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Howard Schweber Headshot

After Bin Laden

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Details of the raid in which Osama Bin Laden was killed are still trickling out. Some conclusions seem clear, others are still matters for speculation... and some we will likely never know, and probably shouldn't.

Start with what looks like a safe conclusion. It seems beyond peradventure that bin Laden's presence was known to high officials in the Pakistani government. The problem with that statement is that "the Pakistani government" does not refer to a single, unified entity (no unitary executive there!). The American government has three branches, and so does the national government of Pakistan. It's just that in the case of Pakistan, the three branches are the government, the Army, and the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI). The most likely candidate for sheltering bin Laden is the ISI, which has both a long history and a fairly well-documented ongoing practice of involvement with Islamist groups in Pakistan, including the Haqqani network in North Waziristan and others who have been actively involved in combat against American troops in Afghanistan.

They have been counting on those groups to be their agents in Afghanistan, to counter possible Indian influence, after the Americans leave. All of this is the worst kept secret in American foreign policy -- in an April 2011 document released by WikiLeaks government officials referred to the ISI as a "terrorist" organization, and there are reports that Guantanamo interrogators treat association with the ISI as on par with association with al Qaeda or the Taliban as evidence of terrorist involvement. So it is far too late in the day for anyone to be "shocked, shocked" to find that the ISI is playing all sides against the middle. If there is a surprise here it is the degree of the ISI's audacity, not their capacity for mendacity.

What about the Army? In Pakistan the Army is practically the only institution in which people have a great deal of confidence; this is a country in which people have spoken openly of the desirability of a military coup, based on a long history of such takeovers and a complete lack of faith in the civilian leadership. Where was the Army in all of this? One line of speculation points to the location of bin Laden's compound only a few hundred meters away from a military academy for the training of the officer corps. It has been suggested that location implies the Army leadership was aware of bin Laden's presence. On the other hand, a number of analysts have proposed that the raid could not have been carried out without at least the passive cooperation of the Pakistani military, as well as information on the ground (this raid was a one-time shot -- how could we be sure that bin Laden had not slipped out the night before?) And there have been reports that Pakistani aircraft were scrambled, but did not attack anything even though there have also been reports that there were American fixed-wing craft in the skies in addition to the helicopters carrying the SEALs. All of these operational details are suspect, to be sure, and there have been conflicting claims about whether anyone in Pakistan was informed of the attack ahead of time, although it seems clear that the ISI and the Zardari government were not consulted, but is it possible the Army, and specifically the charismatic and widely respected General Ashqaf Kayani, was in on the plan?

Maybe. Kayani is himself the ex-head of the ISI. On the other hand, there is a plausible scenario that the Army decided -- for any number of reasons -- that it was tired of carrying water for the ISI. It is even possible that the Army is not quite as unified and monolithic as it appears. In the past there have been worries about rogue officers with sympathies for the Taliban; there may be a split in the leadership, and where Kayani himself falls in all of this is yet another matter for speculation. It seems the most plausible scenario is that bin Laden was being sheltered by the ISI, the Army accepted the situation until now, and for reasons most likely having to do with internal and inter-branch politics decided that the time had come to change its position. Which may have something to do with why it took as long as it did to launch Operation Geronimo, in addition to the amazingly detailed preparations that were apparently involved On the other hand, the Army certainly is not saying anything publicly.

As for the Zardari government, it seems entirely plausible that they were kept completely in the dark, by everyone involved. Which helps fuel yet another anti-American narrative: that the attack that killed bin Laden was a violation of Pakistani sovereignty and a national insult. Which might help explain the Army's reticence even if the speculation about their cooperation is true. (The fact that there is some contradiction involved in claiming an affront to Pakistani sovereignty at the same time that there is widespread acknowledgment of the near-certainty that bin Laden was being sheltered by at least the ISI is not a problem in Pakistani politics, where the tolerance for cognitive dissonance is nearly supernatural.)

So what comes next? Start with the politics. The U.S-Pakistan relationship has been based for years on a Kabuki play of (not very) plausible deniability and the grim reality that we need them. To recycle a phrase, it has been an alliance too big to fail. But the Kabuki play that has maintained that alliance may be nearing its final curtain. If only as a matter of domestic politics, there is a limit to the plausibility of the denials that are required on both sides to keep the arms and money flowing to our most important strategic ally in the Af-Pak theater.

In addition, on the U.S. side, the news of bin Laden's killing has to be read along with the reassignment of General Petraeus to head the CIA and Leon Panetta's move to Secretary of Defense. The clear implications are that the Obama administration seeks greater integration of military and intelligence functions. In that environment, the success of Operation Geronimo suggests the likelihood of more special operations inside Pakistan to come, and an acceleration of the program of drone strikes. This is not necessarily a good thing; integration of intelligence and military functions means that the administration loses the "second opinion" that the CIA has offered in the past as a corrective to military planners excessive optimism or misplaced certainty. Not that the system has always worked perfectly, to be sure, but putting the main author of American counter-insurgency doctrine in charge of our main intelligence agency can only diminish the informational checks and balances. Combined with the near-total collapse in American confidence in the Pakistani government -- all three branches -- these developments point to more, not less, cross-border activity in the future.

Within Pakistan the three branches of government appear to be approaching complete disassociation. At the same time, popular anger at the U.S. is at an all-time high, driven in large part by the portrayal in the popular press of the drone attacks as resulting in massive civilian casualties. The possibility of a military coup, possibly with U.S. support, seems greater now than at any time in the past couple of years. But in the meantime, attacks are likely to increase, for at least four reasons: there may be a conflict for leadership within al Qaeda, in which case potential leaders will want to launch attacks to establish their bona fides; both al Qaeda and other militant groups will want to prove that the death of bin Laden has not diminished their ability to carry out terror attacks; popular reaction is likely to make radical groups feel emboldened; and there is likely to be a theme of betrayal -- that the Pakistani government/Army/intelligence services are guilty of permitting the Americans to carry out their raid. All of those elements will fuel more attacks in Pakistan, which fuels more instability in a nation with a population of 200 million and a nuclear arsenal, a state that Foreign Policy magazine already lists as a "failed state." (But take a look at Christine Fair's smart and balanced assessment of that designation here. Professor Fair has forgotten more abut Pakistan than most of us will ever know.)

Al Qaeda cells operating in places like Yemen and Sudan will likely not be affected operationally by bin Laden's death, as the organization has long since become decentralized; a franchise model of international terrorism. Symbolically, bin Laden will undoubtedly be hailed as a martyr, but that provides an opportune moment for operations -- think future anniversaries of May 1 (a convenient date!) -- rather than any new motivation.

In the Middle East, the scene is somewhat different. My suspicion is that in places like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and even Iraq, bin Laden's death is a blow to the morale of the radicals. The long time inability of the U.S. to get bin Laden really did make us look ineffectual, a clumsy Goliath unable to capture our wily, much weaker opponent. That image helped the radicals look strong by comparison, but now the U.S. is just a little more fearsome an enemy than we were a week ago. Worse, hundreds of thousands of people did not flood the streets of Cairo to mourn bin Laden's death -- just one more reminder that the tsunami that is sweeping across the Arab world owes little to the leaders of the last generation, whether Baathists or Islamists.

The last piece is the most difficult to evaluate. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, we are already hearing it: "okay, America, you have your revenge, now you have no more reason to be here." The motive of revenge was easy to understand, particularly in tribal societies, for people who otherwise had difficulty accepting that America has a compelling interest in the future of Afghanistan that does not involve a desire to succeed the Russians and the British as failed imperial overlords. With bin Laden's death, the simple revenge narrative is less easy to sustain, which is likely to make many Pakistanis and Afghans even more suspicious of American motives. How far will that suspicion spread -- in the Arab world, in the non-Arab Islamic world, among the peoples of South and Central Asia? Bin Laden's death is unquestionably a tactical victory for the U.S. To turn that tactical victory into a long-term strategic gain we have to make the case for our actions around the world, and for may of the people we most need to reach we will have to make that case without the benefit of the narrative that begins "this is because of what our enemies did to us on September 11th." That may be difficult.