The Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan in a Post-bin Laden World

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the phrase “post-9/11 world” became commonly used to describe a new world that had changed in a fundamental way on that date. The death of Osama bin Laden on May 1, 2011 will not have the same globe-shaking implications as his greatest crime, but it has served as a catalyst for significant shifts in the relationships between the United States and Afghanistan and Pakistan. Thus, when talking about Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is appropriate to say that we now live in a “post-bin Laden world.” It seems likely that May 1 will end up being a landmark date not only because of the immediate effects of bin Laden’s death, but because of the reactions that death has provoked in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the U.S.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing Tuesday morning on the “Strategic Implications of Pakistan and the Region.” A bleary-eyed Senator John Kerry (D-Mass), the Committee Chairman, presided over the hearing only hours after returning to the U.S. from his visit to Pakistan in which he defended the raid on bin Laden’s compound.

Senator Kerry opened by laying out his vision for the future of Afghanistan. He spoke optimistically about the implications of Bin Laden’s death, describing the Al Qaeda leader’s demise as a great opportunity to create peace in Afghanistan.  Though Kerry noted that there has been real and measurable military progress in Afghanistan, he cautioned that “there is no purely military solution” to the conflict. Reconciliation with the Taliban is a real possibility, though Kerry observed that many Afghans are worried about such an agreement because they do not want their country to return to Taliban rule. Above all, Kerry stressed that there must be a financially and militarily sustainable plan for Afghanistan’s transition to independent civilian government that will begin when President Obama starts withdrawing troops in July.

A theme that emerged throughout the hearing was the idea that neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan can be looked at in isolation. The border region between the two states is extremely porous, and the existence of “safe havens” for Afghan insurgents in Western Pakistan is one of the largest hurdles that needs to be overcome in the attempt build a peaceful and stable Afghan state. General James L. Jones, former National Security Advisor to President Obama, posited that the degree to which Pakistan acts to eliminate its insurgent safe havens is the degree to which the peace process in Afghanistan is likely to succeed.

Frustration with Pakistan was evident in the questions that many Senators posed to General Jones. Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) complained that it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan to American taxpayers when the Pakistani people “flat don’t like us.” Ranking Member of the Committee Dick Lugar (R-Ind) argued that President Obama should make it clear to Pakistan that it is unacceptable to “go after some terrorists while coddling others” or to continue fomenting anti-American rallies.  Similarly skeptical of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship was Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Del), who suggested coming up with strategic alternatives in the event that the partnership with Pakistan fails.

Sen. Kerry expressed his belief that a beneficial partnership with Pakistan is still possible if the two sides can find common ground and mutual goals. The success of the relationship “will only be measure by actions,” Kerry said; the first of which might be Pakistan’s agreement to return the tail of the helicopter that went down in the Bin Laden raid.

Another issue that received some attention in the hearings was the role of the relationship between Pakistan and India in American strategic interests in the region. India is relevant because Pakistan devotes a huge portion of its military resources to the India-Pakistan border–resources which are therefore not being used to root out terrorist safe havens in Western Pakistan. General Jones pointed out that the immobility of the Pakistani military is preventing it from being more effective at combating the terrorist threat. If India-Pakistan relations were to thaw to the point where India removed a significant number of troops from the border, Pakistan would have a free hand to redeploy its troops and establish a stronger military presence on the border with Afghanistan.

Though Senator Kerry’s visit to Pakistan seems to have made some progress in at least halting the downward spiral of U.S.-Pakistan relations, it will not be easy to fully resuscitate the relationship. With widespread anti-American sentiment in the Pakistani media and calls from Capitol Hill for a moratorium on military aid to Pakistan, the ever-tenuous partnership between the U.S. and Pakistan is now hanging by a thread. Yet, the cooperation of Pakistan is paramount if the U.S. is to achieve its strategic objectives in Afghanistan. While the post-bin Laden world presents new opportunities for the U.S. in the South Asia region, it also poses new and greater challenges.

2 thoughts on “The Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan in a Post-bin Laden World

  1. Harry Blaney May 18, 2011 / 11:46 PM

    One question that was raised in the hearings is the degree of continued support the U.S. will provide in the future to Pakistan. There is much lingering anger over Bin Laden hiding out in the middle of a largely military town. Also we seem to be saying that at least some Pakistan officials/military likely knew about the hideout. With all of this helping to build a cooperative and stable region serves the larger interest of all countries in the region and globally. This is a job for “preventive diplomacy” including help for the people, civic society and not largely the military.

    Despite all this, Senator Kerry is right to make clear that Pakistan remains a key to the future of Afghanistan and indeed the whole region. Their nuclear weapons alone make it a “crisis region” that requires our close attention. My view is that we will be working on this problem for a long time and without any perfect or complete solutions. It would be a mistake however for us to withdraw from active engagement and focus on what I consider is a key place for our national security and peace in a region, which includes India, with a large population and serious conflicts and instability. This truly is a case for muti-lateral “preacebuilding.”

  2. Alan Berlind May 18, 2011 / 5:23 PM

    Devin McCarthy has skillfully and convincingly put together the several seemingly disparate issues that together define the challenges that face the US in Afghanistan and Pakistan (and, by the way, India). Let’s hope he follows up with additional analysis as he keeps tabs on breaking news and the possible consequences for US national security.

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