Slippery slope, moral hazard and tall order
The big questions for me in the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death are how it will affect America’s relations with Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as the Arab Spring. I leave it to others to consider the impact on Al Qaeda, its affiliates, and the terrorist enterprise in general, but I have to assume that the already weakened enterprise will suffer some further fragmentation and demoralization, even as it tries (and occasionally succeeds) to exact revenge.
Pakistan has got some explaining to do. It seems likely someone in the Pakistani government knew that Osama bin Laden was hiding out in a garrison town not far from Islamabad. There is no sign they tipped off the Americans, their putative allies. How come? How many other Al Qaeda principles harbored in Pakistan? And if no one in the Pakistani government knew that OBL was there, that would suggest true incompetence, no? So too would failure of the Pakistani government to intervene to block the American operation, if the Americans are telling the truth about not having informed the Pakistanis.
My best guess is that some Pakistanis (army? intelligence service?) knew where bin Laden was hiding. They likely also knew about the American operation, or at least knew something was “going down.” So they both hid him and allowed him to be captured. That sounds like the kind of duplicity we’ve witnessed for years, practiced to our detriment. Glad it was at someone else’s expense this time. The unexcited and even congratulatory reaction of official Pakistan to the news suggests this was the case.
So what do we do now? Is it business as usual with the Pakistanis? Or is it time for a shift toward a more demanding stance? Should we make military assistance conditional on greater cooperation? Surely someone in the Congress will push that idea. The problem is we would then have to be prepared carry out the threat, which would surely reduce military and intelligence cooperation further. That’s a slippery slope. Are we really reduced, as Madeleine Albright suggested on the PBS Newshour this evening, to “working with” the Pakistanis?
Maybe. With OBL out of the way, Al Qaeda is a lot less interesting to the Pakistanis, whose purposes inside Afghanistan might just as well be served by the Taliban without all the international complications OBL necessarily engendered. Besides, they’ve now got lots of homegrown jihadis to throw against India when the need arises. OBL wasn’t so good in that direction anyway.
What about Afghanistan? President Karzai, in his usual uncharitable mood, took the occasion of OBL’s death to suggest that the Americans and their allies have been wasting a lot of time and Afghan lives looking for him inside Afghanistan. Meanwhile, American senators were suggesting that OBL’s death might make it possible to draw down American troops in Afghanistan faster than currently contemplated, leaving Karzai to his fate. Of course the two ideas are compatible: Karzai would like less U.S. military effort, and so would the Americans.
This “beggar thy ally” approach on both sides does not bode well for continuing anything like the current level of effort in Afghanistan, where the Taliban are proving resilient and resurgent. I confess to temptation: maybe we should try withdrawing faster than had been anticipated, making it clear to Karzai that we are in part responding to his pressure. He pushes us out because he has been pretty sure we wouldn’t take him up on it. If he thought we might, he would be getting his act together faster.
This is what is called “moral hazard.” Leon Panetta, about to become Defense Secretary, was big on the idea of giving the Iraqis a quick time line for U.S. withdrawal when he served on the Iraq Study Group (I’m not breaking confidence–he said so publicly on many occasions). I wonder if he might adopt the same posture on Afghanistan. Of course David Petraeus, whether in his current job or his future one, is likely to be on the other side of that argument.
As for the Arab Spring, it seems to me that OBL’s death should reduce the fear some have of Al Qaeda exploitation of the demonstrations and weaken the argument that we need autocrats to repress international terrorists. Those arguments have not gained much traction with me these past few months, but I hope those who believe them will reexamine the situation and come to the obvious conclusion: the faster we can help get something like democratic regimes up and running in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria the better off we will be. I wish I could say the same about Bahrain, but it seems to have fallen hostage to the regional sectarian standoff. We’ve already got what most would consider a tall order.