Bin Laden's death gives us a chance to rethink U.S. strategy in Southwest Asia

Bill Davnie
William Davnie retired after a 26-year diplomatic career in the U.S. Foreign Service and now lives in Minneapolis. He has traveled in Afghanistan and served in its northern neighbor, Tajikistan, as well as in Russia and Iraq.
MPR Photo/Toni Randolph

Osama bin Laden's end at the hands of U.S. Navy Seals brings the most epic (and expensive) manhunt in American history to an end. Welcome frontier justice, a triumph for American intelligence persistence and special operations excellence. Even many Muslims will likely not miss the man who has done most to blacken Islam's name in the United States and the West.

Instead of simply enjoying the moment, though, U.S. embassies overseas and security experts at home have sensibly taken extra precautions, while policy analysts huddle together to ask what the latest turn of events means. The death of Bin Laden unquestionably takes the wind out of Al-Qaida's sails. While he has been unable to direct any major terrorist events for some years now, and his whole movement has been wrongfooted by the current "Arab spring," he was the face of violent jihadism. His likeness was recognized throughout most of the world, and we will likely see it for years to come, just as Che Guevara's visage still shows up -- ironically for most, but seriously for a few remaining revolutionaries. But as with Che, Bin Laden's personal charisma has died with him.

Yet what does it mean for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and -- more to our point -- for U.S. policy in the region? For Afghanistan itself, Bin Laden's death likely means little. He hasn't been there for some years, and it's the Taliban, not Al-Qaida, that we fight. A few Al-Qaida fighters remain in Afghanistan and nearby Pakistan, and they are not likely to give up their views -- but with their charismatic leader gone, they hardly form a serious threat to Kabul or to us.

Some Americans may ask what our goal is now in Afghanistan, since we invaded in 2001 in order to capture Bin Laden and defeat Al-Qaida. We've done the first, and Al-Qaida now exists more in Yemen than Afghanistan. The Taliban objects to our presence in its homeland, but has never attacked the West elsewhere.

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That leaves Pakistan. Much will be made of Islamabad's assumed complicity in Bin Laden's s 10-year evasion of American pursuit. We will likely never know the real circumstances of his hiding -- not merely because the information is classified, but because motives and knowledge are all subject to interpretation. In a regional culture of conspiracy thinking that puts America's "birthers" to shame, no one's words can be taken at face value on such a sensitive topic.

Which isn't to say that Pakistan hasn't been complicit with the Taliban, and other groups that act a lot like them. Of that, there's no real doubt. Pakistan believes that its own security depends on 1) keeping its own Pushtuns happy, and 2) sustaining influence in Afghanistan through the ethnically Pushtun Taliban movement. And since keeping Pushtuns happy may have included not violating their willingness to host Bin Laden, Pakistan may well have chosen to look the other way -- or more.

But the question we face, as always in international affairs, is not whether Pakistan is our friend. Rather, what interests do we have in Pakistan -- and Afghanistan -- and how are they affected by Bin Laden's end? Pretty much everyone agrees that Pakistan is a vastly more important country -- to the United States and the world -- than Afghanistan. It's bigger, better off, nuclear-armed and so on. American fixation on Afghanistan, because that's where Bin Laden was then, can well be said to have distracted us from the real issue in the region, which remains Pakistani stability.

Bin Laden's death will no doubt raise Pakistani hackles once again over unilateral U.S. military action on Pakistani soil. But perhaps his death will allow both sides to take a deep breath, and look at the region afresh. We have defeated our archenemy. Might that sense of accomplishment permit us to take another look and understand why Pakistan, like any country, stands firm on what it considers core national interests? From there, we might be able to craft an exit strategy from Afghanistan, and reduce the stress on Pakistan's frail polity.

We could use this opportunity to reconsider our entire Southwest Asian policy. But as Tip O'Neill taught us, "all politics is local." It may well be that the greatest significance of Bin Laden's death will be on our own domestic scene, as President Obama becomes the president who brought down Public Enemy No. 1.


William Davnie retired after a 26-year diplomatic career in the U.S. Foreign Service and now lives in Minneapolis. He has traveled in Afghanistan and served in its northern neighbor, Tajikistan, as well as in Russia and Iraq.