After Bin Laden

Local experts discuss how one raid reshapes the world

Dan Grant (r) in Kabul, 2003:
Dan Grant (r) in Kabul, 2003: "To those that say that capturing and killing bin Laden really won't have much of an effect because it's purely symbolic. Well, symbolism's important." (Photo courtesy of Dan Grant)

There has been a lot of armchair quarterbacking of what the death of Osama bin Laden means to the world. So we thought we would ask some real experts: Kamran Bokhari, an analyst with Austin-based risk assessment firm Stratfor, and international reconstruction expert Dan Grant

Having been present at the famous 2003 loya jirga that created Afghanistan's post-Taliban constitution, Grant knows Afghanistan. He was sure there was a big sigh of relief in Kabul that bin Laden was caught outside of Afghanistan's borders, but especially that he was caught inside their eastern neighbor. "Pakistan has been trying to turn Afghanistan into a client state for the better part of 30 years," Grant said, so the embarrassment caused by bin Laden's location could squash what the Afghans see as Pakistani meddling inside their borders.

It also means that Taliban commanders can re-start negotiations for a power-sharing deal: For some, it is an opportunity to end the fighting, while others may be more wary of drawing even greater ire from the US. Grant said, "The Obama administration could use this as an opportunity to accelerate the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. They'll still follow the same trajectory, it just might go on a faster path." This is unlikely to be a rush decision: Grant described the administration's foreign policy as "judicious and methodical … and I don't think that will change. I just think they will have more room to maneuver."

The spotlight now is directly on Pakistan. Bokhari said, "Serious observers knew that bin Laden was living somewhere in Pakistan. The idea was that he was somewhere along the border areas with Afghanistan. But the fact that he was found in a secure compound about two hours drive from the capitol of the country has really sent shock waves."

The US and Pakistan

So how will the raid affect the relationship between Washington and Islamabad? "It's too soon to tell," said Grant, "But there are a few directions this could go. One is that this could be an opportunity for the US government to take a harder line with Pakistan. Not necessarily abandoning it, but definitely becoming more direct and less compromising."

While technically allies in the war on terror, US-Pakistani relations are rocky to say the least. "Even before Osama bin Laden, the situation was pretty bad," Bokhari said. It was a two-way flow of bad blood. Washington was painfully aware that there were elements of the Pakistani civilian government and intelligence community that either backed al Qaeda or regarded it as politically useful. Military Times is reporting that the Blackhawk helicopter used during the raid may have been a stealth modified variant – a seeming sign that Washington wanted to keep Pakistan's intelligence service out of the loop. On the other hand, there are Pakistanis angry over the use of American UAV Predator drones within their borders. Then, Bokhari said, there was "the Raymond Davis affair. He was the CIA contractor arrested by the Pakistanis for killing two of their citizens, then he was released two weeks later as part of a deal."

Those incidents feed into a spectrum of anti-American sentiment in Pakistan. On one end are secular nationalists, who resent US interference in Pakistani politics. "On the extreme fringe end," Bokhari said, "there are those that think like al Qaeda, there are those that would like to fight." In between those two positions lie the bulk of the population. For those people, he added, "They say, 'We oppose the United States because of its policies, not because of what it stands for and not because of its people."

Obviously, the US is demanding to know how bin Laden had been living in the shadow of the Pakistani equivalent of Fort Bragg. Obviously, there are a lot of Pakistanis who want the same answers. The question is whether the Pakistani administration is capable of mounting a credible and meaningful inquiry. "In theory, those entities are in place, on paper and in a formal sense," said Bokhari. "There is parliament, there is a civilian government. The military establishment has its own mechanisms of oversight." However, there is already a major internal struggle over who will lead the investigation. Bokhari said, "The intelligence community and the army have dominated the Pakistani state for a long time, and they're not about to bring themselves under or subjugate themselves to civilian oversight."

The fate of al Qaeda

So where is al Qaeda in all of this?

That depends what al Qaeda you're talking about. There is al Qaeda the tight-knit organization built by bin Laden; Then there is al Qaeda the movement, represented by its loose affiliates; And then there is what Bokhari described as al Qaeda as part of the political landscape.

Grant said, "To those that say that capturing and killing bin Laden really won't have much of an effect because it's purely symbolic. Well, symbolism's important." It is not just that international Islamist terrorism has lost its biggest figurehead, but how it was done: "It is a hell of a thing to be able to find a guy, isolate him, go deep into Pakistani territory, kill him, remove a treasure trove of information and get out without the loss of a single American life. That is extraordinary, and it is a compliment to this administration and the people who organized and carried it off." That information grab may be as important as the death of al Qaeda's leader. Grant said, "Evidence seems to suggest that bin Laden had much more involvement in the day-to-day operational command-and-control and execution of world-wide al Qaeda activities, much more so than was publicly thought to be the case."

Yet the death of bin Laden has to be separated from the fate of al Qaeda. First, that requires rebuilding the misconceptions about al Qaeda's role in the world. Bokhari said, "Within the wider Muslim world, the Islamists – and here we don't mean Jihadists but all Islamists – most Islamists are non-violent. And within the Islamist landscape, the Jihadists are a further sub-set." Even within Jihadis, al Qaeda is a smaller sub-entity, and Bin Laden's shooting comes when al Qaeda is already a weakened force. "For the past ten years, al Qaeda has really been over-rated. In fact, Jihadism has been over-rated."

Move to the strategic view for a moment: "Had Osama bin Laden been eliminated two, three or even four years after 9-11, it would have been a big deal," Bokhari said, However, since 2005, "al Qaeda has ceased to be a strategic level threat to the international community. What I mean by that is that they have lost the ability to pull off attacks like Madrid, London, 9-11 [and] the Bali bombings." Rather than being an international strategic entity, it has now become a series of tactical, localized threats in specific countries across North Africa, Somalia and Yemen. Even at that level it has suffered major defeats. For example, "The Saudis within 18 months took care of their own insurgency when that broke out in early 2003," Bokhari said.

What happened to "al Qaeda prime" of bin Laden and his coterie?" It had become a largely symbolic entity that fits into a larger but diffuse structure of affiliates, allies and deals of convenience. Bokhari said, "They traded away operational control of the movement in exchange for physical control of their persons. So what they were effectively reduced to was issuing audio or video tapes, and in the last few years, those had become fewer and fewer."

So what of al Qaeda's attempts to become a permanent part of political thinking? Under what has been dubbed al Qaeda's strategy to the year 2020, strategist Muhammed Ibrahim Makkawi laid out the idea that al Qaeda needed to transfer from being a group or movement into a full-fledged philosophy – the landscape that Bokhari described. However, that landscape has already shifted around them, threatening to render both the group and the movement an irrelevancy. "While everyone has been writing about Jihadism, the Arab world has been moving in another direction," Bokhari said. "Just look at what is happening in the Middle East. It has nothing to do with al Qaeda. In other words, the masses of the Arab world, the core audience of the message of al Qaeda, is looking at Western-style political reforms and democracy and political reform."

Grant described those revolts as "largely secular or nationalist in nature. … There may have been religious elements as part of them, but more along the lines of when there's popular revolt anywhere, when everyone comes to the party." Those revolts and demonstrations must have been particularly galling to bin Laden, who sought to replace the existing governments with theocracies. He got his revolutions: They just rejected his philosophies. Grant said, "To see this happen, and for him to reduced to hiding out in a house for five years, only to be cornered and killed, I can think of no better just revenge."

Look to the East: The Indian Border

While much of the world is looking at how this affects Arabic Jihadism, analysts are turning their eyes away from Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. On the subcontinent, the big fear is a shooting match between India and Pakistan, which would make Afghanistan look like a side show. The two nations were on the brink of war over Kashmir in 2002, and the temperature got dangerously elevated again in 2008 after the Mumbai terrorist attacks - attacks that India has laid at the feet of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba group. So what does this change in US-Pakistani relations mean for the high-friction situation between two of the region's nuclear powers?

"India has its concerns, to put it mildly, about anti-Indian terrorists finding safe harbor in Pakistan," said Bokhari. "Now the US has taken out bin Laden, and the way it was done, without any involvement of the Pakistani state, the Indians feel emboldened. 'If the United States can do it, then why can't we?'" That is where a cold chill may be running up some backs in diplomatic circles. If India decided to mimic the US' unilateral action, Bokhari said, "I have no doubt that it would lead to war." However, so far "the Indians are using the US action to put pressure on Pakistan. It shapes perception in Pakistan, puts them on the defensive."

Grant was doubtful that India would engage in any cross-border adventurism. "It's one thing for the United States to go in after one guy in particular who everyone on Earth knows that we are after, versus tit-for-tat engagements between India and Pakistan." He added, "There may be some sword rattling, but I doubt they're going to follow through."

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Terrorism, Afghanistan, Stratfor, Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, Dan Grant, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Mumbia, Kamran Bokhari, Kashmir

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