The South Asia Channel

The bin Laden aftermath: Business as usual won’t do in Pakistan and Afghanistan

After the death of Osama bin Laden, the key question to address is — what’s next? Bin Laden’s death presents an opportunity to fundamentally reassess U.S. policy in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It also creates the possibility for a second strategic shift in America’s overall national security approach on President Obama’s watch. The first strategic shift ...


After the death of Osama bin Laden, the key question to address is — what’s next? Bin Laden’s death presents an opportunity to fundamentally reassess U.S. policy in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It also creates the possibility for a second strategic shift in America’s overall national security approach on President Obama’s watch.

The first strategic shift was the Obama administration’s efforts from 2009 to 2011 to end the war in Iraq by a set date and shift resources to the neglected fronts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The remaining time in office presents the chance to pivot to broader challenges in the world. In the words of Obama deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes, the administration’s overall foreign policy approach is: "Wind down these two wars, reestablish American standing and leadership in the world, and focus on a broader set of priorities, from Asia and the global economy to a nuclear-nonproliferation regime."

Eliminating bin Laden was a major success — but it also reminds us that business as usual will no longer do. With Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee warning of mission creep, it is time to take a step back, reassess, and debate broader policy options in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

America has achieved many of its core objectives — Osama bin Laden is dead and his network in the two countries is on the defensive. Even before bin Laden’s death, U.S. intelligence agencies last year assessed that al Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula (AQAP), based in Yemen, was a greater threat to U.S. homeland security than al Qaeda Core. Now the central task is to motivate the leaders of these two troubled nations to take greater responsibility and get them to lead in building the best political, military and economic infrastructure possible for their country. An endless stream of blank checks is counterproductive in this effort.

Pakistan is the most complicated and dangerous piece of the puzzle, yet that troubled country usually takes a backseat to Afghanistan in America’s debates. In the last two years, the Obama administration has tried multiple approaches to shape the calculations of Pakistan’s leaders: tripling non-military assistance to Pakistan, engaging in assertive diplomacy with a broader range of Pakistani leaders in a series of strategic dialogues, reaching out to the Pakistan public in senior official visits, and executing Predator drone strikes and unilateral military actions when it could not trust Pakistan to take action against militant groups. 

Yet two years after the first shift in policy, the governments of Pakistan and the United States are not on the same page and do not share a common threat perception. The damning details about where bin Laden was hiding, outlined by Steve Coll in this New Yorker post, raise serious questions about how hard Pakistan’s security establishment has been hunting al-Qaeda. The unilateral U.S. raid on bin Laden’s compound, nestled near Islamabad and down the road from the country’s military academy, is deeply embarrassing for Pakistan’s leaders. The al-Qaeda leader declared war on Pakistan’s leader in 2007, and tens of thousands of Pakistani citizens have lost their lives in terrorist incidents carried out by bin Laden’s allies since. Yet the government in Pakistan could not or would not deal with this problem.

Pakistan’s leaders should use this moment as an opportunity to acknowledge that for all of their country’s considerable sacrifices, they must move to defeat the threats al-Qaeda and its affiliates pose to their own country and the United States.

The United States, on the other hand, should use this moment to question whether the billions of dollars it sends to Pakistan is a sound investment. On my most recent trip to Pakistan in February, many Pakistanis expressed the view that U.S. aid to their country was simply underwriting a corrupt and dysfunctional government that does not deliver basic services to its people. In Washington, many have asked whether U.S. agencies are up to the task of making sure development assistance has the desired impact, including Senator John Kerry in this letter to the late Amb. Richard Holbrooke last year.

At this stage, the additional development assistance provided by the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill does not seem to be winning the hearts and minds of the Pakistani public or garnering the much-needed full security cooperation from the government. We need to either substantially reform this aid strategy to ensure it benefits the Pakistani people or completely scrap it.

We should also conduct a thorough review on the two most urgent U.S. national security priorities — ensuring the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and outlining the next steps in counterterrorism efforts in Pakistan. According to some reports, Pakistan has doubled its nuclear arsenal in the last four years, with some analysts estimating that Pakistan now has more nuclear weapons than Britain and France. On nuclear weapons, the United States should continue to offer assistance to support the physical security of storage facilities and assist in assessing the reliability of personnel working in those areas. On counterterrorism, the U.S. military, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies should continue their efforts to enhance coordination with Pakistani counterparts, but remain prepared to take action as they did this past weekend.

In Afghanistan, the Obama administration needs to question once again the fundamental assumptions underlying the current strategy. The most recent Pentagon report on the situation in Afghanistan released last week paints a picture of some security gains in key parts of the country, yet leaves many questions about the sustainability of these gains. Have U.S. troops cleared areas in the past two years that they are unable to transition to Afghan partners?  Last week’s escape of nearly 500 prisoners from a jail in Kandahar, a central focus of the troop surge, is just the latest example of the weakness of Afghan institutions. Has the "civilian surge" helped Afghans create institutions and an economic basis that will stand on its own?

Should America spend more than $100 billion a year and maintain such a costly military footprint for an extended period of time in Afghanistan? Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee has argued for a "robust reduction" of troops from Afghanistan this summer, and added that the killing of bin Laden should allow for an acceleration of this plan. America should reopen the debate on whether it makes sense to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan for at least another three years, and if so, at what levels.

President Obama has stated that his central goal in Afghanistan is to "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat [al-Qaeda] in Afghanistan and Pakistan," and bin Laden’s death is a major advance towards achieving that goal. It also presents a chance to reevaluate the current policy approach and assess whether there is a more effective and efficient way to advance America’s national security. The United States may be wasting money and precious resources in a bloated strategy when a more streamlined approach could be more effective to achieve our goals.

Act One is drawing to a close — whether Act Two begins depends on how much the Obama administration is willing and able to question its own assumptions about its policies in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where his work focuses on U.S. national security. His past experience includes work at the National Security Council and the departments of State and Defense under the Bill Clinton administration. He also worked for Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, Freedom House, and former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey. He is the co-author of The Prosperity Agenda, a book on U.S. national security. Twitter: @Katulis