After bin Laden, what?

Now’s the time to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan

The death of Osama bin Laden is a huge symbolic victory for the United States, but it’s a mistake to think it will have much impact on the ground. That’s because bin Laden is far less relevant today than in the past. For evidence of that, look no further than the Arab Spring.

To the Facebook reformers throughout the Middle East who are now calling for the ouster of their dictatorial leaders, Osama bin Laden is of little importance. They don’t share his religious fervor, his terrorist tendencies or his hatred of the West. What they seek is openness, accountability and a voice in shaping their countries.

Bin Laden may have killed thousands of people, but he never overturned a government, as have the peaceful demonstrators who brought down the governments of Tunisia and Egypt and threaten to do the same in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen.

The United States historically has supported repressive regimes like Egypt’s and Yemen’s for the sake of stability in the region—our main source of oil—and the joint cause of fighting al-Qaida terrorism. Now the Obama administration is backing away from that posture and instead lending support to the pro-democracy forces, while trying not to alienate Saudi Arabia irrevocably. It’s a delicate dance.

The U.S. is also carefully constraining its role in Libya by working closely with allies, including the Arab League, and limiting its military involvement to that of a supporting player.

The goal is ultimately to disengage the United States from active military involvement in the region, as we are doing in Iraq. Killing Osama bin Laden helps in that regard. We invaded Afghanistan, after all, to capture or kill him—and likely would have done so in 2002, had the Bush administration not let him slip away from the caves of Tora Bora. Better late than never, though. Few al-Qaida operatives remain in Afghanistan, so now’s the time to begin downsizing the American presence there in earnest, turn that country’s future over to its own people, and redirect the resources being spent there to rebuilding America.