U.S. special operations forces killed Osama bin Laden, but the struggle against international terrorism is far from over, and in the future bin Laden could become a highly emotional symbol of martyrdom, a catalyst to turn the populist turmoil sweeping the Middle East in dangerous fundamentalist directions.
Moreover, the fact that bin Laden was sheltering in a comfortable villa in a city associated with the Pakistan military understandably has generated alarm as well as anger in Washington. Expressions of outrage in Congress have begun and are sure to grow. The Obama administration’s decision to launch the raid without consulting Pakistan authorities clearly was wise.
Insightful UCLA Geography Professor Thomas Gillespie and his students two years ago produced a paper that predicted bin Laden was likely hiding in a city little more than 200 miles from Tora Bora, his last known location, a radius which includes Abbottabad.
Gillespie hypothesized that a city provided more security than a small village, using the methodology of his specialty, study of survival behavior of endangered species. This analysis implied Pakistan provided at least a somewhat sympathetic environment.
Pakistan has been challenging for Washington since the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Deeply rooted corruption has plagued the nation, including its intelligence professionals. There have been reports of government people, including members of ISI — the Inter-Services Intelligence agency — supporting Islamic radicalism. In the past, Washington was properly blunt in criticism of unrealistic Pakistani denial of a Taliban threat.
Early last year, however, the situation began to improve. Major Taliban leaders were taken down in Pakistan. Arrests of the Taliban’s Afghanistan provincial leaders Mullah Abdul Salam of Kunduz and Mullah Mir Mohammed of Baghlan, along with the capture of top Taliban military commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, provided dramatic, reassuring evidence of successful cooperation between American and Pakistani authorities.
These events confirmed extensive Taliban dependence on sanctuaries in Pakistan, which provide support for the guerrilla activity in Afghanistan, but also are a strong indication that at least some Pakistan security forces are working assertively to destroy the terrorists.
Implicitly, this good news also provided powerful evidence for much closer, more positive cooperation between Pakistan and United States intelligence and military services. The new rapport probably will survive Islamabad irritation about not being consulted or informed about the American raid on Abbottabad.
Unconventional warfare doctrines emphasize combating insurgents, in part by winning over the wider population. This was a conscious response to China leader Mao Zedong’s famous dictum that Communist revolutionaries were fish swimming in a sea of civilians. So far, there is no evidence the Taliban or al-Qaida is becoming broadly popular in Afghanistan or Pakistan.
Over the long term, Pakistan has proven a relatively reliable ally. The British-trained military is effective. During the Cold War, Pakistan was a conservative counterweight to neutralist India and Communist China.
Moving forward, Washington should publicly emphasize solidarity with Islamabad, while privately pressuring for elimination of terrorist collaborators.
Meanwhile, look for geographers and others who apply informed imagination to policy. This is especially important in our era of monotonous media speculation.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College.