The South Asia Channel

The bin Laden aftermath: The future of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship

The bin Laden aftermath: The future of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship

"Overthe years, I’ve repeatedly made clear that we would take action within Pakistanif we knew where bin Laden was. That is what we’ve done. But it’s important tonote that our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to binLaden and the compound where he was hiding. Indeed, bin Laden had declared waragainst Pakistanas well, and ordered attacks against the Pakistani people."

Withthose words, PresidentBarack Obama acknowledged Pakistan’srole in the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, a military cantonment, ina house that lay half a mile or so from the Pakistan MilitaryAcademy. It isunclear why, if Pakistani intelligence had the leads, it would not or could notfollow up itself and do the job.

Ata time when United States-Pakistan relations are going south in a hurry overaid, Afghanistan, and U.S. intelligence operations inside Pakistan, bin Laden’sdeath leaves more questions on the table than answers. How could four U.S.helicopters operate some 120 miles inside Pakistani territory and three of themexit without being detected? Were they allowed to do so? And by whom? Or was itPakistan’s inability tointercept them that allowed the to proceed without a hitch? Clearly the civilian government was firstinformed when President Obama spoke with President Asif Ali Zardari after theoperation was over. If Zardari’s military was in the know, and he was not, thisspeaks volumes about the internal distrust within Pakistan’s establishment. So far,it appears the United States kept the Pakistan military in the dark. What maybe more troubling for the U.S.side is the likelihood that elements of the Pakistani establishment were awareof bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad and kept it hidden. However remote apossibility this may seem, this question will be asked in Washington the weeks to come.

Americanboots on the ground are much more serious in terms of invasion of Pakistan’sterritory and disregard for its sovereignty than the remote drone attacks thathave so angered Pakistani officials and politicians lately. The Pakistanimilitary’s official reaction to the death of bin Laden will be telling. If thisoperation was carried out in close cooperation with the United States,then the trajectory of this declining relationship may be reversed. If not,then the velocity of the decline will increase at a time when the mood in Washingtonseems to be shifting to black toward Pakistan, on the Hill and also inparts of the Obama administration.

TheStrategic Dialogue that was bringing the UnitedStates and Pakistan to the table to focus oncommon objectives has been suspended for now. Both sides are attempting torevive the relationship after the imbroglio over Raymond Davis and the C.I.A.’soperations inside Pakistan.The Pakistanis demand respect. So does the United States. Neither side shouldtry to pull a fast one over the other. They are codependent in the fightagainst militancy and terror: the United States in trying to exit Afghanistanin an orderly fashion, Pakistan in trying to contain its internal insurgencies.The stakes may be higher for Pakistansince it remains captive of its geography and heavily tied to the U.S. aidprogram and the Coalition Support Funds that sustain its battles against thePakistani Taliban. It may be a bad marriage, once again, but not one thataffords an easy divorce. Perhaps a separation, followed by reconciliation?

BothPakistan and the U.S. should becareful to keep the tone of public rhetoric down and continue the privatedialogues that may yet yield agreement on common objectives. Pakistan needs to create the stability inside Pakistan that will allow it tofight the immediate war on poverty and underdevelopment. Faced with a risingpopulation and an ever present youth bulge, Pakistan needs to begin to governitself better, think long term, and eschew factional politics. Its militaryneeds the tools and the time to keep the militancy at bay but it also needsclose cooperation with the civilian agencies to help it fight against terrorismin its multifarious forms inside Pakistan.

Osamabin Laden’s death may exacerbate the terrorist conditions inside Pakistan forthe short run. Followers and sympathizers of al-Qaeda may well try to seekrevenge against U.S.interests and the Pakistani state. But the death of al-Qaeda’s founder shouldnot change the course that Pakistanis following to battle militancy at home and needs to follow in itsneighborhood. Nor should the UnitedStates pack up and summarily exit theregional stage once more.

Shuja Nawaz, theauthor of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within,directs the South Asia Centerat the Atlantic Council.