The South Asia Channel

The 80 percent solution

This piece is based on a policy paper by Thomas F. Lynch III entitled "The 80 Percent Solution: The Strategic Defeat of bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and Implications for South Asian Security," published on February 3, 2012 by the New America Foundation’s National Security Studies Program. To read the entire 30-page paper, please click here. With ...

WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images
WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images

This piece is based on a policy paper by Thomas F. Lynch III entitled "The 80 Percent Solution: The Strategic Defeat of bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and Implications for South Asian Security," published on February 3, 2012 by the New America Foundation’s National Security Studies Program. To read the entire 30-page paper, please click here.

With the death of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, the United States and Western governments scored a major but still underappreciated victory in the nearly decade-and-a-half-old war against al-Qaeda. Bin Laden’s death did not eliminate all of the features of al-Qaeda that make it dangerous as a factor in terrorism internationally. Its role in assisting regional jihadist groups in strikes against local governments and by inspiring "lone wolf" would-be martyrs in acts of violence will remain with us for many years.  Yet the manner in which U.S. intelligence and military operatives found and eliminated bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, was devastating to three of the five most critical features of bin Laden’s al-Qaeda:

  • Its legitimacy as a core organization capable of choreographing catastrophic global terrorist events;
  • Its brand name rights as the ultimate victor should any of its loosely affiliated Salafi jihadist regional movements ever achieve success in a local insurgency;
  • Its ability to claim that it was the base for certain victory – much one able to less reestablish a credible unfettered training area for global jihad – in the area most critical to its own mystical lore: Afghanistan and western Pakistan;

Bin Laden’s demise also degraded by half – but did not eliminate – the fourth and fifth elements of al-Qaeda’s essence: its role as a "vanguard" of a wider network of Sunni Salafi groups and its ability to serve as a key point of inspiration for "lone wolf" terrorists around the globe. As a consequence, the death of Osama bin Laden has produced an 80 percent solution to the problems that this unique terrorist organization poses for Western policymakers.  

This 80 percent solution has multiple, important implications. Globally, it means that al-Qaeda’s growing isolation from alternative, nonviolent approaches to political change in the Muslim world must be reinforced – and is best reinforced – with a deliberate and visible reduction in the U.S. military footprint in Islamic countries worldwide. Washington can best isolate al-Qaeda and limit its ability to reclaim relevance in the struggle for reform in the Islamic world by quietly enabling security forces in Muslim states to counter al-Qaeda affiliates while simultaneously providing judicious and enduring support for Muslim voices for nonviolent political change.

Yet the most immediate implications of this historic development matter to the trajectory of U.S. policy in South Asia.  Bin Laden’s demise fundamentally alters the current framework of U.S. and coalition strategy in Afghanistan, and challenges the underpinnings of U.S. policy toward Pakistan.

Al-Qaeda’s earliest conception of itself – developed in the late 1980s – included the bedrock function of serving as the base for continuing guerrilla warfare in Afghanistan. Its largely Arab and Egyptian core leadership shared a bond forged in the fight against the Soviet Union and felt the victory over the Soviets in Afghanistan to be of Allah’s will and making.  Since late 2001, al-Qaeda has shared with the Afghan Taliban a view that Pakistan is the natural location for vital efforts to free Afghanistan from foreign rule – to validate the victory over the Soviet Union in Afghanistan by another successful guerrilla war.      

At the same time, the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda’s core leadership have long diverged in goals and aspirations. These differences were papered over by the personal history between bin Laden and key Afghan Taliban figures – especially the late Younis Khalis, Jalaluddin Haqqani and Mullah Omar.  With bin Laden’s death, the glue that papered over these fissures is gone. His personal oath (bay’a) to Mullah Omar has no analog with Ayman al-Zawahiri or the cohort of Egyptians and Libyans now at the helm of al-Qaeda’s remaining core elements in Pakistan. Al-Qaeda may continue to drape itself in the Taliban flag and proclaim allegiance to Mullah Omar, but with bin Laden’s death the Afghan Taliban faces one stark certainty. While it shares a loose but important Salafi jihadist credo with al-Qaeda, it remains dependent on all manner of support for its insurgency from elements within and beholden to the Pakistani security services.  Afghan Taliban leaders must calculate their futures based upon this dominant reality. As they do, al-Qaeda’s ability to repeat its propaganda performance following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan – taking credit for any (unlikely) defeat of the United States or any important role in the (more likely) successes the Taliban may have in carving out political space in the country – will wither rapidly.

Absent bin Laden, the risks of al-Qaeda’s return to unfettered sanctuary in Afghanistan or western Pakistan have dropped dramatically, while the risks of a devastating proxy war between India and Pakistan – nuclear armed nations that have fought three shooting wars and indulged in several other martial crises since 1947 — over their relative positions in Afghanistan continue to grow.  Absent the onset of a stark proxy war between India and Pakistan in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s military and intelligence leadership will have very little interest in seeing al-Qaeda again set up shop from which to wage a bloody campaign of international terrorism and will utilize the tools at their disposal to constrain this possibility.

American policy must wake up to the fact that the risks of devastating proxy war between India and Pakistan now dwarf the risks of al-Qaeda’s return to unfettered sanctuary and recalibrate its diplomatic energies and military priorities accordingly.  The United States must reduce its present focus on killing off every last al-Qaeda affiliated leader or mid-level Haqqani Network operative in Pakistan and pay far more attention to the factors necessary to inhibit proxy war in Afghanistan: a tense but enduring U.S. diplomatic relationship with Pakistan designed to calm its fears that growing Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) will become an Indian-directed dagger aimed at Pakistan’s back, and diplomatic engagement with Pakistan and India on an acceptable political and security framework for Afghanistan into the next decade.  NATO force planners then must devise processes to draw down to the residual  U.S./coalition military stabilization forces necessary to stay on for the rest of the decade, enforce this essential Indo-Pakistani framework agreement, and serve as a buttress against points of friction or violence in Afghanistan that could descend into the chaos of a proxy war conflict.   These vital outcomes will require earnest and difficult negotiations with the Pakistanis, Indians, Afghan Taliban, and northern ethnic groups in Afghanistan.   Negotiations focused on these outcomes have not even begun.   It is time that they do.

Dr. Thomas F. Lynch III is Distinguished Research Fellow for South Asia and the Near East at the Center for Strategic Research, part of the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies.  The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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