Post-Bin Laden US-Pakistan Relations
Paper presented at panel discussion on Post-Osama US-Pakistan Relations and Counter-Terrorism: An Unhappy Marriage?, Oxford University Pakistan Society, Oxford, 4 June 2011.
Since the killing of Osama bin Laden by US Special Forces in Abbottabad on May 2, US-Pakistan relations have experienced a deteriorating trend. Following the incident, the United States accused Pakistani military and intelligence of complicity or incompetence, as the al-Qaeda leader was found living comfortably in a house located close to Pakistan Military Academy. Pakistan, in turn, blamed the United States for violating its national sovereignty and warned that a repeat of another such unauthorised US operation on its soil would lead to an irreconcilable rupture in its counter-terrorism ties with the United States.

There is no doubt that the world’s foremost counter-terrorism relationship in the post-9/11 era is at its lowest ebb today. But, will it continue to deteriorate, a trend visible specifically since the start of this year, or recover back to business as usual, as has generally been the case in the last nearly ten years?

If we go by the circumstances surrounding Bin Laden’s death, especially the location of his hideout reportedly for the past nearly six years, and assess them within the context of the oft-pronounced US/Western allegation about Pakistan’s double-dealing in combating terrorism, then US-Pakistani counter-terrorism ties are likely to be marred by acute differences for some time to come.

To overcome these differences, each side has to do its part to clarify its respective position. Pakistanis have to particularly explain how and why Bin Laden was able to cheat their intelligence machinery for so long. If the Americans have indeed acted alone in this case, they need to explain why they violated Pakistani sovereignty by not taking its leadership into confidence and, consequently, humiliating their chief counter-terrorism partner in the region.

However, if history of US-Pakistan counter-terrorism relationship, which predates the event of 9/11, is any guide, instances of closer cooperation have often intersected with situations of potential conflict. The issue of Bin Laden is so high profile, as the War on Terror was largely centred on capturing or killing him, that it is understandable to see it now becoming so overtly political and counter-productive to US-Pakistan strategic partnership in the region.

Just as before, the biggest ever gulf between the United States and Pakistan over combating terrorism seems to have produced a simultaneously powerful incentive for a variety of vested interests to trigger a rupture in US-Pakistan relationship.

In the United States, this effort largely revolves around presidential politics. The Republicans, for instance, have started to question the efforts of the Obama Administration to reach out to Pakistan and resume US-Pakistani counter-terrorism ties from where they started stumbling—from the recent Raymond Davis affair to the latest Bin Laden issue. Within the region, the Bin Laden issue has provided India a unique opportunity to gear up its effort to internationally isolate Pakistan on count of terrorism.

The Afghan leadership has used the occasion to shift the focus of international counter-terrorism effort from Afghanistan to Pakistan. In Pakistan, the forces sympathetic to the cause of extremism and terrorism as well as the political opponents of the current civilian regime have equally come forward to play politics over the incident.

However, as we have seen several times in the past, the current euphoria over Bin Laden’s death and its implications for Pakistan created particularly by mass media may overtime die down. There are compelling reasons to believe that the United States and Pakistan, through enhanced interaction between their respective top civilian leaders and security officials will eventually be able to move beyond the tension that circumstances surrounding Bin Laden’s killing has caused in their counter-terrorism ties.

The United States already seems to be distancing itself from the charge of complicity against Pakistani security establishment, which may imply that the treasure trove of intelligence that its special forces found at Bin Laden’s hideout does not provide any solid proof about such complicity. Or, even if it does, the Obama Administration may use it to compel Pakistan to ‘do more’ in the War on Terror, an approach Washington has consistently pursued in its counter-terrorism dealings with Islamabad throughout the course of this war.

When it comes to seeking political resolution of the Afghan war, the respective interests of Pakistan and the United States seem to only coincide. This may explain why it will be in their mutual interest to move beyond current politicking and not become hostage to mass misinformation over the Bin Laden case.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Reza Gilani has appointed a high-level military enquiry commission to find out the reasons behind the most embarrassing national security failure ever. Pakistan has also reportedly allowed US intelligence to interview three of Bin Laden’s wives who were taken into custody by its security agencies following the US raid on al-Qaeda leader's compound.

Since March 2010, the United States and Pakistan have undertaken three rounds of their Strategic Dialogue. Ms Clinton’s visit to Pakistan will most likely aim to resume the dialogue, in which over a dozen areas of civilian development in Pakistan are already identified with progress in each to be accomplished through $7.5 billion pledged under the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act until 2014. This is the year when American and NATO troops from Afghanistan are scheduled to complete their withdrawal.

Whether the 2009 US troops surge in Afghanistan has achieved tactical or strategic outcomes is debatable, but the fact that the United States and its Western allies, Pakistan and Afghanistan are all willing to resolve the Afghan conflict by re-integrating the forces of insurgency and reconciling their leaders is unquestionable. A host of factors, including war weariness, growing casualties and dwindling public support, justify this argument.

More importantly, the death of Bin Laden may have significantly demoralised the Afghan insurgent leadership. In particular, it may have reinforcing a sense of insecurity among them that if they are not quick enough to respond to peace overtures being made by Afghan President Hamid Karzai—with support from almost all of Afghanistan’s regional and international partners—they may also meet Bin Laden’s fate.

Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Umar’s primary pre-condition for entering into any dialogue with the current Afghan government is that foreign forces from Afghanistan should leave. From July this year, the process to realise this pre-condition will begin. The foremost precondition of the United States for initiating such dialogue with Afghan insurgent leaders is that they should sever their links to al-Qaeda, an eventuality that can be reasonably expected after the death of Bin Laden.

As for other extreme positions such as over the present Afghan constitution—which insurgents are unwilling to accept, and the Karzai regime and the Obama Administration want the insurgents to accept—they are not as important as to become a stumbling block to the process of Afghan reconciliation, once it formally starts. The same may eventually help overcome the current fissure between the United States and Pakistan over Haqqani Network or North Waziristan Operation.

Pakistan’s national interest, more than that of any other country in the region, is intrinsically linked to the success of Afghan reconciliation. The human, economic and social cost to the country from terrorism in the last nearly ten years has been immense. If Taliban and other Afghan insurgent groups are absorbed in Afghanistan’s political, economic and security fabric in accordance with their respective demographic sense, this would erode the spill over impact of Afghan insurgency into Pakistan. Pakistan has already achieved significant progress in combating its own Taliban insurgents and terrorists. The battle against home-grown terrorism may take a while, but, with Afghanistan conflict politically resolved, Pakistan will most certainly be spared of its currently more dreaded form.

India may not have suffered from al-Qaeda-led or inspired international terrorism as much as the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan have, but its concerns regarding the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai cannot be washed away. As the dust over Bin Laden’s killing settles and the Afghan reconciliation process starts to make headway in the months ahead—with India-Pakistan peace process experiencing similar progress during the period—we can visualise a promising situation of greater regional stability.

The scenario in the immediate aftermath of Bin Laden’s death may appear pessimistic and conflicting, but there is every reason to believe—as the above narration suggests—that the period ahead may in fact be ever more pragmatic and realistic, bringing erstwhile foes to the same table for chalking out a workable Afghan and regional roadmap for relative peace and stability.