What Bin Laden’s Death Gives Us, And What It Doesn’t

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The death of bin Laden is an opportunity for many things. A chance to reassess how we continue the war in Afghanistan, as reported in the New York Times today.

It offers the possibility of peeling the Taliban away from from al Qaeda, in the hopes that the earstwhile leaders of Afghanistan might eventually reconcile with the current government, bringing peace to the country and a potentially honorable exit for the United States.

The information garnered in the raid on bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound may help prevent future terrorist attacks, or unearth new details about the al Qaeda network. It may help the Americans decide, once and for all, if Pakistan has really been playing a double game.

And according to an old friend in Pakistan, the miserable performance of the country’s intelligence service — either in concealing bin Laden or failing to prevent an incursion across the border—it is a “golden opportunity” for the civilians to put the military in its place, under civilian control.

The one thing that the discovery of bin Laden is not likely to be, however, is encouragement for the Taliban to reintegrate, at least in the context described by commander, Maj. Gen. John F. Campbell of the 101st Airborne Division in a video news conference to the Pentagon from his headquarters at Bagram Air Base, as quoted by the Times:

Still, the images of Bin Laden living in comfort in a Pakistan safe house may undermine the morale of frontline insurgent fighters, General Campbell said, coming as some insurgent foot soldiers are said to be expressing frustration with their leadership’s commanding from the relative safety of Pakistan.

“I think the insurgents are going to say, ‘Hey, you know, why am I doing this?’ ” he said. “And I think there’s great potential for many of the insurgents to say, ‘Hey, I want to reintegrate.’ ”

It’s a comforting narrative, that guerillas would be jealous of the comforts of their leaders, but it doesn’t track. First, lets address the issue of the Abbotabad “mansion.” We are not talking marble baths and thick wool rugs. From the pictures, it looks like your standard house in Kandahar – cracked walls, no heat, and certainly no central air when the temperature reaches 100. Bin Laden wasn’t watching his videos on a surround sound flat screen either – it looks like the old TV I have in my Islamabad office, one that dates to…. 1998. Overall, it looks like he had a pretty miserable existence.

Nevermind that most Taliban I’ve ever spoken to, currently serving or past tense, don’t really care about bin Laden. They are busy fighting their own war, and while they may pay homage to the Sheikh, as they call him, they didn’t expect him out on the battlefield. And certainly not if he was the the most wanted terrorist on earth.

If anything, most people who made it their life’s work to take on the U.S. probably enjoyed the idea that the man who struck the biggest blow against their enemy was out there somewhere, safely sticking his tongue out at the great Satan. And now he’s not. So yes, it may have been a blow to morale, but let’s not get carried away. There is still a lot of work to be done.