that it would be a strategic location for an administrative capital.

In a broader geographic and historic context, Abbottabad is a particularly unlikely epicenter of the type of future caliphate bin Laden dreamed of founding. Lying as it does on the old Silk Road, the area has always cultivated contact with diverse outsiders -- especially with those from points farther east. (Today, it sits along the Karakoram Highway, which links Pakistan with China through the Himalayas.) In some ways, its historic and religious ties with the Middle East are more tenuous than its historic commercial ties with East Asia and the Indian subcontinent. As an Arab, Bin Laden would have been a member of a vanishingly small minority in Abbottabad: Hindkowans, an ethnic group marked by its late conversion to Islam from Hinduism, comprise the majority of the area's population.

Today, the characteristics that Pakistanis associate with Abbottabad underscore its unlikeliness as a place for an international fugitive to make his home. First, it is something of a tourist spot, attracting Pakistanis from around the country to enjoy its verdant and hilly surrounds, temperate climate, and nearby national parks. James Abbott himself developed a deep attachment to the area in his years of service there, composing a poem "Abbottabad" after returning to Britain, in which he paid tribute to its beauty. A selection:

I adored the place from the first sight
And was happy that my coming here was right

And eight good years here passed very soon
And we leave our perhaps on a sunny noon

Oh Abbottabad we are leaving you now
To your natural beauty do I bow

Perhaps your winds sound will never reach my ear
My gift for you is a few sad tears

I bid you farewell with a heavy heart
Never from my mind will your memories thwart

Abbottabad is also a garrison city for the Pakistani military, home to its most noted military academy. And it's also a favored location for retired generals and army officers, many of whom have houses there. It is an unmistakable company town: Much of the area has been parceled and divided, to great profit, by the Pakistani Army -- a force that was ostensibly hard at work in search of Bin Laden in partnership with the United States, from whom it derives much of its funding (at least $1 billion every year since 2005).  Washington will have many questions about how Bin Laden could have hidden undetected for so long in the midst of the Pakistani military's administrative apparatus, less than 100 miles away from the seat of government in Islamabad.

That Bin Laden ultimately was killed in Abbottabad is perhaps a testimony to his myriad weaknesses in his latter days. The head of al Qaeda was more than a terrorist -- he was a political figure who derived much of his power from religious symbolism. But his final home was not in an area with any particular pedigree as a launching point for global jihad. Abbottabad doesn't share a border with Afghanistan, where Taliban forces are struggling to re-establish a theocracy; and it is utterly alien to whatever grievances the Muslim world harbors about Palestine. In the end, then, Osama bin Laden died not as an historic emir, but as a hidden fugitive, surrounded by Western influence and allies of the U.S. military -- a man utterly reliant on luck, until it finally ran out.

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