With Shahram Akbarzadeh

May 11 / 60

Shahram Akbarzadeh is Professor of Asian Politics (Middle East and Central Asia) and Deputy Director of the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies, Asia Institute.

Bin Laden is Dead! What’s next?

Killing Osama bin Laden will make very little difference to the urgent issues that face the Muslim world. While the United States rejoices in ridding the world of a most notorious character whose name is now firmly registered in US history books, the reaction in the Muslim world has been, by and large, un-newsworthy. That is because the news of bin Laden’s killing has come amidst a major political crisis in the Arab world that is decidedly non-religious. 

The Arab Spring has led to promising changes in Tunisia and Egypt. In other Arab states, the popular uprising has put the political elite on notice. In Libya, the uprising has descended into civil war. But the common theme in all cases has been the yearning for the universal values of human rights, good governance and political accountability. This is a revolt against tyranny. Islam has not been the motivating factor for the Arab street. Even the oldest and the most organised Islamist party in the Arab world, the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, has acknowledged that the popular uprising against the now-deposed President Hosni Mubarak was not an Islamic revolution. The Arab spring is not about the cliché issues of ‘clash of civilisations’ or jihad against infidels. Osama bin Laden was irrelevant to this popular uprising. The Arab world has moved beyond Islamism. 

The above point notwithstanding, bin Laden’s killing presents the United States with a range of new options and challenges. The most pressing is the future of US military commitment to Afghanistan. President Barack Obama came to office with an anti-war message, making a distinction between the war of necessity and the war of choice. The search for bin Laden had made the war in Afghanistan necessary. And there was an international consensus on that point, while the US invasion of Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein was an entirely different matter. From day one, President Obama made a clear commitment to the war in Afghanistan, although the mounting body count and the daily grind of war have been eroding public support. With bin Laden out of the picture, President Obama is likely to find the pressure to withdraw unbearable. However, the problem for the United States and the rest of the international community is that a withdrawal from Afghanistan risks putting that country on a slide back into anarchy. That cannot be good for Afghans or the United States. 

With the killing of bin Laden, President Obama has managed to score a major win in the eyes of the American public. His popularity has soared as he receives a timely boost on the eve of the next presidential campaign. Now the challenge must surely be finding the right balance between extracting the United States from Afghanistan without heralding a failed state. 


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