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Al-Qaeda is not like Hitler's Germany, which was a vast, rich country with a massive army. It never had many resources or people. Al-Qaeda is an idea, an ideology. And it was personified by bin Laden, a man who for his followers represented courage and conviction. Coming from a wealthy family, he had forsaken a life of luxury to fight the Soviet Union in the mountains of Afghanistan and then trained his guns on the U.S. He used literary Arabic, spoke movingly and tried to seduce millions of Muslims. Those who were duly seduced and joined the group swore a personal oath to him. Young men who volunteered for suicide missions were not dying for al-Zawahiri or Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who planned the 9/11 attacks. They were dying for bin Laden. And with bin Laden's death, the cause and the man have both been extinguished. We will battle terrorists for many years to come, but that does not make them a mortal threat to the Western world or its way of life. The existential danger is over.
The nature of the operation against bin Laden spotlights a path for the future of the war on terrorism. Presidents George W. Bush and Obama can share the credit for bin Laden's death, as should many in the U.S. government and military. But it is fair to say that Obama made a decision to dramatically expand the counterterrorism aspect of this struggle. He increased the number of special operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, quadrupled the number of drone attacks on al-Qaeda's senior leadership in Pakistan and devoted new resources and attention to intelligence gathering. (That is one reason why General David Petraeus is leaving his powerful position directing the war in Afghanistan to run the CIA.) This renewed focus paid off in many captures and kills before May 1, and it has finally paid off in the Big One.
While Bush certainly used counterterrorism to fight al-Qaeda, the signature element of his strategy was nation building. He believed that deposing one of the worst Arab dictators, Saddam Hussein, and delivering democracy to Iraq would shatter al-Qaeda's appeal. The theory was correct, as the Arab Spring has demonstrated: people in the Arab world want democracy, not dictatorship and not theocracy. But in practice it is a very hard task for an outside power to deliver democracy which first requires political order and stability to another nation. It is also a task for which militaries are not best suited. The U.S. armed forces have done their best in Iraq and Afghanistan but despite huge costs in blood and treasure the results in both nations are mixed at best.
Counterterrorism, by contrast, is a task well suited for military power. It requires good intelligence, above all, and then the swiftness, skill and deadly firepower at which U.S. forces excel. The results speak for themselves. The U.S. has inflicted significant and substantial losses on al-Qaeda by decapitating its leadership and keeping the organization on the run, in hiding and in constant fear. It has been a more effective strategy and vastly less costly than trying to clear, hold and build huge parts of Afghanistan in the hope that order, stability, good governance and democracy will eventually flourish there.
Along the way, the efforts at nation building have tarnished the image of the American military. The world's greatest fighting force was shown to be unable to deliver stability to Iraq and Afghanistan, had to deal with scandals like the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and saw its soldiers losing their once high morale. May 1 changed all that. The image of a smart, wise and supremely competent U.S. has flashed across the globe. The lesson should be clear. An America that uses its military power less promiscuously, more intelligently and in a targeted and focused manner might once again gain the world's respect and fear, if not affection. And an America that can provide a compelling picture of a modern, open society will be a far more attractive model for Arabs than Osama bin Laden's vision of a backward medieval caliphate.