ISLAMABAD – Osama bin Laden’s death in a firefight with United States special forces will profoundly affect Pakistan’s relations with America. The death of Al Qaeda’s leader deep in Pakistan, in a city with a heavy military presence, appears to confirm what many have long alleged: Pakistan, not Afghanistan, has become the epicenter of international terrorism.
How will Bin Laden’s death affect terrorist groups operating not only in Pakistan, but also in other Muslim countries around the world? What impact will it have on America’s involvement in Afghanistan? Some tentative answers to these questions are now possible.
The US went into Afghanistan in October 2001 to oust the Taliban regime, which had provided Bin Laden and Al Qaeda with a sanctuary and operational base. The US has now stayed on for almost ten years, fighting an insurgency concentrated among Afghanistan’s Pakhtun population. The Pakhtuns, who constitute about half of Afghanistan’s population, believe that the US invasion meant a loss of power to their ethnic rivals, the Tajiks and Uzbeks. The Pakhtun-led insurgency aims at expelling foreign troops and restoring Pakhtun dominance.
With Bin Laden’s death, the US could argue that the mission begun almost ten years ago has been accomplished. Troops could begin to be brought home, in line with the promise made by President Barack Obama when he announced his Afghan strategy at West Point on December 1, 2009. But is the mission really accomplished?
That question cannot be answered without knowing definitively where Pakistan stands in regard to Islamist terrorism. Bin Laden was killed in an operation that did not involve Pakistani forces, but that may (or may not) have involved the country’s intelligence community. The fact that Bin Laden had lived in the heart of Abbottabad (where I was schooled as a boy), about 40 miles north of Islamabad, in a mansion built over a period of six years, and had moved in and out of it several times a year, raises troubling questions about the Pakistani military’s possible complicity.
Did the army, or senior officers, know that Bin Laden was living in their midst? If so, what was their purpose in letting him use so conspicuous a hiding place practically next door to a prominent military installation?
It is extraordinary to even consider that Pakistan’s military high command could have tolerated Bin Laden’s presence, given that he and Ayman al-Zawahiri, his second-in-command, had declared war on Pakistan. Indeed, terrorist attacks directed or inspired by Bin Laden have killed thousands of people in a number of large Pakistani cities. Some of these attacks targeted military installations, including the military’s headquarters in Rawalpindi, not far from Abbottabad.
In answering these questions, it would be helpful to know if the Pakistani intelligence community provided any aid at all to the US effort to locate Bin Laden’s hideout. Or was Pakistan’s military using Bin Laden as a pawn in its relations with the US? Did the Pakistanis allow Bin Laden to hide in the hope of using him as a bargaining chip in the endgame for Afghanistan? Had that moment arrived, leading to Bin Laden’s exposure and death?
There are no immediate answers to such questions – not even in the op-ed written by President Asif Ali Zardari for The Washington Post within hours of Bin Laden’s death. But answers will emerge as more details about the operation become known.
What is known is that Bin Laden’s demise came at a moment when relations between the CIA and Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s intelligence agency, had sunk to an all-time low. Senior leaders from both sides sought to save the relationship from total rupture. Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the head of the ISI, took a day trip to Washington, DC, and spent four hours meeting with CIA Director Leon Panetta. Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, then went to Islamabad, where he met the commander of the Pakistani army for several hours. Later, on a visit to Afghanistan, Mullen expressed frustration with the ISI, and it is now clear that he already knew when he met the Pakistanis that an attack on Bin Laden’s compound was imminent.
Pakistanis fear that, with the US planning to exit, Afghanistan will become their problem. One way to ensure that a friendly regime holds sway in Kabul after the US withdrawal would be to introduce into the governing structure a group with close ties to Pakistan. From Pakistan’s point of view, the group of fighters led by Jalaluddin Haqqani, one of the mujahideen leaders who fought to expel the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, could serve that purpose.
Two decades ago, Haqqani and several other warlords were funded and trained by Pakistan and the US working together. The Haqqani group has maintained good relations with ISI. Complicating the situation, however, is the fact that the Haqqanis are operating out of North Waziristan, one of the tribal agencies located in the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and is fiercely opposed to the presence of America and NATO troops in their country.
There is a chance that, following Bin Laden’s death, the Haqqani group could now be tamed and thus become willing to enter into negotiations with the Afghan government. That would satisfy both the US and Pakistan.