Arab Spring, not Osama bin Laden's Fall, Will Determine Middle East's Fate


May 9, 2011

This commentary originally appeared on Christian Science Monitor on May 9, 2011.

The dramatic change sweeping the Middle East and North Africa will have more enduring impact on global security than the death of Osama bin Laden. Ironically, overthrowing the so-called apostate regimes of the Middle East was a key part of Mr. bin Laden's strategy. But peaceful demonstrations by thousands of people, many of them young, advanced change without his brand of violence. Bin Laden's death is not likely to have any effect on countries experiencing broad-based popular calls for change.

Rationale for war in Afghanistan

However, it does remove part of the rationale for US force deployments in Afghanistan and likely will smooth the planned commencement of US force withdrawals. That bin Laden was killed in Pakistan adds credence to the view that the terrorist threat flows from there and not Afghanistan. Since the 1980s, when Afghanistan expelled the Soviets, the country spiraled into conflicts among its ethnic and tribal groups, and between traditionalists and those seeking a more modern lifestyle. That situation remains today.

US forces went into Afghanistan in 2001 to overthrow the Taliban, who refused to hand over bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks. Al Qaeda in 2001 was a strong terrorist group in a weak Afghanistan led by Mullah Omar and the Taliban. Al Qaeda took advantage of the rights that Afghanistan enjoyed as a sovereign state; the organization operated with impunity against international norms followed by most nations. The security lesson for the future is that weak states that give safe harbor to terrorist groups present significant dangers.

Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda followers lost sanctuary in Afghanistan when US forces overthrew the Taliban government. He then sought refuge in neighboring Pakistan. Since 2001, most major Al Qaeda leaders have been killed or captured in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.

The fight in Afghanistan has been against the Taliban and other local insurgent groups, not against Al Qaeda. These groups share elements of bin Laden's worldview, but they are tribal nationalists profoundly opposed to any foreign military presence. Most of the groups are local; they do not come from distant countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

Harder to justify $100 billion

The US force presence in Afghanistan has been to prevent Al Qaeda from re-establishing its base of operations in Afghanistan — an argument far less compelling after bin Laden's death than before. President Obama and the US Congress will probably have greater difficulty justifying spending more than $100 billion a year for military operations in Afghanistan in light of a threat now diminished, or which seems so.

Since bin Laden's lair was a sophisticated compound located a mile from a Pakistani military school, it will be interesting to see if seized computer equipment and phone numbers point to where other senior Al Qaeda figures are hiding. How Pakistani authorities collaborate with the US to follow any leads will reveal what type of ally Pakistan may be in the future. Pakistani leaders can show the world that Pakistan is a responsible state by effectively working with the US to expose and capture Ayman al-Zawahiri and other key Al Qaeda leaders still at large.

The CIA-led SEAL operation was historic. The events of the last four months of the Arab Spring will be even more significant and enduring. The unanswered question is just what will endure in the Arab world: comparatively peaceful demonstrations leading to regime change, or brutal tactics by authoritarian regimes to crush dissent and cling to power? Unlike the killing of a single villain, the fates of a number of countries will take time to unfold.

John Parachini is director of the Intelligence Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis.

More About This Commentary

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.