All sorts of questions are popping up in the joyful wake of Osama bin Laden’s long-overdue elimination.
Not the least of them is why now and not before? Could the chaos in the Arab world have something to do with the last intelligence pieces falling into place? After all, with demonstrations threatening authoritarian Arab regimes from Yemen to Syria, bin Laden’s Saudi backers may have decided that he was no longer a useful asset and was more valuable as a sacrificial gift to the Americans.
Then there is the question as to the direct difference his elimination might make in the battle against Islamist terrorism. It is difficult to know whether OBL was still playing an important executive role in al-Qaeda, or if he had already passed on the baton. There has been informed speculation that the organization is hydra-headed, and that several new leaders may now emerge. There have also been rumors that Osama long ago planned a series of revenge spectaculars to be unleashed in the event of his death.
But even if all of these speculations turn out to be true and the world does faces a nasty uptick in terrorist attacks, the fact that American forces finally found and killed bin Laden is likely to have a massively demoralizing effect on al-Qaeda, its supporters and its imitators. Indeed it may go a long way to undoing the damage wrought by President Obama’s declarations of withdrawal dates from Iraq and Afghanistan — both of which undermined Americas allies and encouraged her enemies.
Of course the operation raises some equally compelling questions about Pakistan and its already dubious status as a U.S. “ally.” The location of Osama bin Laden’s hideout near Pakistan’s military academy does not necessarily prove Pakistani military knowledge of his presence — after all, where better to hide than where your enemies least expect you to be. But at the very least it suggests a lack of competence.
For that reason alone, American military and intelligence agencies involved in the operation could hardly be blamed for failing to notify their hosts before taking action — as seems to have been the case, despite the pro forma statements from both countries about “cooperation.” (That former President Musharraf has complained about the operation’s violation of Pakistani sovereignty suggests it may well have come as a nasty to surprise to much if not all of Pakistan’s two-faced military elite.) Even though bin Laden may only recently have arrived from his usual hideouts in Waziristan or elsewhere on the frontier, the fact that he was found not in some remote lawless corner of the tribal areas but in a civilized garrison town like Abbottabad, a short drive from the capital, may well have destroyed the last vestiges of American trust in its Pakistani military allies, and eliminated any possibility of a joint operation.
The manner of the operation does suggest that Washington has at long last run out of patience with Pakistan’s game-playing and with the long established deal according to which Pakistan hands over al-Qaeda suspects — as it has often done in the past — but continues to support, protect, and perhaps even lead the Afghan Taliban in its efforts to reconquer Afghanistan.
It is hardly a secret that Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar is living in Quetta with his safety guaranteed by the ISI and with the apparent acquiescence of the CIA, ever hopeful that the old zealot might be up for a reasonable peace deal.
So it would be to the credit of President Obama if he has decided that it is time for a shift in the direction of a more direct and aggressive strategy against al-Qaeda and its ilk. The old strategy — according to which the CIA and its assets did not kill Osama bin Laden when he was in their sights in the 1990s (see Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir for a discussion of this) — reportedly infuriated other U.S. intelligence agencies and the Defense Department in general.
Such a new strategy might involve putting much more pressure on the clever, manipulative Pakistani generals and spymasters who over the years have run rings around their adversaries and allies. It is they who have fostered the crazed anti-American paranoia in Pakistan (including the fury about drone attacks and American spies on the ground). And it is they who have distracted domestic attention from Pakistan’s use of terrorists in proxy warfare, and consistent, destructive violations of other country’s sovereignties, not least Afghanistan’s.
Perhaps the humiliating revelation that bin Laden was comfortably ensconced a short drive from their country’s capital will make some members of the Pakistani elite finally realize just how far their military has taken it down a lunatic and self-destructive path.
If they still don’t get it — if they still feel sorry for themselves despite the poisonous role Pakistan has played and continues to play in the region — Pakistan’s rulers may require yet more violations of their sovereignty by U.S. forces until they get out of the game of hosting and sponsoring terrorists or until there are no international terrorist fugitives left alive within their borders.
— Jonathan Foreman is writer-at-large for StandpointOnline.