One year on: creating the next Osama bin Laden

The war we can’t call a war lives on, writes Felix Donovan.

Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan during the war with Russia – though some say he never exposed himself to danger. Photograph: Sipa Press / Rex Features
Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan during the war with Russia – though some say he never exposed himself to danger. Photograph: Sipa Press / Rex Features

Exactly one year ago today (if you are reading this on publication day), President Obama boasted: “Justice has been done.” On May 2, 2011, a team of elite Navy Seals entered the compound in Abbottabad where Osama Bin Laden was living and shot him in the head.

That the Pakistani government had evidently been complicit in hiding the most wanted man in the world didn’t seem to trouble Washington beyond the annoyance of having to alter the strategy of the raid. That lack of concern spoke of a broader American misconception of why Bin Laden held such a murderous hatred of the United States, and why that hatred was shared not only in the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan where tribalism and a resistance to modernity dominate, but also in bustling urban centres like Karachi, Cairo and Sana’a.

That misconception informs US defence policy today, and creates terrorists who harbour Osama-like visions of, as he ominously told Robert Fisk in 1997, turning ‘the United States into a shadow of itself’.

Osama Bin Laden didn’t hate America because it was free (though, if he did, Bush’s Patriot Act would have been a very effective counter-terrorism measure). 9/11 was not a strike against women’s liberation, or capitalism, or democracy; it was, by his own admission, retribution for American foreign policy in Arab lands: troops in Saudi Arabia, support for Israel and sanctions on Iraq. Terrorism against the US was commendable, in Bin Laden’s mind, ‘oppressors who subject the Arab nation to aggression ought to be punished.’

That is not to say we should also celebrate the terrible crime against humanity that was committed on an overcast September morning in 2001, as many on the European left and throughout the Muslim world did. Instead it’s important to recognise that American actions – not American values – were the contributing factor that galvanised al Qaeda to commit those atrocities in 2001.

A year on, the President who touted ‘a new beginning’ in American-Middle East relations has brazenly ignored what radicalised Osama Bin Laden. The foreign policies Obama is pursuing lead to an obvious outcome: more Muslim youths seeing the United States as a belligerent hegemon rather than a benevolent one; viewing it as a rapacious, war-mongering, oil-robbing, Arab-killing, rogue nation with no respect for Islam and no care for Muslims.

America’s continued unqualified support for the despots who rule the Gulf Peninsula, its military and diplomatic aid of an increasingly shrill and aggressive Israel, have encouraged many to see America as aiding and abetting, with insouciance, the violence and abjection of the Middle East.

While drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen may make sense to a Pentagon official, they don’t to a Pakistani whose just seen one of their family members in pieces, or one of their countrymen lying dead in the wreckage of a building on the news. In the end, it is that Pakistani who matters for it is he who may decide to strap a bomb to his chest and walk into Times Square.

Bin Laden’s death was an American victory in something that we’re not supposed to call the war on terror anymore. But the US should take the other easy and more lasting victories by renouncing its maladroit Middle East foreign policy and retreating from those thankless deserts. If it doesn’t, the win America scored a year ago will be very fleeting indeed. For the actions it continues to carry out will create the next Osama Bin Laden all too soon.

Twitter: @FelixDonovan1

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