Rick Holmes: Declare victory and move on
Osama bin Laden was killed last Sunday, but bin Ladenism preceded him in death.
The world is not safe from terrorist violence, but what the neocons dramatically dubbed "Islamofascism" is on the run. Its most prominent international leader is fish food.
So what should we do now? Declare victory and move on.
The evidence of the victory is in what you didn't see this week. The man who was a hero to millions of Muslims a decade ago went largely unmourned in the Arab streets. American troops had murdered the world's most famous jihadi, but there were no big demonstrations, no flag-burnings.
What happened? Twenty years ago, bin Laden was a rising star in the Muslim world. He was challenging the much-resented U.S. and Israel, of course, but what drew even more Arabs to his cause was his opposition to the tyrants running their own countries. People always care more about grievances close to home than ideological fixations on faraway places, and bin Laden vowed to overthrow Saddam Hussein and the Saudi royal family.
Bin Laden started losing support among his own people on 9/11. For millions of people around the world, and especially in the Middle East, New York City is a symbol of a brighter future, a place to immigrate to, not destroy. The ferocity of America's reaction to the attacks turned more people against the terrorists who invited it.
Yes, there were lots of babies named Osama born in the Muslim world in the weeks after 9/11, but most Muslims do not rejoice in the death of innocents, and more terrorism did not make terrorists more popular.
These changing attitudes are reflected in polls. In 2005, 52 percent of Pakistanis had confidence in bin Laden to "do the right thing in world affairs," the Pew Global Attitudes Project reports. By 2009, that had fallen to 18 percent. Pew found a similar drop in support for bin Laden and al-Qaida in every Muslim country surveyed except Nigeria.
Then came the Arab Spring. Led by people who were children when 9/11 traumatized America, Arabs rose up through social networking and non-violent protests, not terrorist attacks. They demanded freedom, democracy, pluralism and the rule of law, not the religious caliphate bin Laden wanted.
And it worked. In Egypt and Tunisia, tyrants fell. Across North Africa and the Mideast, autocrats are offering reforms to suddenly-empowered citizens, or coming down on protesters with violence and intimidation. It's not easy, it's not pretty and it's not over. But as these dramas play out in country after country, the central characters are not bin Ladenist jihadis.
It's been evident for years that al-Qaida had become a franchise operation, with cells in Iraq, Yemen and North Africa capable of operating independently. But those who have followed it most closely say we shouldn't underestimate the blow Navy SEALs struck last Sunday. Peter Bergen, who interviewed bin Laden and has written several books about Al Qaida, noted on the Today Show this week that al-Qaida deputies were required to pledge their personal allegiance to bin Laden, not to the organization he led.
Bin Laden's number two, Ayman al-Zarahiri, isn't as gifted, charismatic or popular as bin Laden, and likely won't be able to hold the organization together. "Bin Laden is essentially irreplaceable," Bergen said.
The thousands of jihadis recruited and trained by al-Qaida won't all hang up their suicide vests and go home. But they may settle for smaller attacks on local targets instead of pursuing bin Laden's dream of a major attack on the West worthy of being the sequel to 9/11.
We probably won't be able to stop taking our shoes off in airports, and the homeland security/anti-terrorism complex that grew in the wake of 9/11 won't be quickly or easily downsized. U.S. troops will keep going after the bad guys, but they'll do it like they pursued bin Laden, through intelligence work and elite "special ops" units.
These units have already reshaped America's defense strategy in ways most people haven't realized. Speaking on PBS NewsHour the other day, CIA Director Leon Panetta said that what gave him confidence in the SEALs' assault on bin Laden's hideout was that "these teams conduct these kinds of operations two and three times a night in Afghanistan. They've got tremendous experience with how to do this and do it well."
The idea of multiple, top-secret U.S. hit squads operating around the world is disconcerting. Even the assassination of bin Laden, the villain of the age, has some Americans feeling queasy. But if the goal is to put a small number of terrorists out of action, sending unmanned drones and small teams of specialists after them risks less collateral damage and fewer American lives - and costs a whole lot less than invading, occupying and nation-building in hostile territory.
The war in Afghanistan is costing the taxpayers $300 million a day and priceless lost lives. Without bin Laden, al-Qaida and what Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld dubbed the "Global War on Terror" dominating our thinking, pressure is growing to bring more troops home more quickly. We may see a transition to the counter-terrorism option Joe Biden advocated early in the Obama administration, with special ops teams doing the dirty work, and away from the "clear, hold and build" strategy - the new name for nation-building is "armed humanitarianism" - the Pentagon preferred.
President Barack Obama's appointment of Panetta to head the Defense Department and Gen. David Petraeus to head the CIA seem to confirm a shift to intelligence-driven special ops over large-scale operations.
With the Global War on Terror over, the U.S. can analyze problems one country at a time. Obama has been criticized for his reluctance to create a "doctrine" that can be applied to every situation. But every country is different, and the U.S. has many tools to apply in different situations: diplomacy, development aid, sanctions, armed intervention.
Not that every tool works. In Afghanistan, like Iraq, we've tried armed intervention, at great cost. In Pakistan, the focus has been on diplomatic pressure and billions in military aid. Neither approach has had great success.
But Pakistan has been a problem for the U.S. as long as there's been a Pakistan, and Afghanistan has been ungovernable for centuries. Those countries will continue to be problems for the U.S. because of weaknesses and contradictions only they can resolve. The regimes in power are divided, corrupt, ineffective and lack popular support.
Getting most of our troops out of Afghanistan would probably help more than it would hurt. As it is, we're propping up an Afghan leader who is untrusted and untrustworthy. America's large footprint in Afghanistan feeds resentment and corruption. We have less leverage with Pakistan's equally untrustworthy leaders because without Pakistan, we couldn't resupply 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan.
None of these decisions is easy, but bin Laden's death allows us to see them with a new clarity. It's time America stopped basing its foreign policy on opposition to a fading, fringe movement whose leader is now dead. Declare victory and let's move on.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (http://blogs.townonline.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at email@example.com.