The US operation that killed Osama bin Laden took place in Pakistan. That fact means that Bin Laden’s death, although an unqualified triumph, will have potentially disturbing implications for relations between the two countries. Bin Laden wasn’t hiding in some cave in Afghanistan or even in those northern areas of Pakistan that are arguably beyond the power of that country’s military but in a city just 90 miles north of Islamabad, the capital.
That country has long had an ambivalent approach to dealing with Islamist militants. It has conducted operations against its own Taliban who once even threatened the capital and has had to provide some assistance against al-Qaeda, such as the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. However, it has been accused of continuing to help the Afghani Taliban and has long supported Islamist militants operating against India.
Pakistan has had to officially align itself with the attack on Bin Laden, even inaccurately claiming it as a joint operation. Certainly, it must have had at least the acquiescence of President Asif Zardari. However, Bin Laden was in a compound that was virtually next door to a military academy and that is embarrassing for the ISI, which had long denied knowledge of his whereabouts. Further, it has long bridled at US drone strikes in the anarchic north of the country the killing of two Pakistanis by CIA operative Raymond David in Lahore lead to that country’s military demanding a reduction of US operations in Pakistan.
Bin Laden’s death and the expected draw down in US forces in Afghanistan may ease the strains somewhat. However there is still Ayman al-Zawahiri, presumably now the new head of al-Qaeda who has to be hunted.
There are a couple of implications of this. Civilian government has long had a shaky history in Pakistan, and the sign-off that Zardari must’ve given to the attack won’t make him many friends in the military. The military’s sentiments aren’t just a question of touchiness regarding national sovereignty.
Its generals have question the wisdom of working with the US, no doubt partially motivated by the widespread sympathy for Islamists held by many mid-level officers. There is popular support for such a sentiment. A Pew poll taken last year had only 3 percent of its respondents considering al-Qaeda a threat while 68 percent had a negative opinion of the United States.
There is the likelihood of further pressure on the government to oppose further US operations. On the other hand, US ability to think of Pakistan as a partner will be undercut by where Bin Laden actually was and may be more inclined to proceed unilaterally against those of Bin Laden’s lieutenants who are still at large in Pakistan. Fortunately, that may be offset by what may now be a higher priority to al-Qaeda militants in Yemen.