Archive for May 4th, 2011

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Obituary: Osama bin-Laden, 1957 – 2011

The last act of Osama bin-Laden‘s life, just as many acts before, comes across as a mix of planning and improvisation. One of the US Navy SEAL team members had a microcamera attached to his helmet so as to transmit the operation Geronimo live onto a screen watched by president Barack Obama and members of his administration – a final showdown. The global public got a photo, not a movie, of Obama watching the Abbottabad operation. The president looked both tense and dignified, like a Chinese emperor watching the dismemberment of a rebel – even if from the White House situation room, and not from a wall within Beijing’s Forbidden City. The photo is meant to become iconic. The live coverage from Abottabad itself was probably much more poorly choreographed – OK, it was probably very messy.

Osama bin-Laden was aged 22 when he began to take on the Soviet Union. A Green Left article of September 19, 2001, describes the  – Soviet-backed – Afghan government of 1978 as follows:

In April 1978, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) seized power in Afghanistan in reaction to a crackdown against the party by that country’s repressive government.
The PDPA was committed to a radical land reform that favoured the peasants, trade union rights, an expansion of education and social services, equality for women and the separation of church and state. The PDPA also supported strengthening Afghanistan’s relationship with the Soviet Union.

Something neither landlords nor a Muslim religious establishment would put up with:

They immediately began organising resistance to the government’s progressive policies, under the guise of defending Islam.

Which suited Zbigniew Brzezinski‘s plans to block or roll back Soviet influence in Afghanistan. America took sides with the Mujaheddin, including Osama bin-Laden’s forces:

Between 1978 and 1992, the US government poured at least US$6 billion (some estimates range as high as $20 billion) worth of arms, training and funds to prop up the mujaheddin factions. Other Western governments, as well as oil-rich Saudi Arabia, kicked in as much again. Wealthy Arab fanatics, like Osama bin Laden, provided millions more.

From 1992 to 1996, Afghanistan’s militias were left to themselves and to doing what they were best at: they kept on fighting, now against each other. In 1996, the Taliban took control of the country, with support from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Osama bin-laden personally. Also in 1996, bin-Laden wrote a fatwaa religious opinion concerning Islamic law issued by an Islamic scholar: his “Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places”.

It is doubtful that Osama was in a position to write a fatwa at all, but let’s think of him as the Julian Assange among the Islamists of the 1990s. There will always be people who feel that they have the right to read and write everything, so long as they fervently believe in their own views.

What strikes me, now that we could take stock of bin-Laden’s life, is how little his sympathizers and those who welcome his sudden death (me included) alike seem to know about his actual thoughts. To either side, he seemed to be a projection screen for personal world views, rather than a fighter or believer in his own right. He would be a liberator for certain quarters of global opinion (somehwat beyond the Islamist quarter,  as his fan club seemed to include some rather secular do-gooders, too), and his name would be a metaphor of evil to others. Osama bin-Laden’s view of the world was radical, but simple. Most catechisms would be harder to learn by heart. But that  didn’t really help to spread his doctrine. How people perceived the man himself mattered much more.

Until Sunday night (or Monday morning GMT), when president Obama announced bin-Laden’s death and when feelings of happiness poured out publicly in Washington D.C., New York, and elsewhere, it had appeared as if bin-Laden had become history long before. Now that he is dead, he will fade away even faster, in the memories of most.

How will his death influence Islam-driven terrorism? How will it influence the development of civil society in Islamic countries?

The second question is no easier to answer than the first, but it will probably become the more relevant question, as Islamic societies, rather than fatwa authors, appear to have begun to search for answers – in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and maybe in Saudi-Arabia, too.

The most predictable effect of operation Geronimo will be on America itself. Obama may gain more clout domestically, on issues of education, innovation, and industrial policies. And maybe he has now gained the stature it takes to begin an overdue “war-on-terror”-related task, too: the restoration of rule of law in the field of “security legislation”, in Guantanamo and on U.S. soil. Hopefully, in legal terms, it will take less than ten years to recover the scorched earth of the past decade.

But bin-Laden’s effect on American and global politics has been huge. America lost about a decade in the Pacific region – being distracted in central Asia and the Middle East -, and many opportunities at home.

Maybe it is indeed time to forget bin-Laden.

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Related
General V K Singh: We Can, Too, Times of India / Economic Times, May 4. 2011
Jiang Yu: Pakistan can, too, Times of India, May 3, 2011

Update
Pleased or not (Berlin), CS Monitor, May 5, 2011

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