Monday, May 02, 2011

I'm trying to think of something interesting to say about Osama Bin Laden.

His death ought to be a momentous occasion but I'm not sure I have much to add. I guess I admit that I am surprised. I think I would have bet that he'd be able to manage to avoid capture for the rest of his life. So as a demonstration of the US's operational ability and capacity to project its power anywhere in the world it's an important fact.

I think I'd also say that if anyone, ever, "had it coming to him" it was Bin Laden. This is a man who dedicated half his life to stirring up a war between Islam and the "Western" (Christian / Liberal Democratic / Capitalist) powers, with some hope of cruelly damaging the US, if not destroying it outright. It was inevitable that the US was going to react against him. It was a war Bin Laden freely chose. (And I suppose didn't regret.)

That isn't to say that I think any any attempt to make war on, or destroy the US, deserves death. I think there can be legitimate reasons for such an action; motivated by the hope of putting something better in its place.

But those causes that I believe motivated Bin Laden (a desire to expel infidel US troops from the Arabian Holy Land, outrage at the pernicious influence of Western values on the Islamic world) were not ones I would support or condone. (There's an issue with the Western powers' support for the repressive regime in Saudi Arabia, but we have little reason to think Bin Laden represented the kind of progressive alternative that we'd want.)

So what follows? Is it "over"?

In one sense, it clearly isn't. I follow John Robb's general analysis of the "bazaar of violence" and not a "great man" view of history. In this analysis, Bin Laden played the role of the "venture" terrorist, investing in, and retrospectively giving a stamp of approval to, the terrorist actions of others. He wasn't operationally involved, and rarely the prime mover of such plots. He may even not have been much concerned with strategy except at the most abstract level. He was not no longer a "leader" in the normal sense. Hence, his removal may have little effect on the current operations of al Qaida.

On the other hand. Much of the "War on Terror" propaganda was convenient rhetoric for the politicians of the day to seize and retain more power, hand fat contracts over to their cronies, and accuse their critics of aiding the enemy. They seem keen to push this message that it's not over, undoubtedly because being in a constant state of war is highly convenient for them.

So one must question that. It isn't fully over. But perhaps we should be sceptical of exactly how over it isn't. (If that makes any sense.)

What else?

I would suspect that Obama will want to disengage from Afghanistan as quickly as possible now he can claim a real "mission accomplished". There are many reasons to stay, but none as good as the reasons for getting out. And it will be perverse not to take this opportunity. It won't be good for those in Afghanistan hoping for peace or a liberal state. But such promises from the West were always a cruel illusion. NATO troops can deliver neither deep cultural engineering nor economic prosperity to Afghanistan.

What we can and should do, is arbitrarily declare that every woman in Afghanistan is threatened and oppressed. Every woman who wants to leave should be given unconditional asylum in Europe or the US, and receive support from the NATO forces to travel. With luck we can do something useful to help women escape the oppression of a vicious culture, and perhaps the men of Afghanistan may learn to respect what they fear losing.

Couple of final links :

Guardian analysis plays down Bin Laden's actual achievements. I suspect this profoundly misunderestimates him. Much of the damage done to the US in the last 10 years has been self-inflicted by bad politicians and opportunistic oligarchs. Nevertheless, it was Bin Laden who set the trap and lured the US down this path. Without him there'd have been no invasion of Afghanistan, probably no invasion of Iraq, no Guantanamo Bay, no Abu Ghraib, no descent into the use of torture, no polarisation of the American people, possibly no unmanagable budget deficit (how much money was wasted in Iraq again?), no Tea Party, no blood in the water, smell of American weakness. Bush might have bumbled harmlessly through his presidency like a less charming Boris Johnson.

The US today is far different from the shining beacon of prosperity and moral authority it was in 2000, when all it had to worry about was the odd presidential sex scandal and some irrational exuberance around internet startups.

And Osama Bin Laden was undoubtedly a significant cause of that.

Oh, and here's what I wrote on September 11th, 2003.

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