This morning, I heard news of last night's announcement of the death of Osama Bin Laden, and I have been watching the coverage on the BBC. Yesterday's Navy Seal operation at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan has led to many different reactions. There are questions about his presence in a large compound so close to a Pakistani military academy, where General Petraeus visited just last year. People wonder whether the Pakistani government helped the US find him or sheltered him. Despite report of DNA confirmation of his identity, the lack of images of his body and the fact that his body was disposed of at sea makes people wonder whether he was in fact killed. Some people protest the fact that he was killed rather than captured and put on trial, and whether that was always the intent of US forces. People also speculate on what the ramifications from al-Qaeda and its affiliates will be.
Personally, my initial thought based on what I have seen and read so far are as follows:
1) I don't know who the Pakistanis were assisting, but they are certainly between a rock and a hard place politically. On the one hand, the US and most of the international community condemn al-Qaeda, who has killed many innocents in both the "western world" and the "Arab world". Obviously, his extremist view of the opposition of these two has caused other innocent deaths the did not perpetrate, especially in the American campaign in Iraq, which was largely justified by the idea that the Iraqi government was in league with al-Qaeda. This same idea of opposition between the west and all Arabs or even all Muslims makes it politically treacherous for Pakistan within the region, and especially within the country. Regardless of the Pakistani public's views on al-Qaeda, there is also the issue of Pakistani sovereignty, which is to say that no country wants to appear weak to its people, and no one wants to look like they can be walked on by anyone else's military. At the very most basic level, a government wants to assure its people that it can provide security, and that it is in control. I think that many people in America believe -- due to ignorance about this part of the world -- that Pakistan is a small, insignificant country. In fact, it is the sixth most populous country in the world (behind China, India, the US, Indonesia, and Brazil). It has over half the number of people in the US in an area of land less than 1/11th the size of the US. The metropolitan area of Islamabad houses 4.5 million people, about one million less than either the Atlanta or Detroit metro areas. The sixth largest country in the world certainly must feel the importance of being able to protect its citizens. This makes it difficult for Pakistan to firmly declare itself as standing on either side of this issue.
From an American perspective, even if they had cooperation from some in the Pakistani government, they would have suspected the possibility of leaks from al-Qaeda sympathizers within the ISI or the military. It had certainly happened before, saving Osama Bin Laden from a cruise missile attack on the compound he was known to have occupied in 1998. I imagine that American forces would have been very cautious about any level of involvement of Pakistani forces. I also expect that they would have gone to extra measures to be certain that this was Osama Bin Landen's location, because performing such a raid without producing such a result would have been a much more serious infringement of Pakistani sovereignty, that is, one which could not have been justified by the Pakistanis. I wonder if General Petraeus's visit could have been an attempt to draw out an attack from the compound.
I do not think that Pakistani intelligence had to know who was living in that compound. It is almost as if he was hiding in plain sight. Being where your enemy least expects could be much more effective disguise than hiding in places that are typically used as such. Also, the insular nature of certain parts of Pakistani culture, specifically the isolation of women that makes the home an inviolable sanctuary, allows the hiding of other things or people in the home. When half the occupants of a home are expected to never be seen by the public, and prying isn't just impolite, but a moral insult, then the walls of a compound have a layer of security more impregnable than simple concrete. Furthermore, the culturally ingrained habits of not looking aid the fugitive, just as they helped hide the identity of kidnapped Utah girl Elizabeth Smart, whose entire community was searching for what was just under their noses.
2) The next issue I mentioned is verifying the question of whether Bin Laden was actually killed. At first, I was skeptical of the ability to identify him via his DNA, simply because I wondered where we would have obtained samples for comparison. Apparently, one source was several of his family members. Even if they had no samples directly from Osama Bin Laden, this does make his identification via DNA testing plausible.
Related to this question is the lack of photos of his body, and the quick disposal of the body. Obviously, it is questionable whether he was killed if no one can else can verify it after the fact. Some have suggested that photos are in existence, because special operations are routinely filmed via helmet cams, etc., but that the photos are being held back in order to lessen the immediate reaction from remaining al-Qaeda members. I also think that it is possible that, if there are photos, that Osama Bin Laden may have deliberately changed his appearance to help him hide. Note that only voice recordings have been issued recently. In that case, showing the photos might actually provoke more disbelief than they solve. Similar reactions could be had to the body.
They might have disposed of the body to prevent the burial or holding site from becoming a shrine or a target of attacks. Certainly, there aren't many places that would want such a site on their soil.
Still, I think the strongest evidence of his death is yet to come, and we will be waiting for the release of photos or the lack of verifiably new communications from him. I do think that lying about this would be hugely stupid, politically, so I do believe it happened.
3) I do agree with those who say it was unlikely that he would ever have been captured alive and put on trial. First, there would have been a question of jurisdiction. Would he be tried in international court? American court? An Arab country where he perpetrated attacks? Saudi Arabia, where he is a citizen? Would he be subject to the death penalty? Would he be tried in a military tribunal or a civilian court? Secondly, he would have been able to make inflammatory speeches while on trial. Thirdly, his prison would have been a target and a security risk. Fourthly, the attack on his compound inevitably involved a firefight, making his death more likely. Finally, he himself had sworn that he would not be taken alive, and had a bullet ready for his own death at all times.
The current film Conspirator has certainly made me think about where we draw the line when it comes to trials in war times. It is difficult to determine what is acceptable collateral damage in a war. So many are killed in battle, and that is considered appropriate. People who do not fight are killed when they harbor combattants and their homes are attacked. People are also killed in sieges or bombings that effect larger areas, such as whole cities. When are these people considered guilty accomplices, and when are they considered innocents? When are they entitled to a trial and when is their death considered simply a necessary, if unfortunate, consequence of war? Fighting a war against an organization is considerably more sticky than fighting a war against a country. I wonder at times if it can be called a war at all. Certainly, Osama Bin Laden believed it was a war, and that he died in battle. Though it may have made him a martyr to some, I doubt that there was any other way.
4) What are the ramifications of his death on al-Qaeda and their allies? Certainly, he will be considered to be a martyr. Certainly, people will try to avenge his death. Security organizations will be on high alert. Perhaps the choice not to release photos will have an effect of delaying some of that as members are uncertain and wait for confirmation of his death. There may then be less momentum for terrorist attacks. I don't know.
The big question is whether this attack at the head means that the beast will die. Certainly, cut off and in hiding in his compound, Bin Laden has not been able to command the daily operations of al-Qaeda. There are many remaining leaders who could take the reigns. On the other hand, I have heard experts say that none of these people have the same charisma as Bin Laden, nor the inspiring story that made others want to follow him. None of these leaders can really fill his shoes. Also, it seems that al-Qaeda had already begun to fade in power, as evidenced by the fact that association with them has become a political liability, even for protesters in Yemen. Over the past five years, they have been more successful at attacking Arabs than Westerners. Ultimately, I think this is all a question of the battle for hearts and minds, which is to say that is a question of the new leaders' ability to recruit and to garner aid and support from local populations. Will those al-Qaeda leaders who step into the breach be seen as leaders in a fight against Western interference and oppression, or will Western action in Libya and elsewhere be seen as an attempt to protect and aid the people? Certainly, efforts on that front in Afghanistan and Iraq have not matched the reconstruction efforts in Germany and Japan after WWII, though perhaps we are too impatient for success in this modern age. I think that our actions in the wake of Bin Laden's death have as big an impact on the future success of al-Qaeda as the work of its other leaders do.
It does, I hope, allow other allied groups, such as the Taliban, to come to the table politically. I hope that it helps security in Afghanistan and Iraq, so that US troops, including non-combat troops, can come home.