Opinions - 03.05.2011 - 00:00 

Consequences of bin Laden's Death

What does the death of Osama bin Laden mean for Al-Qaeda as well as the relationship between Washington and Islamabad? Is there hope for peace in Afghanistan? A comment by Professor James W. Davis.

3 May 2011. With the announcement that American armed forces had buried his body at sea, we finally have the answer to the riddle of Osama bin Laden's location: the bottom of the ocean. Nonetheless, the death of bin Laden, which resulted from a nighttime raid by US Special Forces raises as more interesting questions as it answers.

Changing face of al-Qaeda

The most important is perhaps the effect of bin Laden's death on al-Qaeda itself. Largely as a result of the orldwide "war on terror" of the past decade, the organization has been transformed. Today it is far less hierarchical and much more akin to a social movement than it was on September 11, 2001. And although bin Laden served as a unifying symbol for the movement, in recent years, individual terrorist cells have operated with increased independence. In a sense, al-Qaeda has become a franchise operation. But whether or not a diffuse social movement can outlive the cohesion provided by a charismatic leader remains an open question. Bin Laden leaves behind a competent operative in his former Egyptian deputy, Ayman az-Zawahiri, yet nobody knows whether he will be able to inspire a worldwide following.

US relations with Pakistan
The effects of bin Laden's death on future developments within Pakistan and Pakistan's political orientation in the region are likewise of utmost importance. According to reports coming out of the White House, the raid on bin Laden's compound was conducted without the advance knowledge of Islamabad. The reason is clear. Washington has long suspected that certain elements of the Pakistani government sympathize with political Islam, including its radical expression through terrorists like bin Laden. It is hard to imagine that bin Laden could live in a compound located very near to the Pakistani military academy, only two hours north of Islamabad, without the knowledge of anyone in the Pakistani government. Even harder to believe is that this fact will not have any consequences for the future course of Pakistan's relations with the United States or indeed, domestic politics within Pakistan, a nuclear power suffering from weak and corrupt leadership.

Afghanistan's future
Finally, the effects of bin Laden's death on the course of the ongoing war in Afghanistan are as yet unknown. But perhaps there is room for optimism. Strengthened by a daring and successful mission, President Obama is insulated against charges of weak leadership in foreign and defense affairs. This may lead him to follow the advice of those in the Administration who would like to begin a process of dialog with the Taliban in an effort to promote national reconciliation and reach a negotiated settlement. And the spectacular death of bin Laden could lead the Taliban leadership to reconsider their own political position and strategy in Afghanistan.

James W. Davis is a Professor of Political Science and Director of the Institute of Political Science at the University of St. Gallen.

photo: Photocase / Lukow

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