- By Peter FeaverPeter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.
The killing of Osama bin Laden is the culmination of years of hard work by military, intelligence, law enforcement, and diplomatic professionals — thousands upon thousands of hours of arduous physical and mental labor. It is not their only achievement, of course, but in symbolic terms, it is surely one of the most satisfying.
This is also the signal national security achievement of the Obama Administration and they are taking a well-earned victory lap. The Administration is to be commended for many things — and as we learn more about the mission, we may learn yet additional ways the team performed well — but two things in particular struck me as praiseworthy: first, the Administration managed to keep this operation secret despite months of lead time and internal deliberations; and second, the decision to bury bin Laden at sea (assuming that they have otherwise secured indisputable evidence that they got the right man) deftly dealt with the problem of a martyrdom shrine. The President may have struck a few discordant notes in his remarks, but this is not the time for cavils. This is a time to honor the efforts of everyone involved, from the nitty-gritty tactical trigger-puller to the President himself.
Yet, as President Obama rightly emphasized, killing bin Laden does not mean that the war against terrorists inspired by militant Islamism to wage war against the United States and our allies is over.
Indeed, in some ways the details of this operation remind us that we still face daunting challenges. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the entire affair is the news that bin Laden was not hiding out in a cave in the remote parts of ungoverned areas but in an affluent Pakistani neighborhood close to an Army base. This fact raises inevitable questions about the degree to which some Pakistani authorities might have helped bin Laden to elude us, whether by acts of omission or commission. From the earliest hours after the 9/11 attacks, it was recognized that a transnational terrorist network would be far more lethal if it could leverage state sponsorship. A few men in a cave is not as dangerous as a few men in a cave with access to select resources of a state.
A deeper challenge can be found closer to home. President Obama will enjoy a much-needed boost in public and bipartisan confidence. But the aspects that unite the country — the success of this tactical mission — will soon enough give way to the aspects that do not. What does this mean for the larger war against the Taliban in Afghanistan? Will Americans, understandably tired of the costs of a lengthy war, rush to declare victory and demand a premature end to operations there and elsewhere?
In an eerie coincidence, I was watching the movie Charlie Wilson’s War as news of the operation against bin Laden filtered out. That movie celebrates another significant American achievement — the covert operation to assist the mujahideen in defeating the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980’s. The script deftly pairs the celebration of this achievement with the reminder that the United States failed to follow through with the implications of success and within a few short years was confronting a new menace we barely understood.
We have just killed the most significant leader of that menace, and we should honor that achievement. But we should not pretend that there is no more work to be done. President Obama and his team understand that. Will they be able to persuade the American people and our partners around the world to understand that?