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

Share
Related Topics

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?



j.hari@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Data Specialist

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are the go-to company for ...

Recruitment Genius: Search Marketing Specialist - PPC / SEO

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's leadin...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This caravan dealership are currently recruiti...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Rafael Nadal is down and out, beaten by Dustin Brown at Wimbledon – but an era is not thereby ended  

Sad as it is, Rafael Nadal's decline does not mark the end of tennis's golden era

Tom Peck
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test