By STEVEN R. HURST (Associated Press)
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama kept his campaign promise to kill or capture Osama bin Laden, a sharp rebuttal to critics of his national security leadership and a bold but risky operation that could pay major political dividends as he launches his campaign for re-election.
Yet, America and its allies are more than ever in the terrorist crosshairs of al-Qaida avengers, as Obama acknowledged in his late Sunday night announcement that U.S. Special Operations forces killed bin Laden in a precision assault on his $1 million Pakistani hideout.
The spontaneous celebrations that erupted in Washington, New York and other U.S. cities expressed how deeply Americans still felt the national tragedy of the Sept. 11, 2001 al-Qaida attacks and the deaths of nearly 3,000 fellow citizens.
The news also buoyed spirits in a country caught in the malaise of a slow economic recovery from the Great Recession, spiking gasoline prices, lingering near-9-percent unemployment and a bitter congressional fight over the nation’s staggering debt and spending cuts.
But other profound questions remain for a nation still struggling to regain its psychological footing from the world-changing attacks and a decade of the so-called war on terror.
The United States remains embroiled in a 10-year war in Afghanistan and deeply mired in a poisonous political climate that has wiped away the national unity that bathed the country in the weeks after bin Laden’s murderous airborne attacks.
That was very much on Obama’s mind as he told of bin Laden’s killing at the hands of a team of Navy Seals.
“Tonight, let us think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11. I know that it has, at times, frayed,” he said in the near-to-midnight national television address. “Yet today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people.”
Obama has faced heavy criticism dating to the early days of his administration when he gave speeches that opposition political figures said amounted to an apology for the strong U.S. military and foreign policy posture after the Sept. 11 attacks. He also was attacked by some for backing away from missile-defense deployments in Eastern Europe and for trying to “reset” relations with Russia.
The 10 or so Republicans vying for their party’s presidential nomination have been casting him as a weak leader. But, with elections 18 months away, none of the Republicans has seized the imagination of a broad swath of U.S. voters, who are largely consumed with the struggling American economy.
After the 2001 attacks, the United States quickly burned through a huge fund of global sympathy with its invasion of Iraq under the leadership of former President George W. Bush. Some close allies shunned Washington over a war that is only now ending after more than eight years. In the Muslim world, America is still trying to undo the perception that the U.S. is at war with Islam, witness Obama’s words Sunday night:
“We must also reaffirm that the United States is not — and never will be — at war with Islam…. Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims.”
“Bin Laden is dead. Al-Qaida is not,” CIA director Leon Panetta wrote in a memo to agency employees Monday morning.
From the fastness of the towering mountains along the Afghan-Pakistan border to the ungoverned regions of Yemen at the bottom of the Arabian peninsula to the deserts of North Africa to the feared bands of sympathizers inside the United States and Europe, al-Qaida still flourishes. Bin Laden’s death will be a psychological blow, but one that foments retribution.
And the nearly 10-year lapse between Sept. 11 and bin Laden’s death has seen a devolution of power away from the tall and striking Saudi Arabian who was born to a family of wealth.
Fundamental questions remain, too, about the course of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, where Obama has vowed to begin withdrawing forces this summer. Will pressure build for an outright end to the conflict that many critics see as a Vietnam-style quagmire, a vast waste of resources and American lives.
And what of Pakistan, where Obama apparently was holed up in a specially built compound in Abbottabad, a city not far from Islamabad and home to a brigade from Pakistani Army’s second division and the location of the Army’s military academy. The leadership of that country was kept in the dark until after bin Laden was killed, his body spirited away by helicopter to Afghanistan and then given a burial at sea.
Answers to the vast array of questions raised by bin Laden’s death will likely grow. And the answers to those questions could explode over the coming weeks, months and years like time bombs that shake rather than build upon the political and strategic victory achieved in killing the al-Qaida figurehead.