We should be cautious on drawing too many conclusions from publicly available information, especially given the inaccuracy of early accounts (woman as human shield, etc.), but several features of the story beyond what’s been commented on widely are interesting:
1. Bin Laden may have been an operational drag on “Central Al Qaeda.” The weird story about plots to disrupt American trains (!) on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 suggests that Bin Laden was still actively involved in operational planning. He could only communicate infrequently and with low bandwidth, vastly increasing the cycle time of planning revisions. It also put him very out of touch, probably contributing to Al Qaeda central irrelevance. I suspect that, despite the symbolic value of eliminating Bin Laden, had he just been eliminated by an airstrike, it might have been a net plus for Al Qaeda.
2. The operation as conducted, on the other hand, because of the intelligence yield of hardrives and documents and thumb drives now in US possession, leaves every Al Qaeda associate wondering whether their location has been or is about to be discovered, and whether they will soon meet a similar fate. They will no longer trust established communication channels and will suspect that people in contact with them have flipped. Al Qaeda’s central coordinating and resourcing function, had it had any strength left, probably is no more. The lesson will not be lost on people thinking of joining similar networks.
3. The controversy over the photos revealed interesting dynamics in the Obama administration and much silliness elsewhere. Leon Panetta said the photos would be released – despite this the President decided the opposite. It is clear who is in charge of this administration. On the other hand, Senator Lindsey Graham’s statement that the photos should be released because the only reason the go in on the ground was to obtain proof of Bin Laden’s death was utter foolishness. First of all, the intelligence yield and disruption of Al Qaeda was even more important than certainty (See #2 above.). Second, certainty was established in other ways than a picture. Third, a picture can be doctored and would not convince those who ready to believe in conspiracies (viz the parallel with Obama’s birthplace).
4. It’s interesting that in reaction to belief that elements in the Pakistani Army or ISI protected Bin Laden people are talking about cutting economic assistance funds, that tend to support the welfare of the Pakistani people and the civilian government, but not the assistance through military channels and the Pakistan Counterinsurgency Contingency Fund, that are targeted directly on producing a Pakistani military more aligned with U.S. regional goals.