What bin Laden's death means for national security

U of C Professor Robert Pape says key is how U.S. reacts post bin Laden

May 2, 2011

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(Getty/Mario Tama)
On Sunday, it was announced that U.S. Forces had killed Osama bin Laden.

A prominent international-security expert says the killing of Osama bin Laden creates an opening for the U.S. to rethink how it’s waging the War on Terror.

Robert Pape, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and author of the book Cutting the Fuse:  The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It, argues that the U.S. should proceed even more expeditiously to withdraw its ground troops from Afghanistan and other Muslim countries.

“If you have accurate intelligence, you don’t need an army of people, you just need a handful,” Pape told WBEZ’s Jason Marck on Monday.

Pape praised the work of the Obama Administration and national intelligence agencies in locating the whereabouts of bin Laden, calling the search for him “always an intelligence problem” – and not a military problem.  He argues that the deep and sustained military presence in Muslim countries during the last decade has created more problems than it’s solved.

Now Pape says the moment is ripe for a rapid draw-down in U.S. troops stationed in the region. 

“The combination of concentrated intelligence and withdrawing the element that’s fueling the anger against the U.S. will mean that Al Qaeda is likely to be a thing of the past six months to a year from now,” he predicts.  “If we do the wrong thing and freeze our oversees ground forces in Muslim countries, that’s going to help reconstitute Al Qaeda.”

Bin Laden was the driving force behind the Al Qaeda terrorism network, but the organization became increasingly decentralized in the wake of mounting pressure against him following the September 11th terrorist attacks.  Pape says that means Al Qaeda remains a viable threat even with bin Laden’s death.  But he notes, the attack by U.S. Special Forces on Sunday also creates a new intelligence opening if Al Qaeda members pursue retaliation.

“As they try to retaliate, they’ll have to talk to each other,” said Pape.  “That creates opportunities for the CIA and other intelligence agencies to roll the group up.”

Pape accused the Bush Administration of taking its eye off the ball and said many of its policies, while well meaning, proved to be a distraction. Rather than engaging in major military actions, Pape argued that the hunt for bin Laden should have been more focused and sustained. 

"If you spend any time talking to folks in intelligence, there’s a secret to hiding: That’s to hide where people aren’t looking,” he said. “And for many years we simply weren’t looking.”

Instead, Pape argued that the United States should have been more diligent and patient in its pursuit of intelligence on bin Laden’s whereabouts.

“We needed to wait for those intelligence leads and follow them up meticulously, “ he said.  “That was always our best chance for getting bin Laden – and it’s still our best chance for rolling up Al Qaeda in the future.”