So why are we in Afghanistan? Didn’t the Americans and the British go there in 2001 to fight Osama bin Laden? Wasn’t he killed on Monday? There was painful symbolism in the Nato airstrike yesterday ? scarcely 24 hours after Bin Laden’s death ? that killed yet more Afghan security guards. For the truth is that we long ago lost the plot in the graveyard of empires, turning a hunt for a now largely irrelevant inventor of global jihad into a war against tens of thousands of Taliban insurgents who have little interest in al-Qa’ida, but much enthusiasm to drive Western armies out of their country.
The gentle hopes of Hamid Karzai and Hillary Clinton ? that the Taliban will be so cowed by the killing of Bin Laden that they will want to become pleasant democrats and humbly join the Western-supported and utterly corrupt leadership of Afghanistan ? shows just how out of touch they are with the blood-soaked reality of the country. Some of the Taliban admired Bin Laden, but they did not love him and he had been no part of their campaign against Nato. Mullah Omar is more dangerous to the West in Afghanistan than Bin Laden. And we haven’t killed Omar.
Iran, for once, spoke for millions of Arabs in its response to Bin Laden’s death. “An excuse for alien countries to deploy troops in this region under the pretext of fighting terrorism has been eliminated,” its foreign ministry spokesman has said. “We hope this development will end war, conflict, unrest and the death of innocent people, and help to establish peace and tranquility in the region.”
Newspapers across the Arab world said the same thing. If this is such a great victory for the United States, it’s time to go home; which, of course, the US has no intention of doing just now.
That many Americans think the same thing is not going to change the topsy-turvy world in which US policy is framed. For there is one home truth which the world still has not grasped: that the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt ? and, more pressing, the bloodbaths in Libya and Syria and the dangers to Lebanon ? are of infinitely graver importance than blowing away a bearded man who has been elevated in the West’s immature imagination into Hitlerian proportions.
Turkish prime minister Erdogan’s brilliant address in Istanbul yesterday ? calling for the Syrians to stop killing their people and for Gaddafi to leave Libya ? was more eloquent, more powerful and more historic than the petty, boastful, Hollywood speeches of Obama and Clinton on Monday. We are now wasting our time speculating who will “take over” al-Qa’ida ? Zawahiri or Saif al-Adel ? when the movement has no “leadership” as such, Bin Laden being the founder rather than the boss.
But, a day being a long time in the killing fields of the Middle East, just 24 hours after Osama Bin Laden died, other questions were growing thicker yesterday. If, for example, Barack Obama really thinks the world is “a safer place” after Bin Laden’s death, how come the US has increased its threat alert and embassies around the world are being told to take extra precautions against attack?
And just what did happen in that tatty compound ? no longer, it seems, a million-dollar “mansion” ? when Bin Laden’s sulphurous life was brought to an end? Human Rights Watch is unlikely to be the only institution to demand a “thorough, transparent investigation” into the killing.
There was an initial story from Pentagon “sources” which had two of Bin Laden’s wives killed and a woman held as a “human shield” dying too. Within hours, the wives were alive and in some accounts, the third woman simply disappeared.
And then of course, there’s Pakistan, eagerly telling the world that it participated in the attack on Bin Laden, only to have President Zardari retract the entire story yesterday. Two hours later, we had an American official describing the attack on Bin Laden as a “shared achievement”.
And there’s Bin Laden’s secret burial in the Arabian Sea. Was this planned before the attack on Bin Laden, with the clear plan to kill rather than capture him? And if it was carried out “according to Islamic rights” ? the dead man’s body washed and placed in a white shroud ? it must have taken a long time for the officer on the USS Carl Vinson to devise a 50-minute religious ceremony and arrange for an Arabic-speaking sailor to translate it.
So now for a reality check. The world is not safer for Bin Laden’s killing. It is safer because of the winds of freedom blowing through the Middle East. If the West treats the people of this region with justice rather than military firepower, then al-Qa’ida becomes even more irrelevant than it has been since the Arab revolutions.
Of course, there is one positive side for the Arab world. With Bin Laden killed, the Gaddafis and the Salehs and the Assads will find it all the more difficult to claim that a man who is now dead is behind the popular revolutions trying to overthrow them.
Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared.