Now. the questions | Stephen Biddle

How much should US policy change?

By Stephen Biddle
May 3, 2011

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MUCH OF US national security policy since 2001 has been based on the fight against Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Massive increases in the defense budget, two invasions of sovereign states, and limited interventions in others via drone strikes and espionage, have all been responses to bin Laden’s attack on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. Bin Laden is now dead. How much should this change a US national security strategy and policy that has been shaped so profoundly by his actions?

It’s too early to tell, but there are at least two possibilities. Neither changes the picture dramatically in the near term, but the downstream effects could be much greater.

In the optimistic scenario, Al Qaeda withers with the loss of its charismatic leader, enabling the United States to stand down from its current level of counterterror military activity. Some terrorist groups survive the loss of their founding leader, but others fail. The Shining Path in Peru, for example, died out after its leader, Abimael Guzman, was arrested in 1992. If Al Qaeda fails, its ability to fund and inspire other Islamist military organizations would go away, too. And this could reduce the aggregate virulence of anti-Western terrorism.

Much of the case for US military action abroad is based on the need to contain this threat. Airstrikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia have helped contain Al Qaeda, but are also unpopular in the target states and help inspire anti-Americanism and fuel terrorist recruitment. If the terror threat diminishes, so does the case for airstrikes.

Perhaps most important, the merits of waging war in Afghanistan turn on its potential to reduce the terror threat to America and the West. The case for the Afghan war has long been a close call given the war’s indirect connection to Al Qaeda. Bin Laden has been based in Pakistan, not Afghanistan, since 2002. The strongest argument for counterinsurgency in Afghanistan has been to reduce the risk that failure there would destabilize its Pakistani neighbor, increasing the danger of a Pakistani state collapse that would undermine the security of its nuclear arsenal and offer bin Laden an otherwise unattainable chance at grabbing a usable nuclear weapon.

Reasonable people have long disagreed on whether this risk merits the sacrifice required. For me it has been worth it, but only barely; others think not. Either way, a serious reduction in the terror threat from Pakistan would weaken the case for war in Afghanistan accordingly. As with any complex policy, there are multiple stakes for the United States in Afghanistan. But the chief one has always been to diminish the terror threat. And the less virulent that threat, the weaker the case for great exertions in the Afghan war. If the terror threat subsides enough, the balance could shift to make US disengagement the wiser course.

But this is not the only plausible prognosis for Islamist terror after bin Laden. After all, bin Laden himself has been mostly a figurehead for a long time, with a symbolic rather than an operational role in Al Qaeda. Modern terrorist campaigns are waged by organizations, not individuals; killing the leader normally helps, but not always enough to make a decisive difference.

Nor is Al Qaeda the sole problem today. Islamist terrorism in Pakistan has been growing for years and is not limited to Al Qaeda. There is a now witches’ brew of diverse terrorist organizations active there (and elsewhere), with complex interconnections and support bases. Even if bin Laden’s death kills Al Qaeda, if others pick up the slack then the underlying problem could remain much the same; if Afghanistan collapses, large-scale terrorist bases there could tip an unstable Pakistan into collapse with grave consequences.

If so, the case for war in Afghanistan would remain largely unchanged — if it’s worth it today, it will continue to be. And much the same would hold for drone attacks, espionage activities, and the rest of the current counterterrorism strategy. At the margin, the case for any of these might weaken, but if Al Qaeda allies simply pick up the slack, then the change in the real merits of such policies would be small.

For now, we cannot know how great an effect bin Laden’s death will have on Al Qaeda or Islamist terror generally. If Al Qaeda and its allies suffer the Shining Path’s fate, then the long-term consequences for US defense policy could be profound. If not, we could be left with mostly the same dilemmas we face today, and bin Laden’s killing will be seen as an act of justice, but not as a decisive turning point in American defense policy.

Stephen Biddle is senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle.’’