Even as Americans cheer the death of Osama bin Laden, U.S. policymakers may struggle to map out a new U.S. security policy that can redirect resources from a decade of laser-like focus on counterterrorism while still guarding against fresh attacks.
The death of the al Qaeda leader, who embodied the post-September 11 decade and the ‘War on Terror’ it inspired, could allow Washington to rebalance its foreign policy away from the expensive, bloody wars of Iraq and Afghanistan and shadowy counter terror operations elsewhere.
But such a shift, while welcome for Americans wearied by distant conflicts and worried by close-to-home issues like the economy, would run the risk of neglecting ongoing threats emanating from places like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, Reuters reports.
“It does free the United States up to change course either way,” said Daniel Byman, a security expert and member of the United States’ 9/11 Commission.
“We can more aggressively go after affiliates like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, shift to focus on (possible bin Laden successor Ayman al-) Zawahiri … or put the assets and energy into other priorities,” he said.
As the bloom of success in finally eliminating bin Laden wears off in the weeks ahead, President Barack Obama will face tough choices over these priorities — choices he must make in a poisonous pre-presidential campaign political climate.
The assumption, virtually unquestioned, that terrorism is the United States’ No. 1 security concern may be challenged for the first time since before September 11 — even as Obama in July starts a gradual drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
The Obama administration has stressed the raid that killed bin Laden in a safehouse outside Islamabad — so secret the Pakistani government apparently was in the dark — did not deal a death blow to al Qaeda or other global militant groups.
“This does not mean that we are putting down our guard, as far as al Qaeda is concerned,” said John Brennan, Obama’s top counterterrorism advisor. “It may be a mortally wounded tiger that still has some life in it.”
But while a new Reuters/Ipsos pill showed Obama enjoying a popularity bump from the bin Laden coup, he is grappling with a host of domestic pressures like an uncertain economic recovery, a resurgent Republican minority and his 2012 re-election bid.
For many Americans, now is the time to renew the focus on a different kind of U.S. global footprint. That could include greater public and economic diplomacy, and support for nascent democratic regimes in countries like Egypt where the threat of Islamist radicalism, real or imagined, fuelled decades of U.S. support for authoritarian rulers.
Congress has not shown much inclination to withhold security funding. But fiscal pressures are intense and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives might take a harder look now that the September 11 mastermind is dead.
Leaders in Europe and elsewhere appear to embracing a similar shift as they turn to more prosaic concerns like debt burdens and the race against rising economic powers like China.
Some officials believe Islamist militant groups, who capitalized on decades of simmering Arab discontent, may be less relevant following the popular revolutions that is transforming the Middle East this year.
A U.S. policy shift could be accelerated by mounting fatigue with the long, costly campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, where over 6,000 U.S. soldiers have died since 2001.
Obama, who rose to prominence in part by opposing the 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, has the United States on track to pull out the last of its troops from Iraq at the end of the year.
And despite record violence, Obama is expected to begin a withdrawal — probably modest — from Afghanistan in July.
WEB OF THREATS
Following the death of senior leaders over the past few years, al Qaeda is a much more scattered, diffuse organisation than it once was, counterterrorism officials and analysts say.
Max Boot, a Council on Foreign Relations fellow, wrote this week that bin Laden’s death at best “might lead to the decline of al Qaeda and the rise of other, competing organizations.”
The challenge of tracking such fractured, diffuse threats seems likely to dominate U.S. counterterrorism operations in the future.
“It behooves us to pay attention,” said Admiral William Fallon, the former head of U.S. Central Command and board member of the American Security Project.
Experts say regional affiliates like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which claimed responsibility for a thwarted Christmas day attack aboard a U.S. airliner in 2009, may pose the biggest threat to the United States.
The United States also sees a growing threat from other groups seen as linked to al Qaeda, such as Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba, blamed for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India; the Haqqani militant network active in eastern Afghanistan, and Somalia’s al-Shabaab.
Security agencies may now turn to the retaliatory attacks expected after bin Laden’s death and to the challenge of fending off low-tech attempts like the Pakistani Taliban’s failed bombing in New York City’s Times Square a year ago.
Washington is sure to keep up its hunt for Zawahiri, the Egyptian-born doctor likely to take the helm of al Qaeda, believed to be in Pakistan or Afghanistan.
But the results of that search may depend on how much cooperation the United States gets from Pakistan’s government, under heavy U.S. criticism after the discovery bin Laden had been living in a suburb of Islamabad.
In the end, U.S. security policy may be unable to pivot until it can end the war in Afghanistan, where despite bin Laden’s death, U.S. soldiers will toil on against a vigorous insurgency almost 10 years after the Taliban’s ouster.
“Regardless of this event, we are still working towards our goal of transition in July,” one senior U.S. defence official said of condition of anonymity. “The focus of our troops has not changed appreciably.”