By Andrew J. Bacevich | May 24, 2011
The killing of Osama bin Laden settles nothing, decides nothing, and repairs nothing. Yet the passing of the al-Qaeda leader just might serve an important purpose. We confront a moment of revelation: Coming across bin Laden comfortably ensconced in a purpose-built compound in the middle of a Pakistani city down the street from the nation’s premier military academy should demolish once and for all any illusions that Americans retain about their so-called Global War on Terror. The needle, it turns out, was not in the haystack but tucked safely away in our neighbor’s purse—the very same neighbor who professed to be searching high and low to locate that needle. Think we’ve been had?
Bin Laden was an indubitably evil figure. Yet the historical drama in which he played a role is not a morality play. Its central theme is not good vs. evil. It is instead the pursuit of power and advantage by whatever means necessary. In short, the theme is politics—dirty, cutthroat, no holds barred.
In the wake of 9/11, President George W. Bush and more than a few other Americans insisted otherwise. The issue, they asserted, was freedom vs. oppression; civilization vs. barbarism; tolerance vs. bigotry; the law-abiding vs. the law-defiling; peacemakers vs. those who engaged in wanton slaughter; those committed to serving God’s purposes vs. those who twisted God’s words to serve their own malevolent ends.
As in the early days of the Cold War, Washington divided the world into two neatly defined opposing camps. “You are either with us,” Bush declared ten days after 9/11, “or you are with the terrorists.” There was no third alternative, no in-between, and no opting out.
The government of Pakistan, hesitating briefly, chose to be “with us.” Overnight, it became a valued partner. Pakistani interests and U.S. interests now aligned, bonded by the paramount importance of eliminating the threat of al-Qaeda. America’s enemies were now Pakistan’s enemies and vice versa—this at least was the prevailing assumption.
From the outset, that assumption was utterly false.
During the decades prior to 9/11, Washington’s relations with Islamabad had suffered through many ups and downs, the United States embracing Pakistan as an ally when it was convenient to do so and otherwise giving Pakistan the back of its hand. Neither the Pakistani elite nor the man in the street had any reason to trust Washington.
So despite constant cajoling and complaint, with generous U.S. military and economic subsidies thrown in, Pakistani efforts to snuff out Islamic radicalism have been, at best, half-hearted. Indeed, Pakistan is itself a state supporter of terrorism (directed against its archenemy, India) and in all likelihood would like to see the Taliban restored to power in Afghanistan (again as a curb against Indian influence).
Dissatisfied with Pakistani efforts to clean out Taliban sanctuaries inside its borders, the United States has taken matters into its own hands, expanding the use of missile-firing drones within Pakistan itself. Unwilling to acknowledge that they allow U.S. forces routinely to disregard their country’s sovereignty, senior Pakistani officials profess shock and dismay, thereby encouraging Pakistani anti-Americanism. Based on all- but-irrefutable evidence, it turns out that they have for years been harboring America’s public enemy number one.
Already in crisis, the relationship between the United States and Pakistan now stands on the brink of collapse. Diplomats will attempt to paper over the differences, with one side offering lies that the other side may pretend to believe. Their efforts may succeed in creating some semblance of normality. Yet it will be no more than a semblance.
More important is this: restoring even the appearance of purposefulness to the enterprise once known as the Global War on Terror has now become impossible. That war is a fraud. It exists only as a figment of American imagination. At great cost to itself and others, the United States has been playing the wrong game, falling prey to the tricks of its erstwhile friends, unable to recognize who its enemies actually are.