During his presidential campaign, then-Senator Obama repeatedly stated that “If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.” On May 1, this resulted in a US Special Forces operation inside Pakistan, in which Osama Bin Laden and some of his supporters were killed. For two decades American intelligence and for almost a decade global intelligence has fixated on the capture of Osama Bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda. His low-key, less than dramatic, killing is in many ways just ideal.
Osama Bin Laden was dangerous primarily because of his ability to inspire young men and women around the world to follow his lead and kill themselves and others in the mistaken hope that they were creating a better future for their fellow Muslims. Over the years a certain aura and sub-human qualities had been added to his personality. Saddam Hussein’s machismo was struck a blow when he was caught inside a hole in the ground by American troops. Osama Bin Laden’s capture and death in a fire fight and his quiet burial at sea will go a long way in reducing his mystique for many of his sympathizers and supporters.
Further, if it is true that the operation was targeted to kill Osama Bin Laden rather than capture him then the aim was well-thought out. Capturing Osama Bin Laden would have involved bringing him to Guantanamo and keeping him alive while he was tried. The resultant media attention and debate over use of torture or whether the trial should be civilian or military would have only provided Osama Bin Laden and his supporters a public forum to try and appeal to the Muslim world.
Osama Bin Laden’s death is a tremendous victory for American foreign policy especially for the Obama administration. The current US Af-Pak policy is to ‘disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda.’ With the death of Bin Laden it will be much easier to make the argument that part of the policy goal has been achieved.
This will also help administration officials build the argument for troop drawdown and withdrawal from Afghanistan later this year, bearing in mind the 2012 elections. This is in some ways a vindication of the current strategy being pursued in Afghanistan and Pakistan of increased reliance on CIA intelligence operations and Special Forces. With General Petraeus’ move to the CIA this policy of intelligence operations combined with Special Forces involvement will most likely increase.
Most analysts agree that there will be backlash by jihadi groups allied to Al Qaeda, both within Pakistan and around the world. However, they are divided over what will be the long-term impact.
When Al Qaeda was set up during the tail end of the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad there was an internal debate amongst various jihadi groups on whether their focus should be on the ‘near enemy’ or the ‘far enemy.’ What this meant was whether the first aim of jihadi groups should be to attack the local regimes (‘near enemy’) or whether they should attack the ‘foreign supporters’ of these local regimes (‘far enemy’) i.e. U.S., Europe. People like Abdullah Azzam, the main ideologue and organizer behind the the global dimension of the Afghan jihad, wanted to concentrate on the ‘near enemy’ i.e. local Muslim regimes.
Others like Ayman al-Zawahiri and later Osama Bin Laden himself wanted to focus on the ‘far enemy.’
Soon after the terror attacks of 9/11, many radical and non-radical Islamist groups distanced themselves from Al Qaeda and the attacks of 9/11. The argument of these groups was that by undertaking these attacks Al Qaeda had harmed the Islamist and jihadi cause as their ‘safe havens’ across UK, Europe, US and other countries had dried up and they had come under tremendous scrutiny.
After Osama Bin Laden’s death a similar debate within the jihadi universe is likely. It is true that Al Qaeda is not a hierarchical organization and instead is like a bunch of grapes, each bunch is individual and having any bunch doesn’t lead you to the main root. However, Osama Bin Laden was not only the inspirational head of Al Qaeda but he was also the main link to the rich families of the Arab Gulf. Al Qaeda’s number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri is a good organizer and ideologue; he is not as well connected to financiers and families in the Gulf region and has often clashed with other Islamist groups as well. While the flow of money from this region will not completely dry up, it will most likely diminish.
If this happens then the Af-Pak strategy should continue to focus on eliminating the top leaders, reconciling and pulling away some of the medium level leaders and rehabilitating those foot soldiers who want to return to normal life. For this US requires the support and assistance of both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
During his speech on May 1, President Obama thanked President Zardari and stated that the Osama Bin Laden’s death exemplified the deep counter-terrorism cooperation between Pakistan and US. It cannot be denied that the capture of Osama Bin Laden in a city less than 75 miles from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad is to a certain degree embarrassing for the government of Pakistan. Especially if we remember the oft-repeated phrases of former General Musharraf that Osama Bin Laden was not in Pakistan and was probably dead.
While we will have to wait for further details to emerge about the event, what is important to remember is that such an operation could not have been conducted without Pakistani military-intelligence cooperation. Fear of reprisals by Al Qaeda and its allied groups within Pakistan is most probably the main reason why Pakistani military-intelligence officials are not openly acknowledging the extent of the close cooperation between the two countries. Further, this incident has taken place soon after the Raymond Davis case and anti-American sentiments and anger against American operations within Pakistan are still high.
This is an opportune moment for the Obama administration to rebuild the frayed ties with Pakistan and provide much-needed vocal and monetary support to the civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. Pakistan’s economy is in dire straits and requires the IMF assistance program to continue in addition to aid and trade with the United States.
While the Pakistani security establishment’s worldview does not match that of the United States, boosting the civilian side of the Pakistani state—which shares the American worldview—is critical. While a stable democratic Pakistan is still some years in the future, timely support to those elements—the civilians—in the country who want to change the course is important.