We can take a little time out for satisfaction today in last night’s announcement that Osama bin Laden has been brought to justice in the only practical way — with his death, under American fire, in one of his Pakistani hideouts.
But we ought not to delude ourselves into believing that this is the end, or even the beginning of the end, of our decade-long war against the particularly malignant brand of evil that has come to be known as “terror.” At best, this is just the end of the beginning, to borrow a phrase from Winston Churchill.
We still need to deal with bin Laden’s deputies, minions and acolytes, beginning with al-Qaeda’s high-profile number-two leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. We need to dispense a more formal justice to al-Qaeda’s captains and foot soldiers in custody, notably Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, now in U.S. custody at Guantanamo.
Most importantly, we need to deal with the numerous regimes around the globe that hold power through force and that do not hesitate to use violence and terror to pursue their objectives within and beyond their borders. Some, like Iran and North Korea, are clearly our adversaries, while others, including Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, often position themselves as our friends — at least when it is convenient for them to do so.
Pakistan is a particularly problematic “friend.” It was Pakistan where bin Laden took refuge after American troops cornered him in the Afghan mountains at Tora Bora, just a few months after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. President Obama told us last night that an American team tracked bin Laden to a house in the city of Abbottabad, which is not in Pakistan’s anarchic tribal lands bordering Afghanistan, but rather is in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly known as the North-West Frontier Province, further east.
Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment will swear that it had no idea where bin Laden was hiding all this time. Clearly, he made himself a difficult target, but he did not escape detection for so long without help from a lot of people, mainly his former Taliban protectors. Pakistan was an early and reliable sponsor of the Afghan Taliban. Though Pakistan formally switched sides following 9/11, it is abundantly clear that Pakistani intelligence is still providing support and protection to the Taliban leadership. This puts our so-called ally on the opposite side from us in the Afghan war that has lasted nine years.
Saudi Arabia is no friend of bin Laden, but until just a few years ago, when al-Qaeda launched several serious attacks inside the desert kingdom, Saudi money was a critical source of bin Laden’s support. Saudi cash continues to fund the religious “schools” that are little more than terrorist recruiting and training grounds, from Pakistan all the way to Indonesia. Apart from identifying potential young jihadists, the Saudi-funded schools’ main purpose is to promote their society’s exceptionally intolerant version of Islam.
The Saudis are reliable allies in our efforts to contain Iranian aggression, because the Saudis have perhaps the most to lose from Iranian domination of the Persian Gulf. That does not, however, mean the Saudis are our friends. Iran, meanwhile, continues to use terrorism and kidnapping as an adjunct of state policy.
The problem with the Middle East is an acute shortage of good guys. We can hope for change from the ongoing drive against dictatorships that has come to be known as the Arab Spring. The change we get, however, is not necessarily going to be the change we want.
I don’t mean to be a wet blanket on what is a very happy day for all Americans, including me. Bin Laden directed and celebrated the slaughter of nearly 3,000 innocent people on a single morning. Given the opportunity to kill 10 times, or 100 times, or 1,000 times that many, there is little doubt that he would have seized it in a heartbeat. There is no word for this in the English language, other than evil. Even though a decade of American pursuit left him isolated and marginalized, he had to be stopped, and it was best done by Americans in order to send a message to his followers that there will be no escape from the consequences of their actions.
We can expect threats, and maybe acts, of reprisal from bin Laden’s camp in the near future. We will probably hear cries of outrage from at least some quarters in Pakistan about the alleged violation of that country’s sovereignty in the attack on bin Laden. That would be a good time for Obama to announce a policy that the United States will respect claims of sovereignty over territory only in the case of governments that are prepared to exercise it. If Pakistan wants its borders to be respected, Pakistan needs to take responsibility for the acts that are organized and the people who take shelter within those borders. The Pakistanis, who are proud and protective of their nuclear arsenal, will not appreciate such a message. They and others like them will continue to employ terror when they believe it serves their needs.
This is why the bin Laden’s death is not the end, or nearly the end, of the war on terror. The war on terror will be won only when governments find that it no longer suits their purposes, and when terrorists know that a firm and inexorable justice awaits them, even if it does not find them quickly. Justice found Osama bin Laden yesterday. That’s a good beginning.