One year down

At times, it seems harder to commemorate triumph than tragedy.

The death of Osama bin Laden, killed by American commandos who found him hiding inside Pakistan, seems to be one such occasion. A year ago, celebrations raged on the White House’s doorstep while quieter gatherings took place in the Northern Virginia suburbs as men and women who directly confronted the sorrow of Sept. 11, and then carried out the nation’s response, found a unifying closure in the al-Qaeda leader’s violent end.

A year on, the raid’s very concrete success is being kneaded into a political crutch or cudgel, depending on party affiliation. It is not a milestone marked with national cohesion or resolve. It feels like a lost moment for the country.

This is indeed occasion for solidarity, not to gloat, but to confront the overwhelming issues tied up in the bin Laden raid.

Perhaps the biggest: Pakistan remains a persistent risk. The closer the U.S. gets to withdrawing from Afghanistan, the sketchier the pitfalls for the White House. Should the U.S. lose control of an embassy there to hostage takers or see the Pakistani nuclear arsenal enter unsteady hands, would U.S. special operations forces find the same success again?

There are deep issues at home. In and around the Beltway, the last decade’s spree of spending on intelligence operations and programs has created a counterterrorism industrial complex. It has the same problems and paradoxes of the Cold War’s nexus of defense companies, lawmakers and the military that elicited President Dwight Eisenhower’s cautionary address of 1961. See my essay, “The Explosive Growth of the Counterterrorism Industrial Complex,” in The American Security Project’s collection marking the bin Laden raid’s anniversary, The War On Terror: One Year On. This legacy, just like nagging questions about how we should project power while safeguarding our future, needs urgent consideration.

It may seem unreasonable to expect so much out of a nettlesome ally or a badly listing political process at home in the single year that’s gone by since bin Laden’s death.

Yet it is worth remembering, just over 10 years ago, how much the world changed in an instant.

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