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What comes next?


We've already seen that Osama bin Laden's death has been a huge  morale boost for Americans, but brought no immediate end to the war in Afghanistan or the terrorist threat. Looking ahead, though, what about the long-term effects?

John Brennan, a top counterterrorism advisor to President Obama, said today that bin Laden's death is a huge setback for Al Qaeda, although not necessarily strong enough to shatter the whole organization. Still, if the U.S. keeps the pressure on, that combined with internal tensions could finally spell doom for the terror network:

Said Brennan:

This is a strategic blow to al Qaeda. It is a necessary but not necessarily sufficient blow to lead to its demise. But we are determined to destroy it. I think we have a lot better opportunity now that al Qaeda -- that bin Laden is out of there, to destroy that organization, create fractures within it. The number two, Zawahiri is not charismatic. He has not been -- was not involved in the fight earlier on in Afghanistan, so -- and I think he has a lot of detractors within the organization. And I think you're going to see them start eating themselves from within more and more.
So, this thinking goes, even if the U.S. can't destroy Al Qaeda completely, it may be able to break it up into small enough pieces -- which will still include potentially dangerous ones in Yemen, Africa and elsewhere -- that it'll never again be able to stage a large-scale attack against the West. But hang on: Officials have been saying for years that they've made good progress doing just this. The founding components of the franchise have been in bad shape for awhile: The bad guys now plot and launch their terror attacks from havens far outside Afghanistan and Pakistan. Last year, the Obama administration said the biggest threat now comes from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Maybe the biggest effect of bin Laden's death is to hasten the need to deal with questions that would have come up anyway, just further down the line: The end of the so-called "long war" could be in sight. If we accept that there'll probably always be some terrorists or extremists who hate the U.S., how long are Americans willing to continue smashing the components of the former Al Qaeda? If you break open a piggy bank with a hammer, you can keep on hitting the pieces as long as you like, but at a certain point they're so small you can't break them anymore.

How will Americans and their elected officials know when to stop smashing? What should come next?  Could we someday view the "war on terror" the way we now view the Cold War?

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