The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Bin Laden and the Paradoxical Logical of War

May 9, 2011

Strategist Edward Luttwak once observed that strategy has a paradoxical logic. The best way forward may be the longest way round, offence can be the best defence, and a seemingly victorious course pursued indefinitely will lead to over-reach. This is produced by the limitations of human strength, the resistance and friction of conflict, and the sheer dynamism and chaos of war.

This dynamic surfaces in the insurgency in Afghanistan and the terrorist-hunting campaign in Pakistan. Consider two headlines following Bin Laden’s death.

 In Afghanistan, killing Bin Laden may not dis-spirit the Taliban, if they are aware that Bin Laden’s passing will probably accelerate America’s withdrawal:

even though Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton declared that the insurgents “cannot wait us out” in Afghanistan, Taliban fighters may have more reason than ever to believe they can do just that.

The Taliban leadership, always closely attuned to U.S. domestic political sentiments, is well aware of the pressure on President Obama to soon decide the scope of an American troop drawdown that is to begin in July, and of the chorus of calls to wind down the war in the wake of Bin Laden’s killing.

And for another paradoxical note, American financial support to Pakistan may give incentives to the Pakistani security and intelligence services not to co-operate:

as one official put it, the Pakistan army had little motivation in devoting resources to the hunt for Bin Laden. Why kill the golden goose whose presence brings in almost $3bn in annual aid and whose departure could trigger a premature US withdrawal from the region?

Hunting and killing Bin Laden, while in many ways a more serious disruption of Al Qaeda’s network than we previously thought, has in other ways made this overall war even more difficult.

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Patrick Porter is Professor of International Security and Strategy at the University of Birmingham. He is also Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, London. His research interests are great power politics, grand strategy, realism, the causes and consequences of major powers’ decline, the Iraq war of 2003, foreign and defence policy in the US and UK, and the intellectual life of major powers and their foreign policy establishments. He has written four books. His book Blunder: Britain's War in Iraq (Oxford University Press, 2018) was shortlisted for the British Army Military Book of the Year Prize, 2019. His most recent book is The False Promise of Liberal Order: Nostalgia, Delusion and the Rise of Trump (Polity, 2020). He also wrote The Global Village Myth: Distance, War and the Limits of Power (Georgetown University Press, 2015) and Military Orientalism: Eastern War through Western Eyes (Columbia University Press, 2009.