THERE ARE multiple reasons to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden in a U.S. special forces raid Sunday. Al-Qaeda has lost its founder and symbol, if not its operational commander. The prime author of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has finally been brought to justice. Moreover, the world has seen a formidable show of prowess by U.S. intelligence and military forces. The bin Laden compound was located not by a stroke of luck or a drone overflight, but by years of painstaking intelligence gathering — some of which, unfortunately, may have come in the unlawful interrogation of prisoners at CIA “black sites.” The final raid by helicopter-borne Navy SEALs appears to have been masterfully executed, with no U.S. casualties, a feat that may banish some memories of the failed 1980 hostage rescue mission in Iran.
President Obama, who closely oversaw preparations for the attack, was rightly credited by all sides in Washington for seeing it through; the operation provided a rare moment of common celebration and relief in a divided America.
But the practical importance of the strike may not match its political and moral resonance. In fact, the bin Laden operation may even deepen some of the problems the United States faces in South Asia a decade after Sept. 11. First, it’s not clear to what degree al-Qaeda’s operations will be affected by the loss of its leader. If, as many have concluded in recent years, bin Laden was not directly involved in the planning and execution of terrorist operations, he may be worth almost as much to al-Qaeda dead as alive. As followers of Che Guevara or Leon Trotsky can attest, dead militants can still inspire, particularly if they fall at the hands of their enemies. Though battered by counterterrorism operations, al-Qaeda remains a formidable organization with hundreds of operatives in Pakistan and autonomous branches in Yemen, North Africa and Europe. It may be at its most dangerous in coming weeks and months, when it is likely to attempt to avenge the death of its founder.
Sunday’s success also could backfire if it causes the administration or Congress to conclude that the United States can now afford a quick retreat from Afghanistan. Mr. Obama is soon to decide on the scale of planned troop withdrawals this summer; some will argue that the objective of the Afghanistan war — defeat of al-Qaeda — has been accomplished. But al-Qaeda is no longer the only or even the principal threat in the theater. There is also the danger that the Taliban movements — which Monday were mourning bin Laden — will succeed in gaining control over Afghanistan, Pakistan, or both.
Finally, the facts emerging about the bin Laden compound underline the complex challenge Pakistan poses. A formidable installation constructed in 2005, the mansion lies within what amounts to a military community, near Pakistan’s answer to West Point. Experts on Pakistan say it is difficult to know whether the military was aware of the hideout; White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said Monday that the “location there raises questions.” Pakistani authorities so far have publicly accommodated a raid staged by foreign forces in the heart of their country, which they knew nothing about beforehand. But the possibility of Pakistani complicity with the bin Laden hideout cannot be ruled out — or swept under a rug.