Did you ever find yourself frustrated trying to find something you lost somewhere in your house, and then a short while after you gave up looking for it, you suddenly stumble upon the thing you spent so much time looking for? It's happened to me often enough that I now make it a personal policy that if I can't find what I am looking for after five or ten minutes, I make a conscious decision to stop searching.
I'm starting to feel that way about Osama bin Laden. It has been over eight years since 9/11, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently admitted that we haven't had any meaningful intelligence as to bin Laden's whereabouts for years.
What's so important about finding him? From the same article from the BBC Online:
Testifying to US Congress, Gen Stanley McChrystal said Bin Laden had become an "iconic figure".
"I don't think that we can finally defeat al Qaeda until he's captured or killed," said Gen McChrystal of Bin Laden.
"I believe he is an iconic figure at this point, whose survival emboldens al-Qaeda as a franchising organization across the world," he said.
The general said that killing or capturing Bin Laden would not spell the end of al-Qaeda but that the movement could not be eradicated while Bin Laden remained at large.
But is bin Laden really still an iconic figure? I could be wrong, but I get the impression that for Islamic militants, he is more like a faded rock star who hasn't had a hit song in years and is coasting on his past glories. After all, what has bin Laden done lately that he can remotely take credit for?
As someone who was in NYC when the Twin Towers fell and who lost a high school classmate on 9/11, I would like to see bin Laden brought to justice as much as anybody. But I think it is a mistake to personalize our anti-terror efforts with regard to bin Laden. If he had been bagged at say Tora Bora in December of 2001, that would have been a major coup. But now, given that he is apparently just a figurehead who does not seem to exercise any meaningful control over al Qaeda, capturing or killing him at this point would be anti-climactic.
It would certainly not have much impact on the situation in Afghanistan. In his blog post "Osama Bin Where?", Imran Khan of Aljazeera acknowledges that "[bin Laden] represents a totem for international jihadis everywhere." However, Khan adds:
"But will killing or capturing him make a difference to the crisis that Pakistan and Afghanistan face?
Not really. It's not al-Qaeda that is creating the biggest problem for both countries, it's the Taliban. In Afghanistan the Taliban are, according to some, moving away from supporting Al Qaeda, instead setting themselves up as a Pashtun fighting force.
If Osama is captured or killed, the Taliban will still be a force to be reckoned with. Neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan will become secure. But if you are the US government right now and you need something that suggests your new AfPak strategy is working, then Bin Laden's head on a platter is looking like a good idea right about now.
Sadly, say many in Pakistan, Bin Laden's head will not make a difference for long term peace in the region."
I think we need to publicly play down Bin Laden's importance and instead focus on the conditions on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan. One way of doing that is to gradually reduce the reward for information that aids in the capture and conviction of Osama bin Laden. As of now, as it has been for quite some time, the reward sum on bin Laden's page on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List has been $25 million dollars. That figure should be reduced by one million dollars every year. For one, it will send the message to anyone who might be contemplating dropping a dime on him that they better hurry up, because the reward will only get smaller with each passing year. Secondly, and perhaps paradoxically, it might provoke bin Laden into making more public pronouncements or feeling safe enough to be less careful in his movements that he will give himself away.
By the way, I got a chuckle out of bin Laden's FBI page where it reads "Occupation: Unknown." I guess terrorist leader doesn't qualify as an occupation.
I have a feeling that some people reading this will disagree with me vehemently, which I can understand. But from my reading of history, there are enemy armies or organizations that fall apart when their leaders are killed (just imagine how different the Civil War would have turned out had Robert E. Lee been killed by a stray bullet in late 1862) whereas other organizations or movements are not dependent on a single dynamic leader and can carry on in the absence of that leader. From what I have read of the commentary from anti-terror experts, al Qaeda falls in the latter category. I also believe, and have for some time, that the battle against Islamic terrorism will ultimately not be won or lost by the United States military, but by Muslims themselves.