A year after U.S. Navy commandos killed Osama bin Laden in a daring predawn raid on his Abbottabad compound, we know a number of astonishingly intimate details about the world’s most wanted man: He was obsessed with killing U.S. President Barack Obama. He spent hours flipping through satellite channels searching for coverage of himself on television. His youngest and eldest wives, who lived on different floors of the home, fought endlessly, the former suspecting the latter would betray their mutual husband.
But what’s more striking is how much we don’t know. Why did the bin Laden family, for instance, decide to put down roots in Abbottabad? How did Mr. bin Laden manage to hide out for six years in a town that housed the Pakistani equivalent of West Point? Was the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency, truly ignorant of Mr. bin Laden’s whereabouts or simply incompetent in uncovering his lair? Which is worse?
One year after Operation Neptune Spear, al-Qaeda still exists, though in a more fractured form. The group’s ability to carry out large-scale attacks has been compromised. Meanwhile, America’s counterterrorism campaign is gradually shifting from Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan to Yemen and the Horn of Africa. The shaky alliance between the West, led by the United States, and Pakistan, has been plunged into a crisis from which it has not yet recovered. Since Mr. bin Laden’s death, each side has viewed the other with simmering suspicion. But perhaps the most enduring legacy of Mr. bin Laden’s killing is that no one who helped him hide for so long, essentially in plain sight, has been held accountable – and that may have poisoned relations between Pakistan and its Western allies for the foreseeable future.
Pakistan has always denied having any knowledge of Mr. bin Laden’s presence on its soil, and if Washington found a smoking gun, it never said so. Still, the killing laid bare each side’s worst beliefs about the other. But neither can make a definitive break.
“In Washington there was a realization that we have been taken for fools by the Pakistanis,” said Stephen Cohen, a senior fellow of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. “The Pakistanis think we’re still using them the way we would a Kleenex or a condom. We use them, then throw them away.”
Yet at a time when the West has one foot out the door of Afghanistan and the region is facing the prospect of increased instability, the relationship between Washington and Islamabad is especially crucial.
But it has all but fallen apart:
* Last September, Admiral Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate that the ISI had aided the Haqqani network in its attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul that month, describing the insurgents as “a veritable arm” of Pakistan’s spy agency.
* Two months later, a NATO air strike killed 26 Pakistani soldiers at two military outposts. Pakistan retaliated by severing joint operations and intelligence sharing, rejecting the results of a subsequent U.S. investigation that found the Pakistani military was at least partly to blame for the deaths. Islamabad cut off NATO supply lines into Afghanistan and barred the United States from using its Shamsi Airbase for CIA drone operations.
* In March the two countries tried to reboot their relationship, but major issues remain. The CIA drone campaign is unpopular among the public and Pakistani authorities are under increased pressure to ban the strikes. For Washington, however, the strikes have been one of their most effective weapons in their war against jihadists.
The trouble with the poisoned relationship comes right back to Afghanistan – where the Taliban once provided Mr. bin Laden sanctuary, where he declared war on America and where he plotted the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.Analysts argue the most effective way to ensure Afghanistan’s stability as the West pulls out combat troops, is for it to normalize its relationship with Pakistan, on which it still relies for help in cracking down on militant groups.
“The West’s prospects against those groups, like it or not, are strongly dependent on Pakistani government co-operation. Even the Afghans realize this,” said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defence policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Both sides have incurred costs to their relationship as a result of the raid, but there is a need to move on,” he said.
In the immediate wake of Mr. bin Laden’s killing, many anti-Pakistan officials in Afghanistan felt vindicated after nearly a decade spent insisting to their foreign backers that Pakistan was sheltering the al-Qaeda chief and other jihadist leaders. His death, however, did almost nothing to change the conflict on the ground in Afghanistan.
Mr. bin Laden had lost much of his influence in hiding, having difficulty sending even the simplest of instructions to his network. His scheme to assassinate Mr. Obama, by somehow shooting down Air Force One, was delusional, experts say.
Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, has become a shadow of its former self. Disconnected and disparate, its offshoots were morphing into franchises beyond his control in Yemen, Somalia and other parts of Africa even before Mr. bin Laden’s death. He is said to have paced the floors of his Abbottabad compound musing about “rebranding” al-Qaeda to counter its image problem.
“His demise did not really make one bit of difference inside Afghanistan,” said Omar Samad, an Afghanistan expert at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington who served as Afghanistan’s ambassador to Canada for five years and then to France.
Afghan leaders, he said, still hold Pakistan responsible for fuelling jihadist cells in Afghanistan. The Haqqani network, which has carried out brazen attacks on Kabul and other strategic cities, is based in Miranshah, North Waziristan, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan along the Afghan border. Mr. Samad argued that Western governments should use a “toolbox” of diplomacy and economic incentives with Pakistan to “make sure extremists and jihadis can no longer find sanctuary there.”
“The relationship has become incredibly turbulent, and we will grapple with this problem in Afghanistan for a long time to come,” said Mr. Samad, who believes it is time for all sides to move on.
Mr. bin Laden’s surviving family already has. The Abbottabad compound has been destroyed. Last Friday, Pakistan deported his three widows and 11 children to Saudi Arabia, the country where their late husband and father was born.