May 02, 2011

What bin Laden's Death Means To The Military

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A team of U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden during a raid in Pakistan. And since the attacks on September 11, thousands of U.S. troops have died in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Guests discuss how members of the military and their families feel about the death of bin Laden.


This is special coverage from NPR News. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

The son of enormous privilege in Saudi Arabia, Osama bin Laden, took up the fight against Soviet occupiers in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The eventual victory of the Mujahedeen gave him hope that this might provide an avenue for liberation of other Arab lands.

He took his new quest to his homeland, Saudi Arabia, but felt betrayed when his own country, in response to the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, invited the United States to take up military positions in that country, which he saw as a complete violation of everything that the country should stand for.

He tried to take his message of jihad to a new area, to new worlds. He ended up in a bitter fight with the United States and returned to Afghanistan, eventually, to take up the base, al-Qaida, to establish an organization which could fight the near enemies and over throw the Saudi regime, he hoped, and other Arab regimes, which he regarded as puppets of the West but also could attack the foreign enemy, the United States.

Several attacks were launched against U.S. forces, one against the World Trade Center in 1993. Then, attacks against U.S. embassies in East Africa, attack on the United States, the USS Cole, the Navy ship, in Aden. Then the attack on 9/11, and Osama bin Laden became a figure of worldwide, well, renown or notoriety, take your pick.

Osama bin Laden died in a gun battle with U.S. forces in a compound not far from Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, early this morning, Pakistan time.

We're listening to the reverberations of the death of Osama bin Laden in special coverage from NPR News. NPR foreign correspondent Deborah Amos is with us from a studio in Woodstock, New York. She's just back from another visit to the Arab world, including visits to Riyadh and Beirut.

And Deborah Amos, as we consider the career of Osama bin Laden and how he became this worldwide figure of inspiration, to some, and of hatred to so many others, how did Osama bin Laden justify the attacks that killed, well, yes, the West - I think those who study his ideology can say he regarded those as enemies but so many Muslims.

AMOS: That is the most damning, I think - certainly in the parts of the world that I cover - the most damning indictment against Osama bin Laden. He killed far more Muslims, and his ideology and his cadres, than Americans.

It was a perverted way of looking at religion, and there are many, many Islamic scholars who have been speaking out for years against the way that he took particular parts of the Quran and twisted them to justify killing innocent people across the world, not just in the United States but in the Middle East.

We spoke a little earlier about a Saudi program called ideological security, this idea that you send people out into the mosques of Saudi Arabia, on the Internet, and you talk about the Quran.

It doesn't say that. It doesn't say what Osama says it says. And he is using religion in a bad way. And they have been at this program now for some time.

There's a program on Al Arabiya, which is a Saudi-funded television station - I went to their studios in Dubai, and for the last two years, they have had a program on called "The Death Machine." And every week, they do a documentary about what al-Qaida does, how it kills people, how it thinks.

And the idea is to expose that ideology to the light of day, to have Muslims look at what it is that they've taken out of the Quran and twisted. And those programs are rather interesting and somewhat effective.

And I'm thinking about them today, what they will make of the death of Osama bin Laden.

CONAN: Joining us now is Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, a senior fellow, also, at the Brookings Institution, with us from his office in College Park. And Shibley Telhami, I wonder: As you think of the greater Islamic world today, how will -do you think they greet the death of Osama bin Laden?

Professor SHIBLEY TELHAMI (University of Maryland, College Park): Well, of course, they have been. And in some ways, I've been watching this over the past several hours in terms of reactions, certainly in the Arab world. And they vary a lot.

Pakistan, as you can imagine, is a divided country. So there are people who are mourning the loss and people who see in him a terrorist. And in the Arab world, you find that it varies, as well, people who see him as a terrorist, who's not a big loss, who's hurt more Muslims, to people who are still very angry with America and don't see why America should have the right to act in Pakistan, instead of arresting or going through international institutions, to people like in Benghazi.

And many of the people interviewed in Benghazi say this is not our issue. We're focused on Gadhafi and Libya. So you have a whole variety of reactions.

But I want to say something here that we have to understand in context. You know, in my polling over the past decade about al-Qaida, when I ask people what aspects of al-Qaida do you sympathize with most, if any, and of course a large number say none, no aspect they sympathize with.

But of those who say they sympathize with anything, the majority said they mostly sympathize with the fact that al-Qaida stands up to the U.S. and speaks for their causes, not an embrace of its agenda.

Only roughly six percent across the region said they embrace their agenda. So it was really mostly gaining from the negative, not gaining, you know, because people embrace their agenda.

And when people were angry with America, particularly over Iraq, more than Afghanistan, the Afghanistan war was less controversial in the Arab world, at least, certainly not in Pakistan but in the Arab world, than the Iraq war, and with - you know, pulling out of Iraq with George W. Bush, who was highly disliked in the Arab world, you know, being replaced, a lot of that, you know, went away.

And I think right now, the judgment of al-Qaida is not only in juxtaposition to their feelings toward the U.S. but also in the juxtaposition to their feelings toward the Arab revolutions, which happen to be exactly bin Laden's nightmare.

I mean, he lived long enough to witness his worst nightmare, and that is to see peaceful young people, non-ideological, chanting the same values that America stands for - freedom, democracy, human rights - succeed where he and his group never did in the Arab world. And that had to be very disheartening for him before he died.

AMOS: Shibley, I wonder if I could ask a question. And I've been thinking about the groups, for example, in Yemen, al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula. They also have watched a revolution in their own country. Now the essential leader of the movement is dead. What does that do to them?

Prof. TELHAMI: Well, I think in the short term, as you can imagine, they will do exactly the opposite, which is to prove that he was not as central, operationally, that they're still there, that they're going to act. And I think that's why the period in the short term is very dangerous.

I think they will see this as an opportunity to assert themselves in a way that they haven't been able to. See, if you think about the reaction to the Arab revolutions, to the Arab uprisings, to the Arab spring, to the Arab awakening, they didn't know how to deal with it. Because most of these guys in Yemen, with all the weapons around, with all the sectarianism, still chanting salmiya, salmiya, salmiya - peaceful, peaceful, peaceful, and that's the power of it.

That's the beauty of it, and they don't know how to deal with it. And so now they have an opportunity, which is not in juxtaposition to the revolution but in juxtaposition to America, to assert themselves again. So I think it's going to be a dangerous period coming up.

CONAN: Shibley, it's interesting, we've been talking about some of the offshoots of Iraq, yes, Iraq in the Arabian Peninsula. We've been talking about Al-Shabab in Somalia.

I wanted to ask you about another organization, though, al-Qaida in Iraq. And this was a place where the great divide of the Muslim world came to the forefront, and al-Qaida in Iraq seemed more interested in killing Shiites, that offshoot of Sunni Islam, than they were in killing Americans.

Prof. TELHAMI: Well, Neal, this is really fascinating, though, if you think about that story about al-Qaida in Iraq and also just related to where bin Laden was ultimately found.

He was found under the noses of Pakistani military, not too far from a military base, not too far from the capital, in an ordinary house, not in a cave. How could he have been hiding there for all these years?

Well, the story of success of al-Qaida is when people are more sympathetic with them than they are with their enemies, they can succeed and flourish. People look the other way around.

When the Sunnis were angry more with America over the Iraq war, al-Qaida could flourish. The more they have opportunities to be part of the system, the more al-Qaida goes on the defensive.

Al-Qaida wins in the negative, by default. That's why it's very important to win hearts and minds not because you can win the hearts and minds of al-Qaida itself, it's a hopeless organization, but it's because they will hide, they will succeed if, in fact, there is more anger with their enemies, particularly the U.S.

And I think that was the story in Iraq. It's the story in Pakistan. And this is the lesson to be learned. It is something that we have - it's despite 10 years of the most effective military in the world, the most effective intelligence in the world - he could still hide under the noses of Pakistani officials and Pakistani military because, undoubtedly, he had a lot of sympathizers.

And that's not because people will embrace him or will want his agenda to be implemented in their country but because they dislike the U.S. more, or they're angry with the U.S. more. And that should be a lesson for us as we move forward.

CONAN: Some people would say, Deborah Amos, that yes, a hard power used effectively by the United States early this morning in Pakistan. Soft power, though, helped changed minds and change the agenda away from bin Ladenism in the form of the iPhones that you were talking about earlier.

AMOS: Indeed, and I was thinking, as, Shibley, you were talking: Where does he die? He dies in Pakistan. Where does he want to have the most effect in the Arab world? He's nowhere near it.

And I wanted to ask about his successor and what this means for al-Qaida.

CONAN: The successor will be, presumably, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number two, the Egyptian doctor, former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, who presumably takes over the reins as the sheikh, the head of al-Qaida.

Shibley Telhami, thanks very much for your time today.

Prof. TELHAMI: Always my pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, with us from his office in College Park.

When we come back, we're going to focus on the United States military, its role in what happened last night, its role in Afghanistan and Iraq. What happens next? Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. This is special coverage from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is special coverage from NPR News. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

With us is Deborah Amos, NPR foreign correspondent, with us back from her most recent tour of the Middle East and with us from Woodstock, New York, today.

But also joining us is somebody we spoke with a great deal in the days after 9/11, Major General Mike Davidson, retired, former assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the National Guard, with us from Louisville Public Media there in Kentucky. And General Mike, nice to have you back.

Major General MIKE DAVIDSON (Retired; Former Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the National Guard): Thank you, it's great to be back, and I bring you Derby greetings from Kentucky this week.

CONAN: And as we talk about the death of Osama bin Laden, important to remember that other events are going on. The Kentucky Derby is scheduled for next Saturday.

Service members around the globe are celebrating, privately in many cases, the work of their colleagues, the elite Navy SEAL Team 6 and the CIA operatives who accompanied them, who executed Osama bin Laden on Sunday.

Though many celebrate, few are calling this the end of the war on terror. And even if the United States decides to start withdrawing significant numbers of forces from Afghanistan, this summer, in July, Mike Davidson, the long war is nowhere near anywhere close to an end.

Maj. Gen. DAVIDSON: It's not. And if you want to find wisdom, sometimes if you go to the soldiers and Marines and sailors and the airmen, they'll give you wisdom. And on your lead-in piece, somebody had a young Marine saying: It's great, but they're still going to try and kill us.

Well, he's exactly right, and writ large, this war is going to go on for a long time.

CONAN: Also with us is - from his home in Maryland is Tom Ricks, veteran military journalist who writes the Best Defense blog for Foreign Policy magazine. And Tom Ricks also a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security.

And Tom Ricks, as this happens, we are in the midst of a changing of the guard. General Petraeus, who - the man who was in command of these forces who left Afghanistan to conduct these missions, is the person in charge in Afghanistan, he's coming back to run the Central Intelligence Agency. Leon Panetta, the CIA chief, about to go off to run the Pentagon, the new secretary of defense if confirmed by the United States Senate. And this is a farewell for Robert Gates, who served of course both President Bush and President Obama, asked to stay on in that role. And this has to be a great moment of satisfaction for him.

Mr. TOM RICKS (Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security): I think it does. It also makes you wonder what role this operation played in President Obama's mind as he made these personnel moves.

He knew this was coming down the pike, and the White House, in their backgrounder last night, was very clear that this was an operation executed by Field Team 6, naval special operators, under the command of the CIA, so a real joint CIA-military operation, almost to underscore the nature of the Petraeus selection for the CIA.

I think in the short term, there's a lot to celebrate here. But I do think psychologically, it is kind of the end of the long war for a lot of people who have been in it. I was just looking at an email from a friend who sat up drinking shots to fallen comrades last night, and I think that's happened with a lot of people in the military who have been fighting for the last 10 years.

Okay, we did what we came for. The mission really is accomplished. It's time to go home.

Read the full transcript at NPR.