Johann Hari: The real meaning of Bin Laden's death

As soon as the news broke, I went to Times Square and witnessed a scene that hinted at the complexities

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Scramble the film backwards. Rewind. Go back to the day 10 years ago when the air here in Manhattan was thick with ash and Osama bin Laden was gloating. There were two options for the US government – to pick up a scalpel, or to pick up a blowtorch. With the scalpel, you go after the fundamentalist murderers responsible with patient policing and intelligence work, and steadily drain them of their support. With the blowtorch, you invade a slew of countries and embark on slaughter and torture, and swell the army of enraged jihadis determined to kill. History branched in two possible directions that day.

We know which Osama bin Laden preferred. He wanted to draw the West into endless bloody wars that haemorrhaged billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives. He told his supporters: "We conducted a war of attrition against Russia for 10 years until they went bankrupt. We are continuing in the same policy, to make America bleed profusely to the point of bankruptcy." To achieve this, "all we have to do is send two mujahideen [to a remote, irrelevant area] and raise a piece of cloth on which is written "al-Qa'ida" in order to make the [US] generals race there, to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses." He knew that every ramped-up attack would appear to vindicate his narrative about the "evil" West waging "war on Islam", and swell his army of recruits.

When Bin Laden's favourite son, Omar, defected, he told many unflattering stories about his father – including that he tortured his pets to death. So it's highly unlikely to be a double bluff when he explained that the day George W Bush was elected, "my father was so happy. This is the kind of president he needs, one who will attack and spend money and break [his own] country".

The West reacted to 9/11 by giving Bin Laden precisely what he wanted. We tossed aside our best values, making them seem a hollow charade. And each time we did it, the number of jihadis grew. Studies by terrorism experts Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank found that the invasion of Iraq, and the torture used there, caused a seven-fold increase in global jihadism.

Yet last weekend, we saw how it might have been. The operation wasn't perfect: I would much rather Bin Laden had been taken alive and put on trial, rather than summarily executed. But it was a precise raid. It took real risks to minimise civilian deaths. It didn't use torture. Most people in the world can support an action like this. This should have been the primary – and almost certainly sole – use of violence in response to 9/11. Instead, more than a million people have died in the torrent of aggression. They were just as innocent as the civilians in the World Trade Centre, and their families will never get their day dancing in the streets in vengeance over the men who ordered it.

I wish I could say that this is the contrast between Bush and Obama – but that wouldn't be honest. This raid was an anomalous moment in Obama's foreign policy. Most of the time it has been a clear continuation of Bush's – and in several crucial areas, a ramping up of it. He has doubled the troops in Afghanistan. He has more than trebled the aerial bombardment of Pakistan and Yemen, even though it kills 50 civilians for every alleged jihadi, and creates far more jihadis in the process.

Osama Bin Laden is dead, but our foreign policy is still giving him what he wanted. We are still bleeding cash creating bleeding countries and more enraged people. The angry, fighting people in Afghanistan today are – according to leaked CIA reports – overwhelmingly "a tribal, localised insurgency" who "see themselves as opposing the US because it is an occupying power". They have "no goals" beyond Afghanistan's borders. Even General David Petraeus, the new head of the CIA, says there are only 100 al-Qa'ida fighters in the whole of Afghanistan. One senior military official, speaking to the Washington Post, compared their intelligence on them to "Bigfoot sightings". Crunch the numbers, and you find we are spending $1.5bn a year on each al-Qa'ida fighter in Afghanistan. Is there anyone, except the private defence contractors making a fortune, who thinks that is a smart use of cash?

Many people are angrily asking whether the Pakistani authorities knew about Bin Laden's presence. But few are asking how our governments' actions may have made this more likely. For the past three years, the US, with the support of its allies, has been sending unmanned robot-planes swooping over the country, incinerating thousands of civilians. When the country experienced its worst floods in living memory, it was used as a pretext to increase the bombings. If that was happening in your country, would you be more or less likely to co-operate with the people attacking you?

For the past decade, right-wingers have been chest-thumping about being tough on jihadism, while promoting policies that create far more jihadis and delighted Bin Laden. It's like bragging about how much you hate lung cancer while demanding everybody smoke 40 cigarettes a day.

If you really hate jihadism – as I do – then you need to search for the policies that actually undermine it. The single most important thing we can do is to make a key structural change in our societies, by breaking our addiction to oil. Today, we need the petrol from the Middle East to keep the wheels of our civilisation turning, and that sets up an inevitable conflict. The people of the Middle East want to control their own oil, and spend the revenues on their own societies. We want to control the oil for ourselves. Only one can prevail. For our governments to win, they have to support the suppression of the Middle Eastern peoples, no matter how inspiring their democratic revolutions, and instead arm and fund their vilest tyrants, like the Saud family. This will create shards of violent hatred of us for as long as the policy continues.

As soon as the news of Bin Laden's death broke, I went to Times Square here in New York, and witnessed a scene that hinted at these complexities. A 28-year-old man was darting through the cheering crowds and the weeping fire-fighters selling the Stars and Stripes for $25 each. He was an Afghan refugee named Awal. He told me, in fractured English, that he had left "because of the war", which was "very bad", but he loved America "because here you are free." A drunk guy who was standing nearby overheard us and yelled with a smirk: "I'm a marine. I probably killed your cousin!" A few people sniggered; more scowled. Later, some of the crowd began to chant about the troops: "Bring them home! Bring them home!" Who does al-Qa'ida fear in this scene? If we follow the marine's course – of more aggression and racist contempt – the remaining scraps of al-Qa'ida may yet revive with new rage-recruits. If we follow instead a path of precisely targeting the jihadis while being generous and open to the rest of the world, they will wither. Bin Laden knew that. We know that. Now he is gone, will we finally stop playing into his cold, dead hands?

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