Direction of war on terror now in doubt

JUSTICE has been done, about that there is no doubt. The death of Osama bin Laden, the man who masterminded the world’s worst terrorist atrocity, is a hugely symbolic moment in the West’s war on terror. It is impossible to witness the scenes of jubilation in New York without sharing in a sense of triumph, or without marveling at that city’s remarkable ability to rebuild in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

The successful mission by US Navy Seals also provides a timely fillip for President Obama, and makes his re-election in 2012 all the more likely; Republicans will now struggle to paint him as a hapless Democrat in the mould of Jimmy Carter. Domestically, it could give him the upper hand in bitterly partisan negotiations over how to solve America’s growing sovereign debt problem.

However, as evidenced by the muted reaction of global markets yesterday, bin Laden’s death throws up all sorts of uncertainties – almost as many as it resolves.

Chief among these is the future direction of the war on terror. It has been clear for some time that America’s attention has been shifting from Afghanistan to Pakistan, where it has a long-running drone operation designed to take out terrorist leaders in the north west of the country.

But few expected Osama bin Laden to be hiding out in a luxurious compound just a couple of hours from Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, and less than a kilometre from a major military base. Some elements of the country’s military and intelligence services must have known, or at least suspected he was there. America’s decision to inform the Pakistani government only after the raid speaks volumes, despite yesterday’s public pronouncements of support and cooperation.

There is everything to suggest that Pakistan is a failed – or at least a failing – state, but little clarity on whether the international community has the will or resources to tackle it head on.

Nor is everyone cheering. Hamas, the jihadist group that controls the Gaza strip, condemned bin Laden’s killing, putting a reconciliation with its secularist rival Fatah – and with it the entire Palestinian peace process – in jeopardy. There is much to celebrate, but no time for complacency.