The Demise of Bin Laden and the Endgame in Afghanistan
May 13, 2011
The killing of Osama Bin Laden in the garrison town of Abotabad has marked the start of a new chapter in the regional geo-politics. The core mandate of the international intervention in Afghanistan was to dismantle Al-Qaeda, the group responsible for a number of high-profile terrorist attacks around the world including the tragic incident of 9/11. Although symbolic, the killing of bin Laden provides President Obama with a strong reason to reassert his decision to pull out the American troops from Afghanistan starting this July.
A recent letter written to President Obama by 81 progressive lawmakers signals an emerging political narrative in Washington. The letter, which is a follow up to an earlier letter on 16 March 2011, notes: "In the wake of Osama bin Laden's death, now is the time to shift toward the swift, safe, and responsible withdrawal of U.S. troops and military contractors from Afghanistan." Earlier, during a White House press conference on 2 May, the U.S. Homeland Security Adviser John Brennan commented on bin Laden’s death, saying: "We are going to try to take advantage of this to demonstrate to people in the area that Al-Qaeda is a thing of the past, and we are hoping to bury the rest of al Qaeda along with Osama bin Laden."
On strategic level, a rapid withdrawal of American troops may come as a sigh of relief for the countries neighbouring Afghanistan including China, Iran, Pakistan and Russia as well. These regional powers have always been apprehensive of America’s long-term strategic objectives of stationing its forces in Afghanistan. For Pakistan, the spill-over effects of the Afghan war have been proving extremely damaging. A number of terrorist outfits emerged in Pakistan in the aftermath of the “Operation Enduring Freedom”, which seek to justify their existence on the pretext of “a brotherly country being occupied by the infidels”.
Groups like Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), responsible for unleashing waves of terror in the country, rose to power manipulating significant popular support for Afghan Taliban who are still regarded by a majority of Pakistani as a legitimate guerrilla force fighting against a “foreign occupation”. Therefore, a dominant, rather influential, segment of Pakistani establishment, political leadership, media barons and public, which always regarded American presence in Afghanistan as the root cause of domestic terrorism, is of the view that the American departure from Afghanistan will help reduce the alarming level of religious militancy in Pakistan.
At present, the post-US Afghanistan might be a subject of extensive brainstorming in different capitals of the region. Although, the threat of transnational terrorism still persists, Beijing, Tehran and Moscow would have reasons to ponder with zeal President Obama’s political approach to fix Afghanistan quagmire involving a gradual demilitarisation. However, this strategic shift in the regional geo-politics does not necessarily entail desired outcomes for Islamabad. The fact that the world’s most wanted terrorist was detected and killed under the nose of Pakistani Army, and few kilometres away from the capital has given rise to the speculations that the epicentre of global terrorism no more exists in Afghanistan, but across the border in Pakistan. Islamabad’s response to the current circumstances prevailing after the death of Osama will determine the future of Pakistan’s relations with the Western world, particularly the U.S.
Renewed domestic and international pressure on Islamabad demands an urgent and dispassionate analysis of country’s Afghanistan-centred counter terrorism policies. The policy makers in Pakistan need to be aware that the American pullout from Afghanistan will have little or no impacts on the militant groups operating within Pakistan. These groups, which once emerged and prevailed on the cause to drive Americans and foreign forces out of Afghanistan have long transformed from merely “anti-occupation” to anti-Pakistan and pro-global Jihad entities. The cause to liberate Afghanistan from foreign occupation is not the raison d'être anymore, but they seek to bring down the existing socio-political order in Pakistan perceived as un-Islamic and corrupt.
For instance, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that has been wrecking havoc in the country has long moved from its agenda to strengthen Afghan Taliban’s movement to an entity that vociferously endorses al-Qaeda’s agenda of a global Jihad. The group rarely mentions Afghanistan in its propaganda material and lays more emphasis on deposing un-Islamic regime in Pakistan to set the foundation for a global Khilafat. Therefore, it will be naïve to imagine that the TTP, responsible for unleashing waves of attacks in Pakistan, would fade away or seize its national and international operations once the international forces leave Afghanistan. Rather, an early and pre-mature withdrawal may prove a huge morale booster for TTP and its local and international allies.
Similarly, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the group that existed even before the international intervention in Afghanistan, will be least affected by the American withdrawal. The outfit has evolved as the deadliest urban terrorist group in the recent times. Presently known as Lashkar-e-Jhangwi al-Aalmi, the group has further diversified its goals and turned more lethal and sophisticated. The choice of targets now includes not only the Shias of Pakistan, but religious minorities, shrines, Western interests and state institutions. The addition of “al-Aalmi” (international) in its title also denotes LeJ’s intentions and increasing capabilities to expand its areas of operation beyond Pakistan. The group is found involved in some of the deadliest terrorist attacks in the country, none of which can be described as a reaction to the American occupation of Afghanistan. The organization maintains indigenous sources of recruitment, finances, weapons and training facilities. Henceforth, the events in Afghanistan are highly unlikely to impact the operational capabilities or orientation of Lashkar-e-Jhangwi al-Aalmi.
International frustration over Pakistan’s alleged support for Haqqani Network must also be addressed as a part of repairing the frayed ties between the West and Pakistan. It appears that the assassination of Col. Imam at the hands of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and Haqqani Network’s inability or unwillingness to pressurise the TTP to secure the release of one of the former officers of ISI, has led Pakistan military to rethink its policies on the Haqqani network. This is becoming increasingly clear that no one is in control of anyone in the rugged mountains of FATA.
In such a situation, when Pakistan is seeking a proactive political engagement with Afghanistan, the military establishment stands to gain nothing for supporting an ineffective entity at the cost of its relationships with the Afghans and Americans. Therefore, this is just a matter of resources and time before the armed forces move into North Waziristan. Further, Pakistan Army also needs to be ensured that their operations against Haqqanis will be complimented by the allied forces on the other side of border and the militants would not be allowed to escape from North Waziristan into Afghanistan.
Faced with the ultimate necessity of finding some solution to Afghan quagmire and the threat of global terrorism emanating from Pakistan, the U.S and other regional players will be in urgent need to come out of the blame game and have a fresh start with Pakistan. Strained relationship between Islamabad and Western capitals can become a hurdle in achieving a peaceful Afghanistan and taking the war on terror to its logical end.