One year on, the death of Osama bin Laden is starting to feel more like an asterisk than a milestone. Yes, al-Qaeda’s capacity for organized mayhem has been significantly diminished. But the U.S. remains embroiled in Afghanistan, with a commitment of resources that will span the next decade. Pakistan swarms with murderous extremists of various stripes, and its relations with the U.S. are, to put it mildly, toxic. From Yemen through Iraq and across Africa to Mauritania, groups affiliated with al-Qaeda are becoming more aggressive.
President Barack Obama is entitled to take some political credit for ordering a bold military mission. But looking ahead, what’s needed is humility about the challenges that still face the U.S. and clarity about the means with which to overcome them.
The Obama administration rightly sought to expunge the phrase “war on terror” from the strategic lexicon and to reject any hint of a war on Islam. Terrorism is a tactic, not an enemy. Yet defining the U.S. fight as against al-Qaeda and its “violent extremist affiliates … around the world”—as the 2010 National Security Strategy puts it—is also off the mark: The spread of al-Qaeda’s brand to copycat groups potentially consigns the U.S. to a costly and ineffectual global game of Whac-A-Mole.
Just as the Obama administration has used bin Laden’s death to recalibrate the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, it should set clear and discerning limits on its involvement in fighting these “extremist affiliates.” Some may not pose a direct threat to the U.S.—unless, that is, U.S. forces get involved. Others do, and increasingly the tool to combat them is drone strikes like the one that killed the U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen.
Justified or not, faceless death from the skies tends not to win many hearts and minds on the ground. If the U.S. wants to curb violent extremism in the Muslim world, it can provide more support for political reforms and economic development in those countries roiled by the Arab Spring—beginning with robust leadership and follow-through at this week’s conference in Cairo to spur private investment in Arab countries in transition. And one added dividend of progress toward a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians—something that has been sorely lacking these past three years—would be a smaller pool of extremist recruits.
This sober anniversary is a reminder that there will be no “Berlin Wall falls” moment of victory in the effort against global terrorists. But the U.S. can still prevail: by using clear judgment before involving ourselves in foreign situations, by weighing reasonable security steps at home against any erosion of civil rights, and by doing our utmost to support the aspirations of those now striving for peace, prosperity, and liberty.