Apart from being a moment of justice for the world and a partial closure for al Qaeda’s victims, Osama bin Laden’s death has strategic implications for the global struggle against salafi terrorism, the war in Afghanistan and U.S.-Pakistan relations.
Neither al Qaeda nor other salafi terrorist groups are tightly hierarchically organized and thus are not easily susceptible to collapse even with the elimination of the group’s leader. Nonetheless, even salafi networks are sensitive to major disruption of leadership.
Although Bin Laden did not control the operations of many al Qaeda affiliates, his charisma and inspirational role to these networks were very important. His killing by U.S. operatives will to some extent demoralize followers in those networks.
How his death will reverberate depends on the region. It will be felt more strongly in Central and South Asia where the Qaeda core has been located than, say, in Somalia where, despite al Shabab’s declaration of allegiance to Al Qaeda, the relationship between the two groups remains tenuous.
In Afghanistan, the demoralizing effect is likely to be fairly limited. Although the Taliban leadership does exchange ideas with al Qaeda and other salafi groups in Pakistan, the groups remain separate. The motivations of Taliban leaders and fighters tend to be highly personal and local and very much driven by Afghan politics. Osama bin Laden’s demise will not alter these local, tribal and personal considerations.
But his death could increase the Taliban’s willingness to negotiate an end to the war by adding to its sense of vulnerability, already heightened from drone strikes in Pakistan and other operations in Afghanistan. Bin Laden’s death may also make it easier for the Taliban to agree to break with al Qaeda — a central U.S. objective for such negotiations.
The strength of this effect, however, should not be overstated. The Taliban still owe debts to al Qaeda and other global salafi networks, and it will not be easy for them to renege on these debts.
Either way, people in the United States and Europe should not be lulled into thinking that Bin Laden’s death will end the conflict in Afghanistan. A major reduction of the U.S. and international effort in Afghanistan now would still likely result in a civil war and the Taliban controlling important portions of the country, an outcome that would create vast negative repercussions for global counterterrorism efforts, relations among the United States, China, Pakistan, India, Russia and Iran, and Pakistan’s stability.
The effect on U.S.-Pakistan relations remains to be seen. The fact that he was killed in a compound only an hour’s drive from Islamabad and close to Pakistani intelligence and military centers is disturbing. If Pakistan’s cooperation was minimal or perhaps even a hindrance, U.S.-Pakistani relations would likely plummet further from than the current low.