The death of Osama changes little…but what it may change is ominous

Once the heartfelt emotion unleashed by the death of Osama bin Laden and the deserved appreciation for the accomplishment of the U.S. military, intelligence community, and Obama and Bush Administration officials who made this possible passes, what will we be left with? First, we will be left with the uncomfortable realization that what has happened ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Once the heartfelt emotion unleashed by the death of Osama bin Laden and the deserved appreciation for the accomplishment of the U.S. military, intelligence community, and Obama and Bush Administration officials who made this possible passes, what will we be left with?

First, we will be left with the uncomfortable realization that what has happened is the most important event of 2001.  It changes almost nothing about today's world. That which was a threat, remains a threat.  The risks we faced in the Middle East and elsewhere remain roughly as they were.  We are still leaving Iraq, still edging to the exit in Afghanistan (albeit with a clearer "mission accomplished" sense about us...even if the Taliban, al Qaeda, and other new extremist threats remain in the region).  Countries rocked by unrest such as Libya and Yemen, still contain threats from al Qaeda cells within and near to their borders.  And the biggest most important national security concerns we have are totally unrelated to al Qaeda in whatever form it exists today.

Second, I said it changes almost nothing.  One thing that has clearly changed, whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not, is our relationship with Pakistan.   Given the location in which bin Laden was found, literally right under the noses of the Pakistani military and the government, in a large, suspicious facility not an hour away from the capital, our already dwindling trust for the Pakistanis, and in particular for their intelligence service must now be acknowledged to have evaporated altogether.  While no doubt a number of heroic and dependable true friends in Pakistan helped with this operation, clearly others in very high places were behind protecting bin Laden for years and years.

Once the heartfelt emotion unleashed by the death of Osama bin Laden and the deserved appreciation for the accomplishment of the U.S. military, intelligence community, and Obama and Bush Administration officials who made this possible passes, what will we be left with?

First, we will be left with the uncomfortable realization that what has happened is the most important event of 2001.  It changes almost nothing about today’s world. That which was a threat, remains a threat.  The risks we faced in the Middle East and elsewhere remain roughly as they were.  We are still leaving Iraq, still edging to the exit in Afghanistan (albeit with a clearer "mission accomplished" sense about us…even if the Taliban, al Qaeda, and other new extremist threats remain in the region).  Countries rocked by unrest such as Libya and Yemen, still contain threats from al Qaeda cells within and near to their borders.  And the biggest most important national security concerns we have are totally unrelated to al Qaeda in whatever form it exists today.

Second, I said it changes almost nothing.  One thing that has clearly changed, whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not, is our relationship with Pakistan.   Given the location in which bin Laden was found, literally right under the noses of the Pakistani military and the government, in a large, suspicious facility not an hour away from the capital, our already dwindling trust for the Pakistanis, and in particular for their intelligence service must now be acknowledged to have evaporated altogether.  While no doubt a number of heroic and dependable true friends in Pakistan helped with this operation, clearly others in very high places were behind protecting bin Laden for years and years.

Further, the fact that we struck independently deep into the heart of Pakistan will not sit well with many in that country, further worsening the relationship.

Given that during the past few years Pakistan has reportedly very dramatically increased their nuclear weapons arsenal, and that at best, they are a schizophrenic ally — and it is very hard to use that word without gagging on it, we must today acknowledge that the greatest threat to U.S.  security was not killed yesterday but instead remains as it was, the country in which he died.  That’s not to say that it is the government of Pakistan per se or even the majority of the Pakistani people, but rather the threat lies with the tens of millions who are deeply hostile to us, the extremists they cultivate, shelter, fund, and facilitate, and the elements within the government who are perilously close to weapons that, should they ever fall into the wrong hands, would pose a threat that will make us forget today’s celebrations very quickly.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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