By Michael C. Desch | May 25, 2011

While Osama bin Laden remained the poster child for the Global War on Terror, he had become in recent years less central to it. Therefore his killing represents less of a watershed than many would think.

Bin Laden began with a bit part in the international brigades that fought the Soviet Union to a standstill in Afghanistan in the 1980s. After the Gulf War of 1991, he turned against the Mujahadeen’s allies the United States and the conservative regimes of the Gulf and launched a series of increasingly spectacular terrorist operations against U.S. embassies in Africa, the U.S.S. Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden, and culminating in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

Despite these successes, bin Laden quickly became irrelevant. The Bush administration crafted a brilliant campaign in Afghanistan to overthrow bin Laden’s Taliban hosts by combining the U.S. military’s most high-tech equipment with an extremely low-tech coalition of anti-Taliban Afghan militia forces known as the Northern Alliance. The iconic image of that phase of the Afghan War was of a bearded U.S. Special Forces operative riding an Afghan horse into battle carrying a laser target illuminator to steer precision-guided munitions to Taliban forces manning World War I–style trenches.

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But even before the Taliban had been run out of Dodge … err, Kabul, there were signs that the Bush administration was taking its eye off the al-Qaeda ball. Planning for the second front in the War on Terror in Iraq was already underway in the fall of 2001 and hindered our hunt for the architect of 9/11.

In late November and early December of that year, bin Laden and a couple of hundred of his hardcore al-Qaeda followers holed up in a bunker complex in the White Mountains on Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan, ready to make their last stand. Rather than commit U.S. forces to finishing off bin Laden at Tora Bora, Bush instead left the job to a ragtag “Eastern Alliance” of Afghan forces who had not played much of a role in the defeat of the Taliban. The result was predictable: bin Laden escaped.

In retrospect, 9/11 may have been the acme of al-Qaeda’s effectiveness. Bin Laden had little presence in Iraq before the U.S. invasion, and what foothold al-Qaeda had was ironically in those areas where Saddam’s writ did not extend due to our no-fly zones. The secular Ba’athist regime and the Salafist al-Qaeda had little in common.

Following the U.S. overthrow of Saddam, al-Qaeda’s presence in Iraq grew, and there was some evidence that the Sunni resistance for a time made common cause with al-Qaeda against the U.S. occupation. But bin Laden’s followers soon made themselves odious to their allies with their heavy-handed efforts to advance a political-religious agenda that went beyond fighting the occupation and preserving some semblance of Sunni power in a majority-Shia Iraq. The vaunted Anbar Awakening of Sunni tribes was driven as much by growing weariness with al-Qaeda as by the tribes’ fear of Shia hegemony in Baghdad.

The dirty secret in Afghanistan today is that al-Qaeda is now a miniscule part of the insurgency the United States faces. To be sure, many parts of the Taliban have more sympathy for the al-Qaeda theocratic agenda than the Iraqi resistance did. But the core of the anti-U.S. insurgency in Afghanistan is a nationalist backlash against our presence and our meddling in Afghanistan’s ethnic civil war. Given that, bin Laden’s elimination is likely to have little impact on our war there.

None of this is to deny that bin Laden was, as we used to say in Texas, “someone who needed killing,” or to gainsay the impressive tactical success of the counter-terrorism operation that brought him to justice. But bin Laden and al-Qaeda had become in recent years the least of our problems in the larger War on Terror, most of which were the result of our misguided response to them in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Michael C. Desch is a professor of political science and fellow of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

War on Terror: The End? A Symposium.

Andrew Bacevich: War on Terror Is a Fraud
David Rieff: Fighting the Last War
Jacob Heilbrunn: Death of the Bush Doctrine
Adam Garfinkle: Reform the Reforms
Michael C. Desch: How Much Does Osama Matter?
Ivan Eland: Declare Victory and Come Home