To get better perspective on the significance of Osama bin Laden’s death for al Qaeda, Pakistan-U.S. relations and the war in Afghanistan, I talked to Bruce Riedel. Riedel spent nearly 30 years as a CIA officer focusing on terrorism; he served as senior advisor to three U.S. presidents on Middle East and South Asian issues; and he chaired President Obama’s first interagency review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Amar C. Bakshi: Can al Qaeda survive the death of Osama bin Laden in any meaningful sense?
Bruce Riedel: The death of Bin Laden is a very severe blow for al Qaeda. And it comes at a particularly bad time for al Qaeda. The organization has already been under severe pressure from the drone strikes and it has looked out of touch with the revolutions in the Arab world. It’s an open question whether it will be able to adapt to this new environment.
Its strength is that it still is deeply enmeshed in the jihadist culture of Pakistan. The fact that bin Laden was hiding in the heartland of the Pakistani nation and that he’s being eulogized by senior members of Lashkar-e-Taiba and other jihadist groups shows how much al Qaeda is entangled in the Pakistani jihadist establishment. That’s its greatest strength today - it’s not alone but rather part of a syndicate of terrorists. It will continue to pose a threat as long as it has these Pakistani allies.
Pakistan is a very complicated country. And the raid on bin Laden’s hideout has only underscored how complicated it is. He clearly had a support structure that allowed him to hide out in Abbottabad for the last several years.
It’s strains credulity to believe that the Pakistani army didn't know Osama bin Laden was hanging out in a garrison city, which is home to three Pakistani regiments and a military academy. How high up in the Pakistani Army this information went is an open question.
But I think it’s safe to say that bin Laden and al Qaeda enjoyed a significant support base in Pakistan and that support base is still there. That’s what makes the al Qaeda problem in Pakistan a continuing, serious worry.
A lot of people on the Global Public Square comment threads expressed skepticism that Pakistan didn't know about the U.S. operation, arguing that it would be hard for the U.S. to fly right by this garrison without eliciting a stronger Pakistani response.
Conspiracy theories about what Pakistan knew and who in Pakistan knew what are going to be prevalent. You can count on it. Both John Brennan and Leon Panetta have said on the record that no Pakistani was given any advance warning of the raid for fear that if we did bin Laden would have been tipped off.
It’s a pretty damning indictment. If the president’s counter-terrorism advisor and the Director of Central Intelligence Agency, and soon to be Secretary of Defense, are right that they felt we couldn’t trust Pakistan on this information and it says a lot about the U.S.-Pakistani relationship today.
Can you elaborate on Pakistan’s - or at least some elements of the Pakistan government’s - interest in supporting bin Laden and fellow terrorists?
One has to start by recognizing Pakistan’s incredible complexities and contradictions. There’s little reason to believe Pakistani President Asif Zardari had any knowledge of where bin Laden was hiding. After all, his wife, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated with the help of al Qaeda according to the United Nations report on her death.
The jihadist sub-culture in Pakistan - most notably Lashkar-e-Taiba - has moved ideologically very close to al Qaeda in the last five or six years. We saw that in Mumbai in 2008 when Lashkar-e-Taiba attacked the targets of al Qaeda - Indians, yes, but also Westerners and Jews.
The Pakistani army is even more complicated. The Pakistan military officials rightly point out that they’re at war with part of the jihadist sub-culture in Pakistan and have 140,000 men deployed on the Afghan border - more than NATO does.
And yet at the same time it’s clear that the Pakistani military retains links with groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and that the Pakistani Intelligence Service was deeply involved in the planning of the Mumbai operation.
So we’re talking about a situation in which we have contradictions within contradictions. But it’s clear that since 9/11, al Qaeda made a high-priority on building relationships with Pakistani groups and in many ways al Qaeda over the last decade has been “Pakistanized.” It has seen Pakistan as its most important refuge and also its more important target - for obvious reasons.
Pakistan is a country severely stressed by the militancy within it and it’s the country with the world’s fastest growing nuclear arsenal. For al Qaeda it is the strategic prize.
How should and how will bin Laden’s death affect U.S. strategy and U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan?
I think this raid demonstrates that President Obama’s much-criticized AfPak policy produced the big success by focusing resources on looking for al Qaeda, which the president always said was his number one objective in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He succeeded in doing what the Bush Administration failed to do - getting high-value target number one.
The helicopters that flew into Pakistan staged from a base in Afghanistan. They couldn’t have done it any other way. I think that on the question of troop levels they should stay where they are, which is a function of what our commanders in the field believe is necessary based on the battlefield situation this summer and on conditions on the ground.
I think it would be premature to say that the death of Osama bin Laden means we can now have a substantial troop withdrawal in Afghanistan. The gains we’ve made in the last two years are still very fragile and I think we would be putting those at great risk.
The gains in combating terrorism or nation building?
The gains in fighting the Afghan Taliban, which has been Osama bin Laden’s ally for more than a decade and which has eulogized him as a martyr since his death and the gains in terms of trying to build an Afghan security force, army and police that can deal with the Taliban without substantial American combat forces. Those processes of degrading the Taliban and building up the Afghan army are showing signs of progress, but there’s still a long, long way to go.