Speculative Thoughts, Post-bin Laden

by Daniel Foster

• Given the unusually high level of instability in an area already known to the Pentagon as “The Arc of Instability,” did the operation yesterday destabilize Pakistan? The impunity with which the Great Satan can operate inside Pakistan, combined with the shocking fact that OBL was basically hiding in plain sight in a multi-million dollar compound in the suburbs of Islamabad — and an army town — makes the regime look weak on two flanks. We’ve seen that just about every state in the broader region is a straw away from breaking. It’s not far-fetched to think this is the straw for Pakistan. In the very least, it confirms what everyone who’s been paying attention already knows: There are two Pakistans — two Pakistani militaries, two ISIs — at war with each other, and you can never really be sure which one you’re dealing with.

• In the wake of 9/11, President Bush treated the Musharraf regime and the secular elites that propped it up with kid gloves, because he thought he could bribe them into being a net asset in the War on Terror (and probably because they’re a nuclear power.) Don Rumsfeld vetoed at least one counter-terror operation that would have breached Pakistani sovereignty. John McCain was equally delicate during the 2008 campaign. Contrast with President Obama’s hawkishness, his downright Cambodiazation of Pakistan. Perhaps the two policies are reconcilable, perhaps you even need both of them. It occurs to me if you coupled Bush’s carrots with Obama’s sticks, you’d have a Pakistan policy that looks an awful lot like good-ole-fashioned Realism.

• Relatedly, it’s clear that we couldn’t have had this outcome without Bush-era counter-terror policies. We’ve seen the early reports that intelligence for the operation was gleaned over years from Gitmo detainees — KSM among them — and guests at secret CIA detention facilities abroad. The lesson here is not just the obvious one — that Obama was wrong about the usefulness of such facilities and the interrogation methods they pursued — it’s also that if Bush had practiced Obama’s “Kill ’em all and let’s avoid the paperwork” approach to counter-terrorism, we would never have found bin Laden. As has been remarked in this space many times before, dead terrorists tell no tales.

• During the 2008 campaign, I thought that Obama’s dumbest foreign policy tic was the idea that killing Osama bin Laden was some kind of sine qua non in the War on Terror. It was clearly good politics: an easy way to ding Bush, and it fit in with Obama’s Iraq’s-a-distraction-from-the- ‘good-war’-in-Afghanistan triangulation. But as policy it was either naive, cynical, or both.  In any event, I hadn’t thought much about it since, until POTUS’s speech last night, when he confirmed that he had instructed his CIA director to make it his number one priority. But should it have been? I suppose it depends on how in-the-loop bin Laden still was, and on how much of our intelligence apparatus in the region was dedicated to finding him at the expense of other worthy missions. I won’t go so far as to say that Obama was thinking about politics above national security here, but I think he’s too smart to realize that the killing of bin Laden is of far greater symbolic than strategic importance.

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