He was our kind of guy until he wasn't, an ally during the Cold War until he no longer served our purposes. The problem with Osama bin Laden was not that he was a fanatical holy warrior; we liked his kind just fine as long as the infidels he targeted were not us but Russians and the secular Afghans in power in Kabul whom the Soviets backed.
But when bin Laden turned against us, he morphed into a figure of evil incarnate, and now three decades after we first decided to use him and other imported Muslim zealots for our Cold War purposes, we feel cleansed by his death of any responsibility for his carnage. We may make mistakes but we are never in the wrong. USA! USA!
Kind of like when the CIA assigned the Mafia to assassinate Fidel Castro and the Mafiosi turned out to have their own agenda, or when Pentagon experts anointed the Catholic nutcase Ngo Dinh Diem as the George Washington of predominately Buddhist South Vietnam before they felt the need to execute him. A similar fate was suffered by Saddam Hussein, whose infamous Baghdad handshake with Donald Rumsfeld stamped him as our agent in the war to defeat the ayatollahs of Iran.
Never miss another story
Get the news you want, delivered to your inbox every day.
Awkward, I know, to point out that bin Laden was another of those monsters of our creation, one of those Muslim “freedom fighters” that President Ronald Reagan celebrated for having responded to the CIA's call to kill the Soviets in Afghanistan. That holy crusade against infidels was financed by Saudi Arabia and armed with U.S. weapons to oppose a secular Afghan government with Soviet backing but before Soviet troops had crossed the border. In short, it was an ill-fated and unjustifiable intervention by the U.S. into another nation's internal affairs.
Don't trust me on this one. Just read the 1996 memoir by former Carter administration security official and current Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a book touted by its publisher as exposing “Carter's never-before-revealed covert support to Afghan mujahedeen—six months before the Soviets invaded.” This dismissal of the claimed Cold War excuse for the backing of the mujahedeen was acknowledged by President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who, when asked by the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur if he regretted “having given arms and advice to future terrorists,” answered that he did not: “What is most important to the history of the world? Some stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”
That was said three years before some of those “stirred-up Muslims” like bin Laden and the alleged 9/11 plot mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—whom bin Laden financed, and whom he first met in Afghanistan when both were U.S.-backed fighters—launched their deadly attacks on the United States. The cost of the American response to that assault has spiraled upward for a decade. A defense budget that the first President Bush had attempted to cut drastically because the Cold War was over was pushed to its highest peacetime level by the second President Bush and now with three wars under way equals the military expenditures of all of the world's other nations combined.
But while Libya and Iraq have oil to exploit, what will be the argument for continuing the interminable war in Afghanistan now that bin Laden is gone? White House national security experts had already conceded that there were fewer than a hundred scattered al-Qaida operatives in Afghanistan, and that these were incapable of mounting anti-U.S. attacks. Clearly, what remains of al-Qaida is no longer based in Afghanistan, as the location of bin Laden's hiding place, in a military hub in Pakistan, demonstrated. Nor is there any indication that the Taliban we are fighting in Afghanistan are anything but homegrown fighters with motives and leadership far removed from the designs of the late bin Laden.
It is time to concede that the mess that is Afghanistan is a result of our cynical uses of those people and their land for purposes that have nothing to do with their needs or aspirations. Even if bin Laden had been killed in some forlorn cave in Afghanistan, it would not have made the case that he was using that country as a base. But the fact that he was in an area amply populated by the very Pakistani military and intelligence forces that we have armed, and that should have been able to easily nab him, gives the lie to the claim that Afghanistan is vital territory to be secured in what two administrations have now chosen to define as the war on terrorism.