Posts Tagged ‘Osama bin-Laden’

The bin-Laden legacy.

datePosted on 12:47, May 1st, 2013 by Pablo

Nearing the second anniversary of Osama bin-Laden’s death, it might be wise to pause and reflect on his legacy. The purpose is to give an objective appraisal rather than to engage in emotive debate or prejorative discourse.

Bin-Laden’s major legacy is one of ideological inspiration: he cemented in the minds of some sectors of the global Islamic community the idea that Western encroachments on Muslim societies, particularly that of the US, could be resisted with irregularly deployed armed force. These actions need not be spectacular, such as the 9/11 attacks. They could equally be low-level, localized and home-grown so long as they were persistent and unpredictable. There cumulative effect would increase the anxiety of the targeted (mostly but not exclusively Western) populations while prompting an over-reaction by their respective security authorities that impacted on basic notions of civil liberties, individual freedoms and collective rights. The sum effect would be risk aversion by non-Muslims when it came to imposing non-traditional values and interests on Muslim societies.

With regard to the US, bin-Laden’s broader strategic objective, as former CIA officer and bin-Laden profiler Michael Scheuer has pointed out, was to over-extend the US military in an ongoing global unconventional conflict unconfined to national borders or specific regions, which would result in economic bankruptcy and ensuing political polarization within the US. That in turn would prompt the resurgence of isolationist and pacifist tendencies within the US public that would erode support for foreign policies of intervention in Muslim lands.

Although the strategic concept vis a vis the US has not been fulfilled to its ideal, it seems to have been in some measure successful: the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq contributed to the fiscal crisis that led to the 2008 recession and ensuing politics of austerity. Iraq was a strategic over-reach (and mistake) by the Bush 43 administration intent of demonstrating its resolve as well as its military might. Increasingly polarized over basic notions of identity and values, the US public has nevertheless become more collectively risk adverse when it comes to engagement in foreign conflicts, something reflected in the tenor of politics within the Washington beltway.

Likewise, the Afghanistan conflict went from being an attack on al-Qaeda and its Taliban protectors to a war of occupation without end under the guise of “nation-building” and “security assistance.” The material costs of both wars have been phenomenal and the human costs, if not counted in the billions, have been equivalent to those of Vietnam and the Korean Conflict. Previously dormant ethno-religious tensions have been awakened in Asia, Europe and North America with ill political and social effect. The politics of toleration, once a hallmark of Western democracy, now competes with xenophobia and religious separatism for electoral favor. Even Australia and New Zealand are not immune from the syndrome.

In terms of the armed conflict itself, there are now two broad fronts involving two very different strategies at play from a “jihadist” point of view. On the one hand, attacks in stable nation-states with minority Muslim populations have devolved into dispersed, decentralized, self-radicalized grassroots small cell operations in which elements of the Muslim diaspora use their local knowledge to conduct symbolic attacks on host societies. Modeled on Che Guervara’s “foco” (wildfire) theory of guerilla warfare as channeled by Carlos Marighella with his “two-prong” strategy of simultaneous urban and rural insurgency, the objective is not just one of symbolic protest but also to prompt a blanket over-reaction by local authorities in which many are targeted for the crimes of a few.

The lock-down in Boston during the one suspect manhunt after the marathon bombings, a clear violation of the fourth amendment to the US BIll of Rights prohibiting unwarranted searches and seizures (ostensibly done in the interest of “public safety”), is a case in point. More generally, the suspension of civil liberties under a variety of anti-terrorist legislation in a number of Western democracies, to include New Zealand, demonstrates just how successful bin-Laden’s strategy has been at eroding the constitutional pillars of these societies.

That is all the more poignant because Islamic terrorism does not constitute an existential threat to any stable society, Western democratic or not. In fact, one can argue that terrorist acts are more acts of desperation in the face of permanent value or cultural change than it is a defense of tradition or promotion of a preferred alternative (think of the attacks of armed Marxist groups in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s). It may be injurious and tragic for those involved, but in the larger scheme of things it is more akin to the last grasp of a drowning person than it is a serious challenge to the socio-econmic and political status quo.

However, in fragile or unstable states where Muslim populations are a majority or a significant minority, the strategic objective is to gain state control waging more conventional wars. The confluence of historical grievances rooted in traditional forms of discrimination superimposed on territorial or resource disputes lends popular support to jihadist attempts to wrest sovereign control away from pro-western regimes in places like Yemen, Mali, Somalia, and increasingly, Nigeria. Likewise, Muslim irredentists with local grievances engage in guerrilla wars in Chechyna, Thailand, Pakistan the Philippines and Kazakstan, among other places.

In a twist of fate, the so-called “Arab Spring” has allowed battle hardened jihadists from places such as Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan to exploit the window of opportunity offered by civil war in places like Libya and Syria to promote their Islamic agendas in solidarity with their local brothers. Courageous, ferocious and determined, these forces provide discipline to otherwise rag-tag resistance movements who in the absence of such help are more likely to be defeated than to prevail.

The impact of these internationalists was felt in Libya, where in spite of covert Western military assistance the jihadists gained a significant toe-hold that has yet to be dislodged. Likewise, the resistance in Syria is increasingly led by black flag fighters drawn from throughout the Sunni world. The possibility of these forces eventually securing power in both countries remains very real.

Not all has gone to plan according to bin-Laden’s dream. The use of lethal drones as a favorite anti-terrorist weapon has decimated al-Qaeda leadership ranks. The military and intelligence campaigns against militant Islamicists have prevented the organization of large-scale attacks such as 9/11 because the number of people and logistics involved invite early detection and proactive response. With the exception of Pakistan, which has strategic reasons for playing both sides of the fence in the so-called “war on terrorism,” Muslim states have largely joined the anti-Islamicist campaign (although Sunni Arab support for the fight against the Gaddafi and Assad regimes is clear). Thus the decentralization of jihadist operations was a practical necessity as much as the second part of a long-term plan.

The bottom line is that although the bin-Laden legacy is mixed, it has been indelible: the world is a changed place as a result of his actions, for better or for worse. But the world is also a different place because of the response to his actions, for better or worse. It is the latter that will determine the fundamental impact of the former long after his death.

 

bin-Laden bites the dust.

datePosted on 19:01, May 2nd, 2011 by Pablo

Osama bin-Laden has met his maker, facilitated on his journey by a US Delta Force operation (which would have involved a SEAL fire team–SEAL Team Six, specifically– Air Force special operations platforms for insertion and extraction and US Army special forces and CIA paramilitaries doing the human, signals and technical intelligence to pinpoint his location and guide the fire team to the target, and which appears to have involved the fair use of deception in order to divert Pakistani attention elsewhere). Militarily, it is a tremendous achievement and underscores that the US military has become the most experienced and dangerous military force on earth (after all, it has been continuously at war for most of the last three decades, in both high and low intensity operations, and has developed a full spectrum skill set that no other military can match). It tells the jihadist movement that, as in the case of the old Nazi-hunter’s approach to fugitive war criminals, they can run but they cannot hide. It tells would-be adversaries such as the Chinese and Russians that they have a long way to go before they can militarily challenge with any hope of prevailing. As for the likes of the leaders of Iran and Venezuela, it tells them that reckless provocations can have unpleasant consequences even if they hide amongst wimin and children. In a word, the US is unsurpassed in projecting force, which means it is dominant in any battle field, even if it takes some time for it to adjust to the tactical exigencies of the moment (this, however, does not mean that it can politically prevail in every instance, which ultimately is the determinant of overall victory in war. Political issues, rather than military balances, are what make the Afghan conflict and Pakistan’s instability so intractable).

The significance of killing of bin-Laden is more symbolic and ideological rather than practical. After all, al-Qaeda has been fragmented and forced to devolve into decentralised small unit and self-radicalised “lone wolf” operations that cannot alter the strategic equation that runs against them. It can lash out and cause damage in restricted tactical operations, but it is no longer able to mount big symbolic attacks such as the 9-11 and 1990s US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania (reports of a hidden al-Qaeda nuke in Europe notwithstanding). Strategically, AQ is not a game-changer.

The killing of bin-Laden is the second ideological blow to al-Qaeda that has terminally weakened it as a global political force. The first blow was the Arab Spring, currently ongoing, in which al-Qaeda is a non factor. Instead of rebelling in support of Sharia rule, fundamentalist interpretations of the Koran and the extension of the Caliphate, the Arab street has risen up against tyranny in favour of democracy, free speech, popular vote, government accountability and better equality of opportunity. These are “Western” values that al-Qaeda explicitly rejected, so the ideological repudiation of its vision of the preferred Muslim society is near complete. With the death of its symbolic leader, the futility of its fight is made apparent.

This does not mean that AQ is not dangerous. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s operations director and the person with the fixation on airplanes and transportation hubs, is still alive. Small-scale operations, to include inevitable revenge attacks, will continue for some time to come, if not forever. But as a fighting as well as ideological force, al-Qaeda is spent.

However, another can of worms has been opened by bin-Laden’s killing. His location in a modern constructed (2005) fortified compound with 3-5 meter walls topped by barbed wire located 40 miles outside of Islamabad suggests complicity by at least some elements of the Pakistani state in sheltering him. Although President Obama has said that he consulted with Pakistani authorities and that they “collaborated” in the operation, the truth is more likely that such statements are designed to save Pakistani face and that if anything, the Pakistani authorities were alerted only once the operation was over. The civilian government is weak, fractured and does not control either the military or the intelligence services (ISI). one would think that at least some elements of Pakistan’s security forces would have to have been alerted to the construction of the compound and the unusual nature of its occupants. The Pakistani state is fractured and acts as a sieve when it comes to information leaks, unless the subject matter is too important for some state actors to divulge because their own core interests are involved. Thus it is improbable that the entire Pakistani security complex had no idea of bin-Laden’s whereabouts.

The Pakistani authorities are now confronted by a dilemma. They have repeatedly complained about drone strikes as violations of territorial sovereignty, and most recently ordered the expulsion of dozens of CIA agents. Yet the raid on bin-Laden, so deeply into Pakistani territory–over 120 miles from the Afghan border (or more than 250 miles if the assault came from the Arabian Sea) and so close to the Pakistani capital–is a direct and measured assault on the sovereignty of the Pakistani state. It tells the Pakistani authorities that they do not have a monopoly on security within their borders, and that they are not trusted to share intelligence on critical subjects within those borders. This will leave them embarrassed and seeking a way to placate what will be inevitable domestic protests against the raid and supposed Pakistani collusion with it.

Under such conditions it is not implausible to speculate that some elements of the Pakistani security apparatus will attempt to stage a honor-restoring diversion so as to appease public unrest and re-establish some measure of self-pride. This could be focused on India or Afghanistan as easy targets for unconventional or proxy warfare. It could involve diplomatic retaliation such as a turn towards China. But is seems inevitable that the Pakistani State will be rendered by this event, and that the consequences of that destablisation may be anything but positive.

Hence, jingoistic flag-waving in the US notwithstanding (and some will say that the flag-waving is amply justified), the death of Osama bin Laden may bring some degree of closure but it is not the end of an era. It could well spark an uprising of extremist Muslim resistance that is reinvigorated by its  symbolic leader’s death. It will force a change in US-Pakistan relations and in the way Pakistan behaves as a geopolitical actor.  Whatever the consequences, this is just the end of one chapter and the beginning of another in a story yet to be concluded.