Is bin Laden's death a chance for peace in Afghanistan, or merely an opportunity for the world to make the same mistake again?

As I've said in other threads this week, I have no inclination to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden. However despicble his deeds and beliefs, he was a mother's son and the rule of law matters. But that doesn't blind me to the fact there's an up side.

There is, of course, the fact that a man willing, even zealous, to kill innocents cannot do so again. Like the Christian pacifists who organised an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler, I can do the numbers and see that one death is better than many more. (Although Hitler was actively persecuting a war, and bin Laden seems to have been an increasingly isolated figurehead, the Al Qaeda boss still had the power to at the very least inspire murder).

For families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks, there will be a sense of relief, maybe even jubilation for many.

Many are also saying that the world's a safer place. If we could prove that, it might be worth some celebration. But it's a guess. We won't know the full impact of what happened this week for months, maybe decades. There is the chance it has made the world more dangerous, and not just because sympathisers will be motivated to avenge his death. In the longer term, who knows whether these events will radicalise a child who will one day grow to be another bin Laden. Or worse.

The other consideration is that it saves the agony of a trial. Given the difficulties the US has faced trying to find a time and place to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators in the 9/11 attacks, I can only imagine the hurdles that would have had to have been jumped sorting out a proper process for bin Laden, had the US been the prosecuting authority.

Having said that, how powerful it would have been to have seen him stand in a court of law and held to account for his actions. What a powerful statement it would have been about our faith in the rule of law, even for the worst. And remember Slobodan Milosevic in the Hague, exposed for the liar and bully he was? 

But bin Laden is dead. There is to be no exposure, no redemption, no understanding, no chance to take the mask off the monster and see the clearly pathetically hate-filled and misguided man beneath.

The biggest plus out of this clean end is that perhaps it could open political doors in Afghanistan. The link between the Taliban and Al Qaeda (inasmuch as either of them single entities) had already weakened significantly, but this might encourage the Taliban to weaken it even more. It has, of course, never been a threat outside its border and Al Qaeda affiliates are now being harboured by Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia more than the Taliban. Taliban leaders will surely be tempted to seize the chance to get their country back ahead of deadline.

With bin Laden's death and a shift in the public mood, given the weariness with war in the US especially, politicians in the West should feel freer to negotiate with the Taliban as well. The Obama administration has been preparing the ground for some time, carefully raising the possibility of talks for some years. See here and here. And some in the US are already saying 'enough with the nation-building. The job was to get Osama. That's done, let's go home'.

I spoke to Bob Grenier today, a former CIA station chief in Islamabad. He doesn't buy that theory one bit. The Taliban, he reckons, still want the entire country back from Karzai, and if it comes down to helping fellow muslims or infidels on their soil, he knows who they'd rather treat with. He can't see any prospect of a new deal.

So it comes back to the hard choice; the choice that has always been at the heart of what's being done in Afghanistan; the choice that is the same regardless of bin Laden's death. Can it function as a country, rather than a vast expanse of squablling warlords, ethnicities and ever-changing alliances? Is it the perrenial failed state or can it be built into a nation? Do we muck in or sod off?

Another Afghanistan expert, Dr David Kilcullen, one of the brains behind the Afghan surge, has hope of some reconciliation there. But he has what I think is a wise warning: the world, he says, turned its back on Afghanistan after the Russians were pushed out. We turned away again after 9/11 and invaded Iraq. Each time the result was more death and terror. Let's not make the mistake a third time by simply bailing out now.

Comments (3)

by Dan Knox on May 07, 2011
Dan Knox

At the very least we need to stabalize Afganistan enough so that we can open a Burger Fuel in Kabul.

The task is one of building a national identity which transcends the clan and tribal loyalties that are the default order of business. How to achieve that is the million dollar question.

by Chris de Lisle on May 07, 2011
Chris de Lisle

The problem, in my mind, is that Afghanistan really doesn't exist. All those clans and tribes are the nations of the region and have so little in common that it's a big ask to try and pull them together.

I think trying to use nationalism is more likely to enforce the divisions between the various ethnic groups of Afghanistan or create a Pashtun-dominated state, as the Durrani did. I suspect that would be unacceptable to the Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (given the Tajik and Uzbek minorities in Afghanistan), and to Pakistan (given their Pashtun minority)?

Playing on an Islamic identity might work; but I don't think that's acceptable to Kabul or Washington. Anyway, the Taliban already occupy that niche.

I wonder whether it is possible to build a highly decentralised state, which incorporates the warlordsas local govt and central-decision making in some sort of 'House of Lords' equivalent to encourage them to buy in to the state? It's not democratically ideal, but I think hoping the warlordism go away is unrealistic and that they are the only people who have power at a local level.

by Dan Knox on May 08, 2011
Dan Knox

You would need to counter the warlords with a strong central power, so Karzai is out. Actually this may be the circumstances in which a strong parlimentary monarchy works. I like it!

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