Why They Killed Osama bin Laden Now

Nitin Pai
Pax Indica
Opinions - IN

You might remember a Shekhar Suman gag on Zee TV's Movers and Shakers several years ago: An angry George W Bush announces that the United States will bomb the place where Osama bin Laden is found to be hiding.

Hearing this, Vajpayee looks under his bed, pauses, and with a characteristic flick of his wrist says: "Thank God! He isn't here!"

Over in Rawalpindi, General Musharraf looks under his bed, sighs in relief, and says: "Thank God! He is still here!"

Shekhar Suman, more than most Western analysts, got the plot right. Keeping Osama bin Laden out of Washington's hands was vital in order to prevent having to publicly deal with revelations of how the Pakistani military-jihadi complex not only was connected with al-Qaeda, but might also have been involved in the conspiracy behind the 9/11 attacks.

Moreover, when the Pakistani military leadership was getting paid hundreds of millions of dollars per year to hunt bin Laden down, it made little sense to give him up quickly. As early as October 2001, a month after 9/11, wags in Islamabad coined the phrase "al-Faida" (the profit) in anticipation of the rewards Pakistan would reap for joining the war on terror that it had played a part in creating. Pakistan was in an international doghouse at that time. Its economy was crumbling under the weight of sanctions imposed by the international community for having carried out nuclear tests in 1998. Its government, then under General Musharraf's military dictatorship, was seen as odious, not least for supporting the original Taliban regime in Kabul. It was barely surviving on Saudi largesse until September 2001, when General Musharraf's ditching of one set of allies for another changed his country's fortunes -- from being nearly toast, Pakistan was the toast.

Just how much was the al-Faida worth? According to data compiled by K Alan Kronstadt, of the US Congressional Research Service, between 2002 and 2010, US direct overt aid and military reimbursements to Pakistan amounted to $19.6 billion, of which $13.3 billion was for security-related heads. Obviously, if there is "direct, overt" aid, there is likely to be "indirect, covert" aid. There is also the money from other countries and loans from the IMF. Because the military-jihadi complex dominates the Pakistani political economy, it is the primary beneficiary of this largesse. Between 2002 and 2008, my estimate suggests that the business of shipping US and NATO containers from Karachi to Kabul alone made $500m per year for the military establishment and $300m per year for the militant groups. Why would they want the gravy train to stop?

They wouldn't, but the Obama administration had other ideas. It made three changes that caused the Pakistani military establishment to redo its sums. First, the Kerry-Lugar-Berman legislation made it harder for the military to capture the funds. It also came with more strings attached. Second, the Obama administration increased the number of drone strikes against targets in Pakistan, while increasing pressure on the Pakistani army to go after the taliban groups in its tribal areas. Finally, by indicating a timeline for withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, Washington triggered the endgame.

With the Obama adminstration taking a harder line on the Pakistani army, the al-Faida from the war against al-Qaeda began to be less attractive. At the same time, with a US withdrawal in sight, Afghanistan began to look more attractive as a prize. For General Kayani to stand a chance for claiming this prize, it is necessary for President Obama to prevail over other members of his administration and get US troops out earlier.

Playing the bin Laden card is a brilliant way to achieve this outcome. Although US officials claim they did it without Pakistan's knowledge or permission, it is hard to believe he could be found without the Pakistani military establishment permitting it.

Either way, bin Laden's elimination provides the right political cover for President Obama to declare victory and order his troops out of Afghanistan. Once withdrawal starts, President Obama will be politically dependent on General Kayani to ensure that it takes place in a manner that doesn't damage his re-election prospects. Expect the latter to use the leverage to ensure that the military-jihadi complex gets its proxies into the government in Kabul.

As I wrote on my blog yesterday, "the United States is unlikely to punish Pakistan for the decade of duplicity, subterfuge and violence that consumed innumerable lives and astounding amounts of money." President Obama will not ask why Osama bin Laden was living it up in Abbottabad, a bus stop away from the Pakistan Military Academy, and not in a cave somewhere in Waziristan. You won't find Washington too interested in confronting General Kayani on when bin Laden moved in there and why his presence went undetected for so long.

Rather, Washington will seek plausible reassurances that after it leaves, Afghanistan will not play host to terrorists targeting the United States. It will place some anti-Taliban and anti-Pakistan Afghans into positions of power in Kabul to balance Pakistan's proxies. It might retain some troops and drones in Afghanistan just in case it needs to use a stick. That apart, it will accede to Pakistani demands that Kabul be made over to a pro-Pakistani regime.

In time, the Pakistani military-jihadi complex will seek to reconquer Afghanistan (called "gaining strategic depth") with China's support or connivance.

We are staring at a return of the 1990s. This is a bad outcome for Afghans, Pakistanis and Indians. The military-jihadi complex will gain in strength. Pakistan's civilian government will be more powerless. It will only be a facade with which to seek foreign assistance. It will also be the whipping boy, blamed for the worsening state of Pakistan. Hundreds of thousands of triumphant militants will need to be given new targets. Compared to the early 1990s, it is far more difficult today---strategically and operationally---to push them across into India. Yet, the interests of the military-jihadi complex and the absence of a miracle job-machine will pose a serious threat to India's national security. We may be, at best, two summers away from an escalation of the proxy war in Kashmir and elsewhere.

Nitin Pai is founder & fellow for geopolitics at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati - The Indian National Interest Review, a publication on strategic affairs, public policy and governance. He blogs at The Acorn and is active on Twitter too.