Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of US special forces will profoundly affect Pakistan’s relations with the US. 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 US 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 10 years, fighting an insurgency concentrated among Afghanistan’s Pashtun population. The Pashtun, 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 Pashtun-led insurgency aims at expelling foreign troops and restoring Pashtun dominance.
With bin Laden’s death, the US could argue that the mission begun almost 10 years ago has been accomplished. Troops could begin to be brought home, in line with the promise made by US President Barack Obama when he announced his Afghan strategy at West Point on Dec. 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 64km 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 have 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 Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari for The Washington Post within hours of bin Laden’s death. However, answers will emerge as more details about the operation become known.