Don’t Get Cocky, America

Al Qaeda is still deadly without Osama bin Laden.


Osama bin Laden’s death is a significant blow for al Qaeda, removing a figurehead who had evaded the largest manhunt in world history for almost a decade, and who seemingly managed to remain operationally relevant up until he was killed. In the torrents of commentary that will follow his announced death, many will agree with the puzzling proclamation that analyst Peter Bergen made on CNN last night that this marks the end of the war on terror.

In fact, bin Laden’s death does not close this chapter in history. Two points are worth bearing in mind. First, bin Laden’s strategic ideas for beating a superpower (which U.S. planners never fully understood) have permeated his organization, and are widely shared by al Qaeda’s affiliates. Second, one critical lesson of 2001 is that we should not allow bin Laden’s death to cause us to lose sight of the continued threat that al Qaeda poses.

Bin Laden’s paradigms for fighting against a superpower foe were forged during the Afghan-Soviet war. Multiple factors prompted the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, including an Islamist insurgency that threatened the country’s pro-Soviet regime and infighting among Afghanistan’s communists that culminated in bloody internecine clashes. Although the Soviet general staff opposed the invasion, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev insisted that operations in Afghanistan would end successfully in three to four weeks. But the war didn’t turn out as he predicted: The Soviets would withdraw after nine years of costly occupation, experiencing stiff resistance from Afghan mujahidin backed by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.

Bin Laden traveled to Pakistan in the early 1980s, soon after the war began. Bruce Riedel, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and former CIA officer, notes in his book The Search for al Qaeda that once he arrived, bin Laden became "a major financier of the mujahidin, providing cash to the relatives of wounded or martyred fighters, building hospitals, and helping the millions of Afghan refugees fleeing to the border region of Pakistan." But it was his first trip to Afghanistan’s front lines in 1984 that left a lasting impression on young Osama, and gave him a thirst for more action.

When bin Laden and his fellow Arab comrades-in-arms unexpectedly held their ground in the face of several attacks by Russian special forces (spetsnaz) near Khost, Afghanistan, in the spring of 1987, the skirmish launched bin Laden to prominence in the Arab media as a war hero. In reality, that battle was insignificant to the outcome of the Afghan-Soviet war — and though bin Laden subsequently emphasized his own role in the conflict, every serious history concludes that the "Afghan Arabs," fighters from the Arab world who traveled to South Asia to join the war against Soviets, were not a military factor in Russia’s defeat. Nonetheless, bin Laden’s time on the Afghan battlefield was a formative experience for him, one that shaped the approach he would later bring to running al Qaeda.

One lesson bin Laden learned from the war against the Soviets was the importance of his enemy’s economy. The Soviet Union didn’t just withdraw from Afghanistan in ignominious defeat, but the Soviet empire itself collapsed soon thereafter, in late 1991. Thus, bin Laden thought that he hadn’t just bested one of the world’s superpowers on the battlefield, but had actually played an important role in its demise. It is indisputable that the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan did not directly collapse the Soviet Union; the most persuasive connection that can be drawn between that war and the Soviet empire’s dissolution is through the costs imposed by the conflict.

Indeed, bin Laden has spoken of how he used "guerrilla warfare and the war of attrition to fight tyrannical superpowers, as we, alongside the mujahidin, bled Russia for ten years, until it went bankrupt." He has compared the United States to the Soviet Union on numerous occasions — and these comparisons have been explicitly economic. For example, in October 2004 bin Laden said that just as the Arab fighters and Afghan mujahidin had destroyed Russia economically, al Qaeda was now doing the same to the United States, "continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy." Similarly, in a September 2007 video message, bin Laden claimed that "thinkers who study events and happenings" were now predicting the American empire’s collapse. He gloated, "The mistakes of Brezhnev are being repeated by Bush."

A second aspect of bin Laden’s experience in the Afghan-Soviet war that influenced his strategic understanding of his fight against America was the breadth of the anti-Russian resistance. The Soviet invasion outraged the Muslim world, including heads of state, clerics, the Arab media, and the man on the street. In January 1980, Egypt’s prime minister called it "a flagrant aggression against an Islamic state." By the end of the month, the foreign ministers of 35 Islamic countries, as well as the Palestine Liberation Organization, passed a resolution through the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) holding the invasion to be a "flagrant violation of all international covenants and norms, as well as a serious threat to peace and security in the region and throughout the world." The Soviet-installed regime in Afghanistan was expelled from the OIC, the delegates of which urged all Muslim countries "to withhold recognition of the illegal regime in Afghanistan and sever diplomatic relations with that country until the complete withdrawal of Soviet troops." On Jan. 30, 1980, the Christian Science Monitor described this condemnation of Soviet actions as "some of the strongest terms ever used by a third-world parley."

The stream of Arabs who flocked to South Asia to help the Afghan cause — about 10,000 in total, according to Mohammed Hafez, an associate professor in the Naval Postgraduate School’s National Security Affairs Department — was a testament to the widespread outrage caused by the invasion. Hafez has written, "They included humanitarian aid workers, cooks, drivers, accountants, teachers, doctors, engineers and religious preachers. They built camps, dug and treated water wells, and attended to the sick and wounded." There was of course also a contingent of Arab fighters, of which bin Laden became a part. But the volunteers who went to the theater were not the only Arabs to support the Afghan resistance. The Afghan jihad was also aided by a donor network known as the "golden chain," whose financiers came primarily from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states.

Essentially, bin Laden sat at the top of a major multinational organization during the Afghan-Soviet war. Its members included fighters, aid workers, and other volunteers. It enjoyed a significant media presence, external donors, and widespread support. And when al Qaeda later engaged in a global fight against America, bin Laden and his companions similarly understood the media and the struggle for sympathy and allegiance throughout the Muslim world as crucial battlefields. In a 2005 letter to al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi, bin Laden’s deputy Ayman al Zawahiri noted that "more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media." Zawahiri said that when it comes to attaining the caliphate, one of al Qaeda’s overarching goals, "the strongest weapon which the mujahidin enjoy, after the help and granting of success by God, is popular support from the Muslim masses."

Had American strategists understood from the outset these twin strategic perceptions, they might have been able to avoid some early costly blunders. But it is not apparent that American planners clearly saw the link between al Qaeda’s war and the U.S. economy even after bin Laden boasted of it on the world stage. Moreover, had U.S. officials understood al Qaeda’s goal of broadening its fight against the United States, they might have raised more objections to the invasion of Iraq, which created a far broader battlefield for America.

These twin pillars of al Qaeda’s strategy have not died with Osama bin Laden. Rather, they permeate the organization and its affiliates. To comprehend this, one need look no further than Inspire, the English-language magazine of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP), the group’s Yemen affiliate. A special issue of the publication released in November 2010 commemorated a plot that managed to place pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) bombs inside printer cartridges that were flown on FedEx and UPS planes. The issue outlined the great disparity between what the plot cost the terrorists and what it cost their enemies — a $4,200 price tag for AQAP versus, in the magazine’s estimation, a cost of "billions of dollars in new security measures" for America and other Western countries.

In fact, Inspire warned that future attacks would be "smaller, but more frequent," an approach that "some may refer to as the strategy of a thousand cuts." In this strategic vision, the fact that the ink cartridge plot killed nobody did not mean that it had failed: Rather, AQAP’s ability to get the disguised explosives aboard planes, and thus significantly drive up the West’s security costs, made the plot a success. This illustrates AQAP’s embrace of bin Laden’s vision of economically undermining America, as he thought he had done to the Soviet Union.

This raises a second critical point: We should neither declare al Qaeda dead nor declare the fight against jihadi militancy over. In 2002, as America was preparing for war with Iraq, many observers wrongly believed that the war in Afghanistan had been won, and al Qaeda significantly degraded.

Former U.S. vice president Dick Cheney, speaking at the Air National Guard Senior Leadership Conference in December 2002, described the Afghanistan war as "America’s most dramatic victory in the war against terrorism," and claimed that "the Taliban regime and the al Qaeda terrorists have met the fate that they chose for themselves." Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA intelligence analyst who then directed the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, wrote a March/April 2002 article in Foreign Affairs entitled "Next Stop Baghdad?" In it, he wrote, "[T]he key to victory in Afghanistan was a U.S. air campaign that routed the Taliban combat forces." Advancing the theme that the Afghanistan war was won, he warned that "too much delay" in invading Iraq "could be as problematic as too little, because it would risk the momentum gained from the victory over Afghanistan."

As a result of this flawed perception, a significant amount of military and intelligence assets were diverted from Afghanistan to the Iraq theater. Robert Grenier, a former director of the CIA’s counterintelligence center, has noted that from late 2002 to early 2003, "the best experienced, most qualified people who we had been using in Afghanistan shifted over to Iraq," including counterterrorism specialists, as well as Middle East and paramilitary operatives.

At the same time, preparation for Iraq caused such units as Delta Force and Navy Seals Team Six, as well as aerial surveillance platforms like the Predator drone, to be shifted into the Iraq theater. The result of this shift in resources was predictable: It weakened American efforts in Afghanistan and allowed an insurgency to thrive. Iraq would continue to cause resources to be diverted from the Afghanistan campaign not just as America and its allies geared up for the new war, but also years later.

In February 2011, I interviewed Andrew Exum, an Arabic-speaking counterinsurgency expert at the Center for a New American Security who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan as an Army Ranger officer. When I asked him why U.S. efforts in Afghanistan have been so uneven, he replied without hesitation, "One word: Iraq. I remember in 2002 coming back from Afghanistan and being immediately forgotten. We had just fought the largest set-piece battle since the Persian Gulf War, Operation Anaconda, and it was the first time our regiment had been in battle since Vietnam. But the focus was on Iraq." The U.S. had been in Afghanistan for more than nine years at the time we spoke, but because of the focus on Iraq he felt that the military hadn’t really been there for nine years. "It’s been an economy of force mission, really since 2002," Exum said. "The vast majority of our efforts and our resources — not just military but also intelligence assets — have been focused on Iraq."

Bin Laden’s death is a blow to al Qaeda. Will America again celebrate prematurely, and provide its enemies an opportunity to regroup? That remains to be seen.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and lecturer in world politics at the Catholic University of America. He is author of several books and monographs, most recently Bin Laden's Legacy.