The Times (UK) reported January 15 that President-elect Barack Obama suggested in a CBS interview that it “was no longer essential” to capture or kill al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. What happened between the campaign season and January?
Obama is quoted as saying, “My preference obviously would be to capture or kill him. But if we have so tightened the noose that he’s in a cave somewhere and can’t even communicate with his operatives then we will meet our goal of protecting America.”
Isn’t that essentially what we’ve done with bin Laden? Sure, we get an occasional audiotape broadcast by al-Jazeera, but what has bin Laden done since U.S. forces entered Afghanistan in late 2001? There is no evidence to support the notion that bin Laden is in command and control of anything anymore. All indications are that he and deputy al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri are indeed spending their days hiding from U.S. forces while desperately trying to maintain some semblance of relevance in the world of global jihadists.
The Times notes that less than a month before the presidential election, Obama stated: “We will kill bin Laden. We will crush al-Qaeda. That has to be our biggest priority.” Now the goal seems to be protecting America from another attack. Is it just me, or is Mr. Obama sounding an awful lot like Mr. Bush on the topic of Osama bin Laden?
I remember scores of conversations with Obama supporters who argued passionately that we had to get bin Laden. Kill him or capture him, they told me, and it will deal a blow to al-Qaeda. Mr. Obama echoed these sentiments during his frequent attacks on President Bush for the failure to capture or kill bin Laden. Now, it seems, getting the world’s most wanted terrorist is not such a big deal anymore.
Campaign rhetoric aside, the truth of the matter is that Osama bin Laden as an individual doesn’t matter. Americans would feel some sense of satisfaction with his capture or demise, but in terms of the larger global fight against Islamic extremism, it would mean little. Al-Qaeda as it existed on 9/11 is no more. Bin Laden’s global terrorist organization has become a diffuse movement of local and regional cells that pursue objectives of their own choosing, while sharing a broader ideology with bin Laden and Zawahiri. Sometimes the link between al-Qaeda affiliated groups and bin Laden’s al-Qaeda is no more than the sharing of a name.
“I think that we have to so weaken [bin Laden’s] infrastructure that, whether he is technically alive or not, he is so pinned down that he cannot function,” Mr. Obama said. I would say President Bush has already accomplished that goal.