A bullet to the brain ended Osama bin Laden’s life on Earth. But, in a perverse twist of fate, his death ironically and iconically strengthened a bloody legacy to the detriment of much of the civilized world in at least three powerful ways.
First, bin Laden abetted the economic and financial misfortunes of the United States through its extravagant pursuit of the global war on terror and in the process managed to set the U.S. military on a course in which its cost was too expensive to afford.
Second, bin Laden weakened the fundamental precepts of liberal democracies by catalyzing huge infringements on civil liberties in the name of preventing future terror attacks.
Finally, by living and dying in Pakistan, bin Laden set in place a metastasizing cancer that could prove fatal to current U.S.-Pakistani relationships.
How could this happen? Answers begin on Sept. 11, 2001, and what surprised and shocked bin Laden and his colleagues after the attack. Al-Qaida had expected the remains of the Twin Towers to serve as smoking and enduring ruins to remind America of its weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Instead, the towers rapidly collapsed.
Nor did al-Qaida anticipate and even understand the huge economic and financial losses that would accrue to the markets that mounted in the trillions with disruption to banking, transportation and other business sectors that followed. Finally, bin Laden couldn’t predict the American and Western response that drove him from Afghanistan after an extraordinarily short and cheap military-intelligence campaign or, more significantly, that the wars would continue for a decade.
Conflicts in Afghanistan, Pakistan and against global terror have cost the United States, so far, upward of $1 trillion and possibly much more. That doesn’t include the long-term costs of dealing with tens of thousands of veterans of those wars physically and psychologically wounded who need extended treatment and of course the expense of build downs and replacement of equipment. Defense has been one of the major contributors to the debt and deficits the United States is accumulating.
Fighting those wars has required wholesale refocusing of U.S. defense procurement and logistics that has been hideously expensive. Three striking examples drive this point home suggesting the real costs of what is called “asymmetric war. Improvised explosive devices, once known as “booby traps” have caused a majority of combat casualties. These devices cost pennies to manufacture. Yet, mine resistant vehicles to protect troops can cost $1.5 million apiece. We have tens of thousands of the latter.
Our troops today depend on bottled water and not the iodine pill in a canteen of suspect local water as their parents and grandparents did. The Pentagon reports that a gallon of bottled water transported to distant operating bases in Afghanistan runs about $800.
We depend on “unmanned aerial vehicles” known as drones to disrupt and destroy our enemies. Unmanned is oxymoronic. A total of nearly 200 people are required per drone the majority of which analyze and collect data from locations inside the United States.
Clearly, personnel and procurement are the driving costs and reflect these trends. While U.S. military might is extraordinary in its capacity, the costs are simply not sustainable regardless of economic times.
The Patriot Act in the United States and camera surveillance systems for example in the United Kingdom impose on civil liberties. Airport searches and patdowns are accepted even if of dubious constitutional standing let alone costs and questionable effectiveness. All of this is in the name of security and safety.
Bin Laden’s final legacy was living and then dying in Pakistan. The shock, embarrassment and horror on the part of Pakistanis have had and will have profoundly negative impact on relations with the United States. The Pakistan army, long the only well-regarded institution in Pakistan, has likewise suffered being labeled incompetent or complicit. How this ends is tenuous at best and if not put on a solid footing will jeopardize any chance of a successful drawdown in Afghanistan.
Americans of course rejoiced in meting justice to bin Laden. Yet, few have even begun to think about dealing with his threatening legacy. Indeed, with the misnamed “Arab Spring” in disarray, the international situation is far more and not less volatile. Egypt, Libya, Yemen, the Persian Gulf states and the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict clearly are affected by these legacies and constraints on what the United States can or could do.
A cogent, clear-cut strategy is sorely needed. With pending elections in 2012 and ideological divides dominating political choices in Washington, there is no chance of this happening in either party. The United States will try to muddle through preferring band aids to necessary surgery or chemotherapy to cure the cancers that pervade the body politic.
Bin Laden is dead and that is a good thing. But who may have gotten the better end of the stick?
Harlan Ullman is Senior Advisor at the Atlantic Council, Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business, and a frequent advisor to NATO. This article was syndicated by UPI.