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JAMES PETRAS : The Assassination of bin Laden — Its Use and Abuse

Clearly the killing of Bin Laden has absolutely no strategic or tactical importance in the major theaters of war and political revolt in the Arab world.

Prof. James Petras

The assassination of bin Laden has been celebrated as a great strategic victory by the White House, the European capitals and all the major mass media outlets throughout the world.  The killing has served as a major propaganda tool to enhance the standing of the US military in the eyes of the domestic public and to serve as a warning to overseas adversaries.

Contrary to this immense propaganda campaign and despite whatever symbolic value the killing may have in the eyes of his executioners, there is no evidence that the death will have any impact on the deteriorating military and political position of the US in South Asia, the Middle East, North Africa or elsewhere.

Bin Laden and Al Qaeda

Even in terms of weakening, let alone defeating Al Qaeda, the killing will have minimal effect.  Al Qaeda is a highly decentralized organization, a loose collection of groups distributed throughout the conflict zones, each with its own leaders, programs, tactics and strategies.  Al Qaeda is not a centralized international organization dependent on a ‘central command’ directed by a single person:  bin Laden was an ideological symbol more than an operative leader directing operations.  His death will merely lead to a new leader and will have zero impact on the rest of the loosely associated global network of groups which call themselves Al Qaeda.  Hence, whatever actions and activities taken in the past will continue into the future.

Bin Laden and the Afghan Resistance

The killing of bin Laden will have the most minimum impact in Afghanistan, for the obvious reason that the major forces carrying out the armed resistance are the Taliban and various other independent nationalist movements.  The Taliban is totally independent of Al Qaeda in its origins, structure, leadership, tactics, strategy and social composition.  Moreover, the Taliban is a mass organization with roots and sympathizers throughout the country.  It has tens of thousands of trained Afghans fighters; it has deeply penetrated the Afghani government and military and has recently announced (May 1, 2011) a major ‘spring offensive’.  The Taliban is overwhelmingly ‘national’ in it composition, leadership and ideology; while Al Qaeda is ‘international’ (Arab) in its membership and leadership.  The Taliban may have tolerated or even in certain circumstances tactically collaborated with Al Qaeda, but at no point is there any evidence that they took orders from bin Laden.  The overwhelming majority of US and NATO casualties in Afghanistan were inflicted by the Taliban.  The major bases of operation and support in Pakistan are linked to the Taliban.  In summary the killing of Osama bin Laden will have zero impact on the correlation of forces in Afghanistan; it will have zero impact on the capacity of the Taliban to carry-out its prolonged war against the US occupation and inflict dozens of casualties each week.

Bin Laden and the Mass Arab Revolts

From Tunisia to the Gulf States, mass popular revolts have either overthrown US collaborator regimes or are on the verge of doing so.  Al Qaeda had played a minor role, except perhaps among the Libyan “rebels”.  In Egypt and Tunisia, the mass movements embracing a wide gamut of secular students, trade unions and civic groups and moderate Islamic movements have dominated the uprisings.  Al Qaeda is a marginal factor and bin Laden is a very marginal figure, where he is not openly rejected.  The killing of bin Laden will not have any impact on the rising anti-imperialist sentiments which inform these mass movements. Some commentators even suggest that the killing will weaken White House propaganda efforts to justify US military operations under the pretext of “anti-terrorist” activities.

Bin Laden and Iraq/Iran

The major opposition to the US in Iraq is the Shia majority, minority Sunnis and ex-Bathists.  Al Qaeda’s terrorist actions have played a minor role and do not resonate with the mass of Iraqis demanding a US withdrawal.  The major religious based mass anti-occupation movements have their own leaders and militias and community bases; none accept Al Qaeda leadership or even collaboration.  The US withdrawal is a response to mass pressure from below, it is not a result of civilian deaths from the occasional Al Qaeda “suicide bombers”.  Clearly the retreat of the US from Iraq will not be affected by the killing of bin Laden; nor will the transition be affected by his local followers.

Bin Laden and Iran

The Iranian Islamic regime was a mortal enemy of Al Qaeda, jailing suspects and early in the Afghan war (2001-2003) collaborating with the US in its pursuit of its followers.  Both the political opposition, secular and religious, were hostile to Al Qaeda.  As a result, bin Laden had very little organized influence, even as he may have had a mass appeal as a symbol of armed resistance to the US:  “The enemy of our enemy is our friend”.  The killing of bin Laden will not have any impact on Iran which has its own icon “Khomeini”; its own brand of Islamic nationalism and is much more engaged in supporting Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas.  The US will not gain the least advantage in its efforts to undermine or destroy its Iranian adversaries.

The Significance of the Bin Laden Assassination

Clearly the killing of bin Laden has absolutely no strategic or tactical importance in the major theaters of war and political revolt in the Arab world.

The major significance of the killing is in the context of the strategic military and political defeats suffered by the US, especially most recently in Afghanistan.  On April 27, 2011, nine senior US military officers were assassinated by a “trusted” Afghan fighter pilot in the high security Kabul airport.  Four majors, two captains and two lieutenant colonials were killed in the single biggest killing of high US military officials in the 20th and 21st century wars.  Several facts mark this out as a strategically important event.  It took place in a high security installation, suggesting that no place in Afghanistan is safe from deadly armed attacks by the Taliban or the armed resistance. Secondly, all US military, no matter how high their rank, are vulnerable to deadly attack.  Thirdly, no US trained Afghan military official or soldier can be considered “loyal” – even those most closely in collaboration can and will turn their guns on their “mentors”.

If the US cannot protect its senior officers in its highest security compounds, how can it claim to have “secured” any of the territory outside – namely the cities, towns and villages? Two weeks earlier, with the collaboration of jail officials, almost 500 jailed Taliban fighters and leaders escaped via a 300 meter tunnel to a dozen waiting trucks.  Only two years earlier 900 prisoners also escaped. In its aftermath the US insisted on the appointment of “highly screened” loyalist collaborators as heads and directors of security and prisons, to no avail.

The overwhelming evidence shows that the US war effort is failing to create an effective puppet regime in Afghanistan.  The Taliban is slowly but surely eroding US influence.  In the face of major strategic losses, as evident in the astonishing assassination of top military officials, Obama had to mount a political spectacle – a “military success story” – the killing of unarmed bin Laden, to buoy the spirits of the American public, military and its NATO followers.  Every popular uprising against US puppets in North Africa and the Middle East is a political defeat; the enduring regime in Iran is a defeat for the US – Israel bellicose efforts for regime change; even Gadhaffi‘s resistance is a defeat for the believers in instant victories.  So Obama and his mass media acolytes have to mega magnify the killing of an isolated, political leader of a loose association of marginal terrorists as a world shattering, game turning event. When in fact, the losses and defeats accumulate every day before, during and after the assassination.

The Taliban didn’t even blink – their ‘spring offensive’ marches on; US military officials are wary of any encounters with any ‘loyal’ Afghan collaborators.  Egypt rejects US-Israeli politics toward the unity of Palestinians; the revolts in the Gulf continue.  The only stalemate – not victory – that Washington can celebrate – including the killing of Gadhaffi’s grandchildren – is in Libya where, allied with Al Qaeda, in Benghazi, the war continues.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: James Petras is a Bartle Professor (Emeritus) of Sociology at Binghamton University, New York. He is the author of 64 books published in 29 languages, and over 560 articles in professional journals, including the American Sociological Review, British Journal of Sociology, Social Research, Journal of Contemporary Asia, and Journal of Peasant Studies. He has published over 2000 articles. His latest book is War Crimes in Gaza and the Zionist Fifth Column in America

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