8 May 2011

Dr Gareth Price

Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme


Osama bin Laden's death was clearly one of the key US objectives following 9/11, and the military campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. How has the achievement of that objective affected the dynamics of Western policy towards the region?

Will US relations with Pakistan break down?

Some politicians in the US and the UK have already called for aid to Pakistan to be blocked or put under review until Pakistan explains how it failed to identify bin Laden living in a compound a mile from their main military academy. Thousands of Pakistanis took to the streets in protest at the US raid, and the Pakistani Chief of Army Staff, General Kayani, ordered a reduction in the number of US military personnel in Pakistan.

While this may be the deepest spat (on top of the recent Raymond Davis affair), arguments between the US and Pakistan have not been infrequent, in particular over the question of whether Pakistan could do more to crack down on the Taliban.

Pakistan's response has been to point out the large numbers of Pakistani troops that have been killed in the fight against Islamist groups. But it is also clear that Pakistan distinguishes between various Islamist groups, cracking down on some and tolerating others. The extent to which it actively promotes groups is less apparent. It currently seems doubtful that the US, were it to uncover details of bin Laden's contacts from items taken from his compound, would trust Pakistan to undertake arrests. But another US military raid would certainly intensify the hostile rhetoric.

It remains unarguable that both countries need each other. While Western troops remain in Afghanistan, Pakistan is essential as the conduit for supplies. Pakistan's military in turn craves largesse from, in particular, the US. Threats by Pakistan's rulers may be intended for domestic consumption, but there is real resentment at violations of the country's sovereignty. Western resentment at Pakistan may be genuine, but policymakers in the West are aware that the relationship cannot be allowed to break down entirely.

What cards can Pakistan play?

Pakistan continues to hold a number of key cards which make it difficult for its bluff to be called. First, it remains a nuclear power. Concern that its nuclear weapons could be compromised will only increase following the events of the last week. Ensuring their security will become a bigger, rather than diminished, concern. Second, concerns over the state failure or implosion of Pakistan will have increased. Continued engagement (despite mistrust) remains a better means of preventing this than isolation. Third, as noted above, Pakistan is vital for the mission in Afghanistan. More positively, were Pakistan aware of bin Laden's location, presumably this would indicate some knowledge of other al-Qaeda leaders, such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, and of the leaders of the Afghan Taliban, such as Mullah Omar. Might Pakistan be tempted to buy its way out of trouble by revealing their locations?

Is the path towards peace talks with the Taliban clearer?

The relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda has fluctuated. In the late 1990s the Taliban considered expelling bin Laden as a means of gaining international recognition. But as Western criticisms of the Taliban increased, instead it became more reliant on al-Qaeda, and its funds. In recent years the two have drifted somewhat, not least because of the small al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan.

The notion of Pashtun hospitality clearly extended to bin Laden; but given his death, and the potential location of the rest of the leadership in Pakistan rather than Afghanistan, logically it would seem that recent events could ease the way for the Taliban to state that they would not host 'international terrorists', a Western pre-condition for talks. Given the growing Western acceptance that a political resolution is as important as military success, such a scenario may well be plausible.

Alternatively, Western talk of troop draw-downs, the increase in numbers of Taliban fighters and the fact that the longer the Western military presence, the greater the appeal of the Taliban as freedom fighters (as much as holy warriors) may combine to make the Taliban believe that they can 'win'. It is more likely, on balance, that bin Laden's death makes a political process more rather than less likely.

Is a Western withdrawal from Afghanistan more likely?

The war in Afghanistan is being fought to ensure that Afghanistan can never again be a safe haven for international terrorism. This requires the construction of an effective state in Afghanistan, and bin Laden's death does nothing to change that. The death of the most infamous international terrorist, coupled with increasing questioning of the war by Western public opinion, clearly eases the path towards more significant troop withdrawals than the probably largely symbolic ones hitherto planned for later this year. But the Taliban remain a massive threat and, if they fail to split from al-Qaeda, the troop presence will remain.

Is US anger genuine?

The question of who, if anyone, knew about bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad is at the top of the agenda. Leon Panetta, director of the CIA, said that Pakistan was either complicit or incompetent. Could his anger be over-stated, perhaps as a means of preventing Pakistan's government from suffering a public backlash? Pakistan has a record of uncovering al-Qaeda leaders, frequently before the arrival of senior US politicians. Could bin Laden perhaps bin Laden have outlived his utility for Pakistan?

Did Pakistan, the strongest proponent of a political settlement involving the Taliban in Afghanistan, feel that the removal of bin Laden might ease the way for the Taliban to disown al-Qaeda, thereby meeting the main political demand of the US before a more formalized political process could occur? The initial, unsurprising, response of the Taliban has been to threaten revenge attacks in Afghanistan. But if they do take steps in the coming weeks to jettison their links with al-Qaeda (which has a minimal presence in Afghanistan anyway) it may well be that Pakistan has been acting as a puppeteer in an attempt to enhance its influence in Afghanistan.