Osama’s Death: How it could affect US policy toward Pakistan &Afghanistan - II
by Ramtanu Maitra on 15 Sep 2011 7 Comments

While the Osama killing has been depicted by Washington as “fully consistent” with the laws of war, within Pakistan it has evoked a negative response across the board. Some of the criticism stems from the fact that Pakistan fears retribution by the jihadists. The Lahore-based news daily, The Daily Times, made that clear in a May 3 editorial: “While his death is a definite blow to the militants, it provides them with the perfect chance for bloody retribution. The US and its allies - especially Pakistan, where bin Laden was killed - will be sure terror targets. It is little wonder that the US is on red alert security. Pakistan had also better watch out.”

On May 5, Pakistani Foreign Minister Salman Bashir said the US forces may have breached his country’s sovereignty. Clutching UN Security Council documents, Salman Bashir said: “There are legal questions that arise in terms of the UN charter. Everyone ought to be mindful of their international obligations.” His comments, at a press conference in Islamabad, may have been aimed as much at preventing India from launching a unilateral raid on Pakistani territory in revenge for the 2008 Mumbai massacres as at reproaching Washington.
Prime Minister Gilani, who often echoes Pakistan military’s voices from Islamabad, said at a May 29 press conference in Lahore: “Unilateral acts like the Abbottabad incident will not be acceptable to us.” Gilani told reporters in Lahore that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator John Kerry have supported Pakistan's stance on the Abbottabad incident. He said the US leadership has not accused Pakistan of incompetence or complacency on the Osama issue.
Professor Junaid S. Ahmad, a member of the faculty of law and policy at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, in a May 30 article, “Pakistan-US Relations in the Post-Osama Era,” posted at the Afro-Middle East Centre website, emphasized that lurking behind the scenes is the threat that the Obama administration will hold back billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan. Ahmad’s analysed:
“With each passing day, the scale of the consequences of the raid is becoming clearer. Reports that the operation undertaken to kill Bin Laden involved backup plans for an armed confrontation with Pakistani forces highlight the decidedly dangerous nature of the raid. …. Since the operation, Obama and other senior administration officials have not only defended the risky raid and celebrated Bin Laden’s killing, but have also made it clear that the US was prepared to initiate more such actions inside Pakistan.
“Bin Laden’s assassination ostensibly came as a shock to Pakistani authorities, who admitted to not being part of the operation to kill the al-Qaeda leader. Furthermore, Washington immediately confirmed that there was no Pakistani involvement in the mission whatsoever. According to the US, the Pakistani government was only informed of the raid after the event had occurred. However, in an article in the Washington Post, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari stressed his ‘satisfaction that the source of the greatest evil of the new millennium has been silenced.’ Moreover, he dismissed claims that Pakistan had been sheltering terrorists. …
“In another sign of the Pakistani military’s growing bitterness towards the US, Major General John Campbell, the senior commander of US forces in eastern Afghanistan, disclosed that Pakistan’s armed forces had halted all contact with the US and NATO for a few days after the US raid, though communication has since been re-established. There has been great anxiety within the US military that Pakistan could once again interrupt supply lines from the port of Karachi to the Khyber Pass through which the bulk of the food, fuel, weapons and other vital supplies for the 140,000-strong US-NATO forces in Afghanistan must pass.
“Several days after the raid, Pakistan’s army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani finally ended his silence by giving a stern warning to the US. He asserted that ‘any similar action violating the sovereignty of Pakistan will warrant a review of the level of military/intelligence cooperation with the United States.’ Kayani characterized the US operation in Abbottabad as a ‘misadventure,’ and promised a rapid military response to any such raids in the future. He also said US military personnel presence in Pakistan would be curtailed ‘to the minimum essential,’ without elaborating further.
In conclusion, Ahmad noted: “The Pakistani Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir also reminded the US that ‘there are red lines in Pakistan’s cooperation with the US and other members of the international community, which should be observed.’”
Former Pakistani diplomat Asif Ezdi expressed concern over the nature of the raid that killed bin Laden, questioning “whether our nuclear deterrent is safe from a similar US assault.”
Several Pakistani analysts implied that Osama bin Laden was really not a threat, and that the American action was instead triggered by the Obama administration’s perception of domestic political necessity. They claimed the Osama killing would enable Obama to re-brand himself as a wartime president, detaching himself from the pledge of “change” emphasized in his 2008 presidential campaign, and bringing his administration ever closer to the military, the intelligence agencies and influential sections of the US ruling elite.
Some Pakistani political analysts relate the killing to a growing US-India relationship designed to hurt Pakistan. Prof. Junaid Ahmad argues that the US has evidently balked at taking Islamabad into confidence with regard to its strategy for a political settlement in Afghanistan, a country that the Pakistani establishment has always considered essential for strategic depth in challenging India. “Moreover, Obama has continued with the Indo-US ‘global strategic partnership’ initiated by George W. Bush, supporting India’s aims in Central Asia and the Middle East,” Ahmad notes, adding: “And while the US has virtually acknowledged India as a nuclear-weapons state, as demonstrated by the exception Washington conferred on India by permitting it access to civilian nuclear technology and fuel, Pakistan’s nuclear programme is viewed with great distrust by Washington.”
Osama Killing and America’s Afghan Exit Strategy
In the United States, the immediate fallout of bin Laden’s elimination is related to the urgency to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. Washington never made clear to the American people that its stay in Afghanistan would be long and, perhaps, interminable. Initially, it was understood, but not stated categorically, that the purpose of the US invasion was to eliminate the ruling Taliban and destroy the al-Qaeda network working under Osama bin Laden inside Afghanistan. Taliban was defeated in 2002, but it was allowed to make a comeback in 2005. Since then, after many battles and many deaths, Washington has come to accept that the Taliban cannot be defeated and some sort of arrangement needs to be worked out to end the indefinite American stay in Afghanistan and the bloodshed that such stay ensures.
Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden remained in hiding since 2001, and the Americans just could not get to him. Since his killing, it is only natural to expect that the American population will demand that the Obama administration draw down US troops in Afghanistan. More than a year ago, President Obama had promised that withdrawal of US troops would begin sometime in the summer of 2010 and full withdrawal would take just a few more years.
Presidential promises and loss of American lives are not the only reasons Americans are clamoring for a troop withdrawal. At this point in time, the United States is spending about $10 billion monthly to finance the stalemated war in Afghanistan. Americans ask how long will Washington be able to borrow vast sums of money in the global bond market, solely to pursue less than 100 followers of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan? Some warn this may trigger yet another banking crisis and real estate meltdown in the US, causing more unemployment and deterioration of the US economy. Once the United States got engulfed by a full-fledged sovereign debt crisis, there could be no reason why a financially bankrupt US government would continue to throw away $120 billion-plus a year on a war increasingly devoid of rational purpose.
At the time Osama bin Laden was killed, deliberations on the futility of an expensive war in Afghanistan had already begun. As Robert Haddick stated in Foreign Policy magazine on June 3: “The war’s popularity inside the United States may be fading as fast as Karzai’s tolerance. The House of Representatives barely rejected - 204 to 215 - an amendment that would have required the administration to establish a faster timeline to exit Afghanistan. Twenty-six Republicans and all but eight Democrats voted for the measure. According to the Washington Post, a group of civilian advisers to Obama will soon make the argument that the financial cost of the Afghanistan war - $113 billion this fiscal year and $107 billion next year - is too much when the goals and the risks of obtaining those goals are considered. To these advisers, spending on Afghanistan operations is a ripe target for fast budget savings.”
However, on the issue of working out an exit strategy, Washington is nowhere near resolving the two basic issues. Those are: the rate of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the nature of the final settlement that will allow the United States to officially declare the end of the war. It is evident that on the question of finalizing the rate of troop withdrawal, there exist a number of views dominating discussions within the Obama administration.
During the final visit of US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (stepped down June 30) to Afghanistan, the drawdown of troops set to begin in July loomed large. There are currently nearly 100,000 US troops and 40,000 additional allied forces in the country. Responsibility for security across the country is slated to be turned over to Afghan hands by 2014, at which point all combat forces are expected to be withdrawn. Reports have begun to emerge that the White House is considering more significant reductions.
Chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry is a longtime friend and former Senate colleague of Vice President Joe Biden, who in the 2009 war strategy review argued for a smaller US military mission in Afghanistan that would focus on weakening al-Qaeda, rather than on defeating the indigenous Taliban insurgency. Kerry has called the war’s $10 billion-a-month cost “unsustainable,” and recently his committee issued a report critical of the economic assistance program that is a key part of the counterinsurgency strategy’s goal of bringing stability and government to parts of the country once controlled by the Taliban.
In the face of hawkish calls for a negligible drawdown, influential US Senator Carl Levin has suggested a significant withdrawal of 15,000 American troops this year. But Secretary Gates has said that Obama should move cautiously in removing troops from a battlefield where the gains, in the White House’s own assessment, remain “fragile and reversible.” Said Gates in his recent farewell speech in Brussels to NATO bureaucrats: “I can tell you there will be no rush to the exits. The vast majority of the surge forces that arrived over the past two years will remain through the summer fighting season. Far too much has been accomplished, at far too great a cost, to let the momentum slip away just as the enemy is on its back foot.”
Hanging fire is the issue of how to exit the Afghanistan theater. In the June 7 Washington Post op-ed, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger pointed out that the quest for an exit from Afghanistan has reportedly taken the form of negotiations under German sponsorship between representatives of Mullah Omar, head of Taliban, and American officials. Kissinger said: “Most observers will treat this as the beginning of an inexorable withdrawal. The death of bin Laden, while not operationally relevant to current fighting, is a symbolic dividing line. Still, the challenge remains of how to conclude our effort without laying the groundwork for a wider conflict.”
Kissinger continued: “For negotiation to turn into a viable exit strategy, four conditions must be met: a cease-fire; withdrawal of all or most American and allied forces; the creation of a coalition government or division of territories among the contending parties (or both); and an enforcement mechanism. Enforcement is the most crucial element and the most difficult to sustain. After decades of civil war, the parties are unlikely to feel bound by provisions of any agreement. The Taliban especially will try to take over the coalition government or breach the cease-fire. In the absence of a plausible enforcement mechanism, a negotiation with the Taliban, whose forces remain while ours leave, will turn into a mechanism for collapse.
“An enforcement mechanism can be a residual American force, some international guarantee or presence, or - best - a combination of both. Total withdrawal is likely to be final; there should be no illusion of re-intervention.”
Kissinger also noted: “Afghanistan’s other neighbors would be at comparable risk if a Taliban-dominated government or region reverted to the Taliban’s original practices. Every neighbor would be threatened: Russia in its partly Muslim south, China in Xinjiang, Shiite Iran by fundamentalist Sunni trends. In turn, Iran would be tempted by the vacuum to arm sectarian militias, a strategy it has honed in Lebanon and Iraq.”
Finally, he concluded: “The complexities of an exit strategy are compounded because relations with Pakistan and Iran are severely strained. These countries do not have the option of withdrawing from the neighborhood. If their interests in Afghanistan are not related to ours to some extent, Afghanistan will exist under permanent threat. Without a sustainable agreement defining Afghanistan’s regional security role, each major neighbor will support rival factions across ancient ethnic and sectarian lines - and be obliged to respond to inevitable crises under the pressure of events. That is a prescription for wider conflict. Afghanistan could then play the role of the Balkans prior to World War I.”
US-Pakistan Relations: What to Expect
It is likely that the killing of Osama bin Laden, which may trigger other developments within Pakistan and beyond, will allow Washington to set in place an exit strategy. While the exit strategy is seemingly the priority of the Obama administration, the future of US-Pakistan relations is about as clear as mud-laden waters. Notwithstanding the Pakistani failure to eliminate bin Laden, there are reasons to believe that the primary long-term interests of the United States remain with Pakistan’s security and stability. Some analysts point out that in an important way, the removal or attenuation of both issues - Afghanistan and al-Qaeda - will liberate the relationship from two major distractions.
Perhaps for the same reason, some wise heads on Washington’s Capitol Hill are urging calm. “Distancing ourselves from Pakistan would be unwise and extremely dangerous,” Sen. Lugar of Indiana, the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said at a May 5 hearing. “It would weaken our intelligence gathering; limit our ability to prevent conflict between India and Pakistan; further complicate military operations in Afghanistan; end cooperation on finding terrorists; and eliminate engagement with Islamabad on the security of its nuclear weapons.”
“The real conflict is not between the United States and Pakistan, but within Pakistan itself,” Senator Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the committee, said as he opened that hearing. “The battle is over what sort of nation Pakistan will become.”
On June 9, in a written response to US lawmakers ahead of a US Senate hearing for his confirmation as Secretary of Defense, CIA chief Leon Panetta said: “Continuing cooperation with Pakistan is critical to keep a tremendous amount of pressure on al-Qaeda’s leadership and the networks that provide it support and safe haven at a time when it is most vulnerable.”
On June 7, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said cooperation with Pakistan is in America’s long-term security interest. Toner stated, “What we’re trying to do in Pakistan is to build democratic institutions, to improve Pakistan’s security, to help it face an existential threat from terrorism… A strong, stable, peaceful, and prosperous Pakistan is in the interest of the region,” to a question by an Indian journalist who questioned US assistance for Islamabad.
Vali Nasr, who left the State Department in April after working for the late Richard Holbrooke, wants to ensure the alliance can survive in the future: “We’re behaving as if killing bin Laden was our last piece of business in Pakistan, and that’s a mistake.”
But many in the United States who would like to impose some form of “conditionality” on future US-Pakistan relations. Samina Ahmed, South Asia project director with the International Crisis Group, said US certification requirements for the Pakistan partnership should ensure Pakistan takes firm action against violent extremist groups: “We would advise and very strongly urge Congress to condition military assistance on demonstrable steps to combat violent extremists, that go beyond just al-Qaeda, the foreign al-Qaeda, but also homegrown jihadis”.
James M. Dorsey, a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute, in a May 23 article, Pakistan Moves Closer to China as Obama Misses Opportunity to Stabilize US-Pakistani Relations, pointed out that “the Obama administration has, however, so far shied away from the one thing it could do to put US-Pakistani relations on a different footing, reduce Pakistan’s perceived need to arm itself to the teeth, persuade it to look at its national interests through a larger prism than only the perceived threat from its arch-rival India, reduce the dominating influence of the military in Pakistani politics and break its links with terrorist groups it sees as proxies in its conflict with India.”
Dorsey explains: “To achieve all of that, the Obama administration would have to strengthen its links with Pakistan’s political leadership instead of endorsing the dominance of the armed forces by favoring contacts with the military and leverage its 2008 nuclear assistance agreement to pressure India to moderate its policy toward the disputed region of Kashmir, which is claimed by both Pakistan and India.”
There is, however, no end to the worry among US policymakers and analysts about how Pakistan will evolve in the coming years, particularly during the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and in post-withdrawal days. Beyond the Islamization of Pakistan, which many think is a real threat - not only for Pakistan but the region as a whole - some in Washington worry about Pakistan getting increasingly close to China.
Washington noted in April, before bin Laden was killed, that the Pakistani government was advising Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s regime in Afghanistan to refuse the US a permanent military presence in that country and gravitate more toward Pakistan and China. According to the April 27 Wall Street Journal, Prime Minister Gilani told Karzai that “the Americans had failed them both” and Karzai should “forget about allowing a long-term US military presence in his country.”
How to deal with these problems vis-à-vis Pakistan? In a June 6 interview with Business Insider Politix, Pakistan expert Daniel Markey, a senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, proposed:
“Let me begin by saying it’s not entirely clear what the strategy is in this post-bin Laden period. … I believe that the Obama administration seeks to repair what was a relationship in crisis and to find a more stable footing for US-Pakistan relations across the board. … I’m not clear what the overarching strategic ambition is for the relationship, but it is clear that there is the desire to at least avoid further deterioration and a greater crisis that would probably lead nowhere good, from either side’s perspective.”
Markey advocates that the killing of bin Laden and the overall crisis in the US-Pakistan relationship be seen as an opportunity to press the Pakistanis to take clear and concerted actions against not just militant groups, but also against individuals and institutions within the Pakistani state - including its intelligence apparatus - that are working against US interests.


The author is South Asian Analyst at Executive Intelligence Review

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