In the aftermath of the U.S’s successful strike in Abbottabad, much attention has been given to what Osama bin Laden’s death means for the war on terror. Was bin Laden still an operational leader within al-Qaida, and if so, how much does his death hamper the group’s ability to conduct terrorism? Will jihadists still be able to recruit, fundraise, and coalesce under a single banner without their premier standard-bearer? How much safer is the United States with the world’s number one mass-killer moldering at the bottom of the ocean?
These are important questions, and the debate over how significant a blow al-Qaida has been dealt (my own answer is “serious, if not fatal”) deserves to continue. But the circumstances surrounding bin Laden’s death raise some tough questions of their own, the foremost of which is this: how is it that bin Laden, the most-wanted man in the world, the man the United States has been paying Pakistan over a billion dollars a year to help catch, managed to stay hidden right smack in the middle of Pakistan’s political and military elite?
This was no remote cave in a lawless region — bin Laden’s compound was a short jog from the Pakistan Military Academy, a military school equivalent to our own West Point — and a short drive from the capital of the country itself, Islamabad. Were Pakistan not so incompetent a state, we could be sure that they knew where bin Laden was from the start — at a minimum, bin Laden’s location must have been known to Pakistan’s notoriously perfidious Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate.
Ultimately, it does not matter whether Pakistan is a faithless ally or merely an inept one — it has proven itself unreliable and incapable of aiding U.S. interests. Our commander-in-chief may have limited ability to influence the success of missions like Abbottabad, but he does get to set the broad strokes of foreign policy. Regardless of how much credit Obama receives for bin Laden’s death, the discovery of the al-Qaida leader so embarrassingly close to Islamabad vindicates the president’s recent efforts to realign the United States away from Pakistan and toward India.
Strategic realignment in southwest Asia will not be without its costs. Although much has been done in the past few months to reorganize NATO’s logistics and run more of our supplies through Russia, it is hard to imagine success in defeating the Taliban without proactive support from Pakistan. In addition, our partner in Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, has shown himself to be an even greater scoundrel than his 2009 vote-rigging suggested. The problem is not just that he is corrupt — he consistently over-estimates his negotiating power and tries to extort more from the U.S. than his position warrants. As a means of cajoling the United States, he has suggested all manner of geopolitical alliances with which to replace us. China, Pakistan, and even the Taliban, Karzai imagines, could act as guarantors of his security. None of these partnerships are likely to materialize if the U.S. departs, yet it seems the only way to convince Mr. Karzai of that is to leave him alone for a few years and let him have a go at his fantasies.
Obama would do well, therefore, to make the best lemonade he can out of his lemons. The death of bin Laden gives the president the capital to dictate AfPak policy; he should use it to stick to his 2014 deadline for withdrawal from Afghanistan and accelerate our growing partnership with India.
The downside risk of leaving Pakistan and Afghanistan to the bed they have made is that some rival state — or a resurgent al-Qaida — will fill the void. The odds, however, are unlikely; China, the odds-on favorite for AfPak void filling, already has its hands full with one basket-case nuclear ally — they would do better to compete with the U.S. for India’s affections than adopt another North Korea to its west. Russia, given its Chechnya problem, is unlikely to forge any partnership that would be disturbing to America. Virtually all the Muslim countries worth mentioning are too pre-occupied with Middle East turmoil to begin an adventure elsewhere. And as for the prospect of al-Qaida filling the void, the 2014 departure date leaves NATO plenty of time to ensure that outcome remains a hypothetical.
If the geopolitical case for leaving Afghanistan were not strong enough, there are domestic reasons as well. Exploding entitlement programs and runaway spending have left Washington in a fiscal crunch. Operations in Afghanistan have cost the U.S. roughly $40 billion per year since their inception. While this figure may be a paltry sum in a world of multi-trillion dollar budgets, every little saving means more foregone taxes and more preserved services for American citizens.
There were plenty of turns that the Afghanistan war could have taken that would have led us to a better point than where we are today. Nonetheless, we stand at as opportune a moment as we are likely to see. There is uncertainty whenever any alteration is made to the status quo, but this uncertainty cannot be allowed to paralyze our decision-making. The time has come to leave Afghanistan.