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After bin Laden

Implications for U.S. Policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan

The May 1, 2011, raid that killed fugitive Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has the potential to reshape world events across a range of relationships and countries, including our complicated ties with Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as the internal political upheaval taking place in the Arab world, in which Al Qaeda has largely been bypassed.

Within the United States the Obama administration now has an opportunity to lead a serious reassessment of the past 10 years of American security policy, particularly the degree to which it has become distorted around Al Qaeda and the person of bin Laden himself. This is a distortion most powerful in our discussion of U.S. interests and activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Bin Laden’s death does not mean the United States should declare “mission accomplished” in Afghanistan or end our targeted counterterrorism efforts in Pakistan. But it does offer the Obama administration an opportunity to reassess the challenges in Afghanistan beyond the specter of Al Qaeda, to reduce our military and financial investments, and to realign our approach around a political track in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the region.

Osama bin Laden’s death clarifies that the United States has the ability to protect U.S. interests independent of Afghan and Pakistani cooperation. Afghan political leaders and commanders have extracted substantial support from the United States over the past decade predicated on the idea that their cooperation against Al Qaeda is so invaluable that America cannot risk alienating them. To a lesser degree, so too have their counterparts in Pakistan. The costs of these rentier relationships (both financially and in terms of the distortionary effect it has on the internal political dynamics in both countries) and the question of who depends on whom the most in the partnership needs to be seriously reevaluated after bin Laden’s removal.

If Afghan and Pakistani leaders do not move on some of the essential political reforms required for long-term peace, then the United States should exercise the option to reduce its financial and military support and presence at a faster rate than the current 2014 timeline indicates. We do not have to be held captive by Afghan and Pakistani leaders because of our fears surrounding Al Qaeda. The capture and killing of Osama bin Laden may allow us to put this threat into perspective.

The Obama administration has placed the disruption and defeat of Al Qaeda as the central goal of its policy toward both Afghanistan and Pakistan, but Al Qaeda has been a minor player in Afghanistan for some time due to our sustained assault on the network—especially over the past two years. Indeed, bin Laden’s death is unlikely to have a direct impact on:

  • The strength of the Taliban insurgency in either nation
  • The weakness of President Hamid Karzai’s government
  • Pakistan’s contentious relations with its neighbors and growing nuclear program
  • Islamabad’s inability to mobilize public resources to address its economic and financial crises

There are broader concerns for the United States in both countries than just Al Qaeda.

With or without Al Qaeda, the United States has an interest in a peaceful Afghanistan and Pakistan that serves regional and international stability and does justice to the investments we have made there. In order to pursue this, the United States needs to seek a political solution to the conflict in Afghanistan and support a transition process to Afghan leadership that more directly addresses the exclusivity, unsustainability, and ineffectiveness of the current balance of power that constitutes the Afghan government. Altering this will require a political reform agenda, negotiations with high-level insurgents, reconciliation at the local level, and regional dialogue.

Pakistan’s leaders—military, civilian, and intelligence—must cooperate with this effort in open and meaningful ways. It is in their best interest to do so, and their relationship with many militant groups means they may possess levers of influence that could bring some to the negotiating table. If they do not because of misguided and misplaced efforts to prepare for worries about Indian influence in Afghanistan after U.S. forces withdraw, then the United States needs to be prepared to impose consequences on those parts of the Pakistani state that continue to obstruct U.S. interests.

All of these efforts are the products of American political and economic leverage, not military operations. They require a recalibration of our national security portfolio, both in regards to how it is structured in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in the region, and around the world. This shift requires engaging with Afghanistan and Pakistan as countries with their own unique internal challenges.

A concerted effort is required to manage the shift in our investments to a more sustainable level and to reduce the enormous dependencies we have sponsored in Afghanistan through a drawdown in U.S. forces over the course of the next three years. Bin Laden’s death eliminates a major threat to the United States but it does not eliminate the need to seek a sustainable political settlement in Afghanistan that is supported by all of the responsible political players in Pakistan.

Caroline Wadhams is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Colin Cookman is a Research Assistant with the National Security team at the Center.

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