Bin Laden's death will change Washington -- and Pakistan won't like it
The day after U.S. special operations forces dramatically raided Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan seemed to invite an investigation into whether elements of the Pakistani government were complicit in sheltering bin Laden. During a briefing, Brennan asserted, "I think it's inconceivable that bin Laden did not have a support system in the country that allowed him to remain there for an extended period of time. I am not going to speculate about what type of support he might have had on an official basis inside of Pakistan ... I think people are raising a number of questions, and understandably so."
But a day later, the administration seemed more eager to limit the damage the raid might cause to its relationship with Islamabad. The Pentagon and the Pakistani military issued a joint statement reaffirming their cooperation against terrorism. And according to the Wall Street Journal, senior administration officials urged restraint in blaming Pakistan's leaders for the embarrassing presence of bin Laden and his family within a few hundred meters of Pakistan's army academy and in the same neighborhood as many retired army officers.
From this perspective, the bin Laden raid is now a matter for historians to ponder: serious policymakers on both sides should focus on the future and on those practical interests shared by the United States and Pakistan. From this point of view, the raid didn't change the interests each side seeks or the leverage each side can deploy against the other and the United States still needs Pakistan's cooperation against terror networks that threaten the West. The U.S. also needs Pakistani support to move supply convoys through Pakistan to its forward operating bases in Afghanistan. For its part, Islamabad still seeks to maintain its connections to the West, to retain its diplomatic options, and to receive financial assistance from Washington and elsewhere. The death of bin Laden hasn't changed any of these facts.
This view may be correct for now but it is not likely to hold. First, with the bin Laden raid such a spectacular success, Obama will likely come under increasing pressure to repeat its success. Previous U.S. direct action incursions into Pakistan were met with harsh reactions from Islamabad, including the temporary shutdown of the supply pipeline through the Khyber Pass. But with the raid's success and the now nearly universal assumption that the Pakistani government is not a trustworthy partner, there will be growing political pressure inside the United States for Obama to treat Pakistan as an "open range" for military operations against terrorist targets.
Second, political pressure will mount on Obama to wind down the war in Afghanistan, something that the president seems willing to accommodate. Bin Laden's death will deliver finality to many in the U.S. electorate. The sense of an end to the 9/11 story will clash with calls to continue the costly counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan's villages. Should Obama accede to an accelerated departure from Afghanistan, it would be another demonstration that the "post-Gates" era has arrived, a point my FP colleague Peter Feaver mentioned this week.
The more forces the United States withdraws from Afghanistan, the more leverage it gains over Pakistan; fewer forces in Afghanistan mean less reliance on the supply line through Pakistan. The bin Laden raid set a precedent for U.S. ground operations inside Pakistan, which Obama will now come under increasing pressure to repeat. It is true that the bin Laden raid didn't change for now the fundamental interests and leverage in the U.S.-Pakistani relationship. But the raid did set in motion political forces inside the United States that won't please Pakistan.