On May 3, a charged atmosphere greeted the members of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee as they met to discuss the endgame in Afghanistan. Although the meeting, the first in the series of six, had been scheduled ahead of the May 2 killing of Osama bin Laden, the new ground situations weighed heavily on the minds of the Congressmen. Contrary to what appears in the media and part of the chatter that the US is now once again ready to abandon the region, the meeting took serious note of the new challenges in Af-Pak and the unaccomplished counter-terrorism efforts that must be completed before a total pull-out is effected. Osama’s killing has indeed renewed a vigorous debate in the US on the role and policy objectives in post-Osama Afghanistan.
“After Osama bin Laden, what” was always a crucial question even when the elusive terrorist leader was alive and not necessarily running for his life. The poser has assumed an ever greater significance after the circumstances surrounding his killing. The demonstrative impact, with far-reaching consequences for the peace and stability in the region, is quite clear. His elimination is said to have sapped the morale of Al Qaeda, has boosted the image of the US presidency and prospects for Obama’s re-election bid. At the same time, it has underlined the troubled US-Pakistan counter-terrorism cooperation of the last decade.
Accusations of collusion between sections of the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies with the world’s top terrorist have been hurled not just by the Americans but even by the Pakistani media. In reaction, the Pakistani army, which allowed the country’s president and prime minister to do the explaining in the initial days, has started talking tough. However, it is clear that the warnings asking the US not to repeat its misadventure and to scale down its military and intelligence presence in Pakistan remains a poorly calibrated tactic to deflect domestic and global criticism and, more importantly, a desperate survival strategy for what was perceived to be a well-organised, cohesive and disciplined force. Pakistan today is a far weaker and vulnerable state than it was when the hunt for bin Laden began, with chronic political and economic problems.
Painting Pakistan black, however, can never be a part of the strategy. For many years, the country has been known as the fountainhead of terrorism worldwide. Although it has participated with some spirit in the war on terror and has been the victim of attacks by the Pakistani Taliban, its fetish for using terrorism as a matter of state policy remains insatiable, which in turn has led to severe strains on its polity, society and economy. The nexus between elements in Pakistan and Osama obviously goes far deeper than the grieving activists of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (previously Lashkar-e-Toiba) who offered prayers for him on the streets of Karachi on May 3. The time, therefore, is ripe for dealing with the organised threat Pakistan poses to the world at large and addressing issues such as schisms within the military, intelligence and civilian administration and the increased radicalisation of Pakistani society. Calls have been made in the US to stop providing aid to Pakistan for harbouring Osama. But the aim needs to be far deeper than that. America’s engagement in the Af-Pak region is far more a necessity today than ever before.
This makes implementing the calls for an accelerated “pack-and-run” strategy for the US troops in Afghanistan rather difficult. A drawdown of US forces is slated to begin in July 2011, which will also mark the beginning of the process when international forces would confine themselves to counter-terrorism while gradually allowing Afghan forces to do the bulk of the counter-insurgency duties. While Obama would like to stick to the date in his promise of December 2009 and augment his new-found domestic public support, the altered ground situation after Osama’s death continues to pose several challenges.
Killing Osama, a figurehead of the Al Qaeda for many terrorist outfits around the world, is a definite blow to the movement. However, given the fact that Al Qaeda has functioned as a loosely amorphous organisation with sub-contracting to local chapters and franchisees, the killing of its leader may have only limited impact on the operational capacities of the global jihadi network. A suicide attack that claimed the lives of 18 police officers in Iraq on May 5 could be the beginning of a wave of revenge attacks by Al Qaeda franchises. The Lashkar-e-Toiba, known as an affiliate of the Al Qaeda-Taliban so far, with a global reach and ambitions, has made a bid and could fill the vacuum created by Osama’s death. The Lashkar has increased its presence in Afghanistan lately and made renewed calls for a global jihad.
More than the drawdown of US forces, which in any event is slated to continue at least till July 2014, what would have a lasting impact on Afghanistan’s stability is the culmination of the reconciliation process. What would, thus, be interesting, is to see if the US will use enough force or diplomatic skill to get the Quetta Shura of the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table, before it ventures on a retreating mission. Though the Taliban has announced the launch of its spring offensive, there is speculation that Osama’s death could advance the effort to reach a political resolution to the Afghan war, because it might convince the Taliban and Al Qaeda to come to the negotiating table.
The fact remains, however, that without dismantling the sanctuaries and terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan and breaking the linkages of these groups with Al Qaeda, an early end to the conflict in Afghanistan cannot be conceived. The collusion of elements of the Pakistani army and intelligence agencies with these groups would ensure that the Afghan conflict lingers beyond 2014 and Pakistan is able to accomplish its mission of seeking strategic depth in Afghanistan. This makes it doubly crucial for the US to address the anomalies Pakistan poses to the world rather than declaring victory and going home, as it did in Iraq.
The end goal, to disrupt, dismantle and defeat the Al Qaeda remains an unfinished project even after the death of Osama bin Laden. In the moments of euphoria, a partially-finished task should not be conceived as a full-blown victory.
Dr Shanthie Mariet D’Souza is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), Singapore, and Dr Bibhu Prasad Routray is a former Deputy Director at the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS), Government of India. This article appeared in The Weekly Standard and is reprinted with permission.