Pakistan, Afghanistan ties will change post-bin Laden

McClatchy NewspapersMay 2, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Osama bin Laden's death is likely to alter U.S. relations with Pakistan profoundly, and may open a door to negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan, according to lawmakers in Congress and analysts of the war on terror.

Lawmakers look upon Pakistan with heightened suspicion and less trust now that U.S. Navy SEALs found and killed the terrorist leader in his fortified compound only about a mile from the nation's top military academy.

His outsized compound was found in Abbottabad, a town about 72 miles from Islamabad that's home to scores of retired Pakistani military officers. In essence, bin Laden was hiding in plain sight, some U.S. lawmakers said, and many suspect that at least some Pakistani authorities knew it.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., speaking on MSNBC Monday, called Pakistan "our number one foreign policy problem we face in the next decade."

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said lawmakers should pressure Pakistan through its wallet.

"It seems to me that this incident shows that Pakistan remains a critical, but uncertain ally in the fight against terror," Collins said. "We clearly need to keep the pressure on Pakistan, and one way to do that is to put more strings attached on the tremendous amount of military aid we give to that country."

Congress authorized over $2.5 billion in military aid to Pakistan for this year, plus nearly half that much in civilian aid.

Washington consistently has questioned the commitment and will of Pakistani officials to root out terrorism in their country. But punishing them could further strain an already a tense relationship, experts said.

The Pakistani government is upset that the Obama administration rejected its requests for a pause on drone missile attacks in northwest Pakistan and for a significantly reduced role for CIA operatives on the ground.

"The relationship was on rocky ground before this occurred," said Mark Quarterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a centrist policy group. "It's extraordinary to me that Osama bin Laden was in Abbottabad without the Pakistanis knowing — a lot of retired military people live there. It's hard to ignore that compound being built without the Pakistani military knowing about it. That raises a lot of questions about the U.S.-Pakistan relationship."

Michael O'Hanlon, a defense expert at the Brookings Institution, another centrist policy group, said that U.S.-Pakistan relations face a big challenge, and that Congress may take some action — most likely a reduction in U.S. aid or restrictions on it — to discipline a country it views as an indifferent partner.

"We're upset with them for not caring so much about where bin Laden is," O'Hanlon said. "We're at a crossroad with Pakistan. We're going to have to come up with additional alternatives and ideas."

Yet while bin Laden's death could harden U.S.-Pakistan relations, it also could open a hopeful new chapter in U.S.-Afghan relations, one that could yield peace negotiations, albeit slow ones, that includes talks with the Taliban.

"The death of bin Laden will be extra helpful in that regard," said Robert Finn, a Princeton University lecturer who was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan in 2002-03. "People are moving in that direction and this will help. It's a climate in which people are talking about talking."

Quarterman agreed, saying that bin Laden's demise "could lead to the real possibility of negotiations with the Afghan Taliban to end this war. One gets the sense that the Afghan government senses it was well."

Chris Gelpi, a Duke University political science professor, isn't as optimistic.

"Killing bin Laden seems to do little in terms of the reality on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan and has no impact on the Taliban," Gelpi said. "If Obama was looking for an excuse to get out of Afghanistan regardless of the situation on the ground, this would be it. But I find that unlikely."

O'Hanlon said that bin Laden's influence in Afghanistan and on the Taliban in recent years was largely spiritual, not strategic. Still, his death should have a positive impact on the war-torn nation.

"Hopefully, it will chip away at the mystique and aura around al Qaida," he said. "But it could be slow."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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