Nearly ten years ago, on a clear blue morning in New York City, the beginning acts of the worst terrorist attack on American soil were set in motion. The air filled with smoke, debris, and the endless sound of sirens as nearly 3,000 were killed. This past Sunday, with night already descended on the city, the air instead filled with the sounds of crowds cheering upon hearing the news that Osama bin Laden, the man responsible for those attacks, had been killed. As President Obama summed it up, “Justice has been done.” The New York Post put it more bluntly: “the son of a bitch is dead.”
The story behind the death of Osama bin Laden is exciting in itself: a small team of Navy Seals conducts a daring 40-minute raid, gets the most wanted man in the world, and scores a major victory against al Qaeda. But we should also be proud of the way our government worked for years, across administrations and agencies, to ultimately carry out this critical mission. The intelligence community, though much maligned, tirelessly spent six years unraveling OBL’s courier network to track him down. Once he was found, the military did its job with surgical precision. And the President exhibited decisive leadership when given the opportunity to take OBL out, choosing, after careful deliberation, a riskier operation than others on the table to make sure the job was finally done.
OBL’s death clearly carries immense symbolism, but where he was eventually located did not fit the prevailing narrative. Far from a remote cave in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, he was instead living in a million-dollar compound in Abbottabad, a city within driving distance of Islamabad and home to the Pakistani Military Academy. The discovery of OBL so close to the capital city and Pakistan’s West Point again raises questions about the sincerity of the country’s commitment to counterterrorism cooperation. In a Washington Post op-ed, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari hit back, arguing that “The war on terrorism is as much Pakistan’s war as it is America’s.” Yet, given where bin Laden was found and the fact that the U.S. opted for a unilateral raid out of concern that Pakistan might alert bin Laden, the line doesn’t quite ring true for many.
American officials are quick to reassert that Pakistan is a valuable partner in the overall counterterrorism fight, and in the short-term, an investigation into how OBL could be “hiding in plain sight” and the upcoming U.S.-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue at the end of this month may offer good answers and good ways to diffuse the increasing tensions. But the incident underscores the inherent difficulty at the core of the complicated U.S.-Pakistani relationship: Pakistan acts like the member of the team that, at best, never seems capable of doing enough and at worst, may compromise operations. As frustrating as it may be, however, the alternative options could be worse; the terrain we are playing on now in Pakistan and the team we’re playing with may be the best bet we can make.
As such, the same type of low-key, long-term effort across government used to catch OBL will be increasingly necessary in the post-OBL paradigm for maintaining a workable relationship with Pakistan, even as things are bound to get harder. Keeping the groundwork that is already in place there is important, and continuing this smart approach is the best way to work within the limitations of what Pakistan wants to and can do while simultaneously dealing with a jihadist threat that still remains dangerous. From a military and intelligence standpoint, it means having to find ways to operate when needed within Pakistan in the face of mounting criticism that the U.S. is violating its sovereignty. Diplomatically, it means managing expectations on both sides while facing more abundant and ingrained conspiracy theories and negative feelings on both sides. These efforts must also be complimented with ongoing review of U.S. aid packages to Pakistan to ensure that corruption and incompetence do not jeopardize key goals.
All of the tools of government will have to be implemented to maximize the results of even the most minimal level of Pakistani cooperation. The death of OBL is certainly something to be celebrated, but it is not the closing act. Challenges still lie ahead, including a rocky road to Islamabad.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Partnership for a Secure America.