Up Front

The Implications of Osama bin Laden’s Death for the War in Afghanistan and Global Counterterrorism Efforts

Vanda Felbab-Brown

The death of Osama bin Laden is a very significant positive development in the global effort against salafi terrorism. After almost ten years of hunting after him since September 2001 and for many years more prior to that, United States operatives finally managed to eliminate America’s No. 1 enemy.

The symbolic value of bin Laden’s elimination cannot be overstated. Salafi terrorist groups, including al Qaeda itself, are far from tightly hierarchically-organized and thus susceptible to collapse if their leader is captured or killed. In fact, they are the very opposite – loose, overlapping, and connecting networks, far more resilient to such decapitation. However, bin Laden’s part in founding al Qaeda, his often-glorified role in the mujahedeen struggle against the Soviets in Afghanistan, his charisma among fellow salafi terrorists and aspirants, and his ability to elude global law enforcement, intelligence agencies, and some of the world’s major militaries for over a decade gave him almost a mythical character. With his demise finally, it will take a long time for anyone to reclaim bin Laden’s influence in the salafi terrorist circles, regardless of who and how quickly someone nominally replaces him at the head of al Qaeda.

The fact that his elimination was a human operation further increases the prestige of U.S. counterterrorism forces. Such operations are seen as far more honorable and glory-inspiring by salafi fighters than Predator drone strikes, no matter how much damage the Predator hits cause to salafi leadership structures and how much fear they inspire. And human operations do not carry the same burden of alleged civilian casualties as Predator strikes do.

Bin Laden’s death will also reverberate in Afghanistan, likely demoralizing at least some of the Taliban and international salafi fighters there. But the impact should not be overstated. Al Qaeda and the Taliban do share some goals, but they are not the same organizations. Even though they may exchange ideas and perhaps at times coordinate to some extent at the operational level, they maintain separate leadership structures and separate operations. Taliban leaders use Pakistan as a safe haven and co-mingle there with al Qaeda and many other salafi groups, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, and sometimes draw on the same pool of Afghan refugees, dissatisfied Pakistanis, and violent-jihad-motivated Arabs and Central Asians for recruits, but the Taliban remains an independent group. Its membership and leadership is predominantly Afghanistan-grown, and the motivations of its fighters very often have to do with Afghan politics, the paucity of good governance in Afghanistan, and highly local assessments of the balance of power between the insurgents on the one hand and ISAF and the Afghan security forces on the other, as well as with a myriad of highly personal, highly local considerations that at their core have little to do with the global salafi cause. Bin Laden’s death may somewhat change the context, but it will not negate these motivations.

A more pronounced effect of bin Laden’s death could be on negotiations with the Taliban. Despite their separate structures and al Qaeda’s limited influence over the Taliban’s decision-making, bin Laden likely was a significant force against the Taliban engaging in strategic negotiations – not the least because the Taliban’s disavowal of al Qaeda has been a critical precondition and/or the essential desired outcome of such negotiations.

Bin Laden’s demise may create a more permissive environment for Taliban Central to make such a commitment, saying that whatever new leadership emerges after bin Laden’s death is not the same old al Qaeda, with which the Taliban has not been willing to break for over 15 years. But as in the case of the impact on the Afghan battlefield, the impact on negotiations should not be overstated. Even without bin Laden and no matter what promises the Taliban makes to break with al Qaeda, the Taliban will owe a lot of debts to fellow salafis and it will not be easy for it to avoid their collection.

Thus although bin Laden’s death is a strategically important moment and a moment of justice, neither the war in Afghanistan nor the global effort against terrorism have ended as a result. The outcome in Afghanistan still remains crucial for the stability of Pakistan, relations among the United States, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Iran, and for the global struggle against terrorism. Even though the deaths of key terrorists like bin Laden are important markers, the effort against terrorism will long remain a matter of persistent and diligent law enforcement.