Leader: After Bin Laden, it’s time to end this unwinnable war

Obama now has the political cover necessary to order an accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The death of Osama Bin Laden banishes a spectre that has haunted the west for more than a decade. Successive US presidents vowed to kill or capture the man responsible for the worst terrorist atrocity in American history. Now, just a few months before the tenth anniversary of the attacks of 11 September 2001, Barack Obama has at last succeeded where Bill Clinton and George W Bush failed. The raid by US special forces was a triumph for the president. As his chief counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, remarked: "It was one of the gutsiest calls of any president in recent memory." Mr Obama's measured response to the news of Bin Laden's death marked a welcome departure from the Bush administration, which crassly declared after the capture of Saddam Hussein: "We got him."

That it took an elite squad of US Navy Seals just 40 minutes to kill the al-Qaeda leader gives the lie to the claim that it was necessary to invade and occupy Afghanistan in order to protect the US from terrorist attack. In a leader published on 1 October 2001, we called for a limited intervention
in Afghanistan, including commando raids with "the specific aim" of capturing Bin Laden and his closest allies. Yet, in his haste to retaliate, Mr Bush launched a deluded global "war on terror", declaring: "You're either with us or against us."

As a result, many with no interest in Bin Laden's quest to establish an Islamic caliphate felt compelled to side with al-Qaeda. The Bush administration compounded this error with the invasion of Iraq - an unnecessary war - the CIA torture of al-Qaeda suspects and the illegal detention of more than 700 people at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

In the hours following Bin Laden's death, apologists for torture rushed to claim that the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques", such as waterboarding, had yielded the key intelligence on his whereabouts. Yet were this the case (and the former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld insists that it was not), the US would surely have succeeded in locating the al-Qaeda founder before 2006, the final year that such techniques were used.

Bin Laden's death robs the Islamist group of its symbolic figurehead. But due to the decentralised nature of the movement or franchise, his end is of little practical significance. As Olivier Roy writes on page 22, politically at least, "Bin Laden was already dead before the Americans attacked his compound in Abbottabad." The Arab Spring demonstrated that the people of the region yearn for secular democracy, not theocratic dictatorship. For the protesters of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, preoccupied with corruption, rising food prices and mass unemployment, Bin Laden became irrelevant long ago. Yet, as Mehdi Hasan points out on page 26, the uncomfortable truth remains that he still had the support and trust of, among others, one in three Palestinians, one in four Indonesians and one in five Egyptians. The dismal response of Hamas, which condemned the "assassination and the killing of an Arab holy warrior", was a reminder of the sympathy that many feel, even now, for him and his cause.

That Bin Laden was discovered not in the caves of Afghanistan or the tribal regions of Pakistan but in a comfortable garrison town offers new evidence of possible collusion between Pakistan and al-Qaeda. However, no country has suffered more from terrorism in recent years than Pakistan. Since 2001, terrorists have killed nearly 15,000 civilians in that disturbed nuclear state.

Mr Obama now has the political cover necessary to order an accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan in July. As we have long argued, the US should abandon what has become an unwinnable war and open high-level talks with the Taliban. But, more significantly, Mr Obama has an opportunity to fulfil his original promise to heal the rift between the US and the Muslim world.

A decade of war and occupation has left the world neither freer nor safer. Bin Laden's death provides the US president with a chance to chart a difference course. It is one he must take.

This article first appeared in the 09 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Beyond the cult of Bin Laden