The killing Sunday (May 1) in Pakistan of Osama bin Laden, by an American special-operations team, was rejoiced in many places. Yet, in the end, it seemed empty.
Bin Laden remained at his death the symbolic leader of the al-Qaida movement, but day-to-day control of al-Qaida operations had long since passed to lieutenants in a number of countries. And it had taken American and Western intelligence and military services nearly a decade since 9/11, and 20 years since al-Qaida commenced attacks on Western targets, to bring him to justice.
A few initial observations:
• Pakistani intelligence services had to have known bin Laden's whereabouts within their country. The compound where he was killed included by far the largest home in the town, 40 miles from the Pak capital of Islamabad, and it was guarded and fortified. It is quite possible, in fact, that the intelligence services provided the place to him. Discount reports of U.S.-Pak cooperation in the operation.
• The sad fact remains that bin Laden gained power, in part, through American misjudgments. U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson of Texas became enamored during the 1980s with Islamic fundamentalist resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan; he conspired, outside normal channels, to bring supplies and weapons to these forces, in which bin Laden was prominent. They later used them to maintain an al-Qaida base in Afghanistan and install a Taliban regime which would protect them. The Clinton and Bush administrations missed numerous pre-9/11 opportunities to take out bin Laden and the al-Qaida camps and leadership.
• Al-Qaida is a global movement, but fundamentalist movements in many Islamic countries, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan, will continue. In a number of Middle Eastern countries, presently in turmoil, fundamentalists are attempting to grab a piece of power as long-reigning oligarchic regimes are toppling or shaky. The Muslim Brotherhood has reemerged in Egypt; al-Qaida types are present, for instance, among Libyan and Yemeni rebel movements. As old regimes give way, there is no certainty that Western-style reformers will ultimately succeed them.
• Stalinism receded after Stalin; Hitlerism of course was forcibly eradicated after Hitler. But violent Islamic fundamentalism will not disappear simply because bin Laden has been killed. His visage no doubt will appear for many years on fundamentalist posters and banners, just as Lenin's did until the final, internal collapse of communism in the old Soviet Union.
In the meantime, the greatest threat to our long-term national security is being addressed today (May 2) in Washington, D.C., where White House and Congressional representatives resume talks regarding lifting of the federal debt ceiling — and the reduction of our $14-trillion-plus national debt.