Sunday's killing of al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden by a small, helicopter-borne team of U.S. Navy Seals could result in significant impacts on U.S. relations and strategy both in Pakistan, where the raid was carried out, and neighbouring Afghanistan, where it was launched, according to policy experts here.
Analysts agreed that the operation, which targeted a compound in a wealthy suburb of Islamabad without prior consultation with Pakistani officials, will likely worsen already-fraught ties with that country.
They also agreed that the operation's success offers President Barack Obama a chance to more fully embrace a counterterrorist (CT) strategy in Afghanistan, as opposed to the more ambitious counterinsurgency (COIN) and nation-building strategy pursued by the outgoing commander there, Army Gen. David Petraeus. If so, the 100,000 troops currently deployed there could be drawn down more quickly than has been anticipated.
Broadly hailed as a major victory for Washington in its nearly decade-long pursuit of al Qaeda's leadership, most analysts here also agreed that bin Laden's death could hasten the demise of al Qaeda itself, even as threats posed by its affiliates in the Islamic world are likely to persist for some time.
"With his demise, …it will take a long time for anyone to reclaim bin Laden's influence in the salafi terrorist circles, regardless of who and how quickly someone nominally replaces him at the head of al Qaeda," according to Vanda Felbab-Brown, a South Asia specialist at the Brookings Institution, who described his status and prestige among violent Islamists as "almost mythical".
"Bin Laden was the only al-Qaeda figure able to command the attention of a mainstream Arab audience," wrote Marc Lynch, an Arab public opinion expert at George Washington University, on his foreignpolicy.com blog Monday.
"He remained uniquely charismatic and able to frame al-Qaeda's narrative in ways which resonated with a broader Arab and Muslim audience," according to Lynch, who predicted that his death will only briefly distract the Arab media's attention from the popular uprisings that have both dominated the region over the past several months and further marginalised al Qaeda's appeal for violent resistance against the U.S. and the West.
Indeed, bin Laden's killing could actually give renewed momentum to the so-called "Arab Spring", according to Christopher Davidson, a Gulf expert at Britain's Durham University.
While bin Laden himself had become "little more than a figurehead" in recent years, "the impact of his death on authoritarian regimes in Middle Eastern and other Islamic countries will be significant, as he served an important and valuable role as a 'bogeyman' that could be wheeled out to justify …why brutal crackdowns and limits on political expression were often needed," he said.
For now, however, the biggest foreign policy implications of bin Laden's killing – and the completely unilateral manner in which it was carried out – appear to lie with Pakistan.
That bin Laden had been living for some time – possibly as many as five years – in an unusually large and heavily fortified compound in Abbottabad, a community 50 kms from Islamabad whose residents include a disproportionate number of retired senior military officers, confirmed to most analysts that at least some sectors of Pakistan's government provided effective safe haven for Washington's "Public Enemy Number One".
"We are very concerned that he was inside of Pakistan," one senior administration official told reporters in a telephone conference call Sunday night immediately after Obama announced bin Laden's death.
Public charges by senior U.S. government and military officials that Islamabad was not cooperating fully with Washington's counterterrorism efforts had already become increasingly bold in the weeks leading up to Sunday's raid. And despite assurances by both sides Monday that they remain close allies, the action seems certain to worsen relations, according to virtually all analysts here.
"It strains credulity to say that Pakistani officials did not know what was going on in the suburbs of Islamabad," said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), in a teleconference with reporters Monday.
"It suggests to me that this long-fraught and difficult relationship will be entering yet another difficult phase moving forward," he said, suggesting that Washington will find it hard to justify continued substantial aid to Islamabad – currently appropriated at 1.5 billion dollars and over one billion dollars a year in non- military and military aid, respectively – unless confidence can be restored.
"Pakistan essentially has a choice. It either partners with the United States much more completely, or it has to be prepared for the United States to act independently," according to Haass, who held senior policy positions in both the George H.W. and George W. Bush administrations.
"This will definitely worsen our relations with Pakistan," said Col. Pat Lang (ret.), who served as the top Mideast and South Asia officer at the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA). "But I don't see that we can do anything about it; it's the Pakistanis that are moving away from us and toward China, and that process will continue."
Lang also noted that the success of the cross-border strike against bin Laden may also provide an opportunity for Obama to reduce his commitment to a "nation-building" COIN strategy in Afghanistan in favour of a CT strategy that would require many fewer troops on the ground.
That assessment was echoed by Haass, who has been critical of the COIN strategy and its costs in blood and treasure in Afghanistan since Obama agreed with Petraeus in November 2009 to increase U.S. troop strength to 100,000 by late 2010.
"This will very much play into a growing debate as we move towards Jul. 1 about the proper trajectory of U.S. policy in Afghanistan in general and more specifically the rate of drawdown of U.S. forces," he said.
Obama pledged in November 2009 to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan as of Jul. 1, 2011, but Petraeus has reportedly argued for only a nominal reduction.
"I am hopeful that this provides closure to the American public for 9/11, and that closure provides some form of political backbone for members of Congress to become more engaged in the debate on the war," said Matthew Hoh, director of the Afghanistan Study Group, who was deployed to Afghanistan as a marine captain and then as a State Department official.
"I'm also hopeful it will provide political space to President Obama to allow him to pursue a serious de-escalation of the war," he added.
Patrick Cronin, a national security expert at the Center for a New American Security, was even more emphatic in terms of the potential strategic importance of the moment.
"The United States needs to further pivot from counterinsurgency, which feeds the perception of occupation, to counterterrorism, which requires a sharper discrimination between al Qaeda and the Taliban," he said.
But COIN advocates warned against such a move. Max Boot, a neo- conservative who has often given public voice to Petraeus's private views, worried Monday that "many Americans may decide that the threat from al-Qaeda is (now) gone and that we can afford to draw down in Afghanistan."
Noting the continued existence in the region of a number of "Islamist terrorist groups", he argued on the CFR website that a "comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan is still vital to prevent that country from falling to Osama bin Laden's fellow travellers."
Brookings' Felbab-Brown, meanwhile, argued that bin Laden's death could enhance chances for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
"Despite their separate structures and al Qaeda's limited influence over the Taliban's decision-making, bin Laden likely was a significant force against the Taliban engaging in strategic negotiations – not the least because the Taliban's disavowal of al Qaeda has been a critical precondition and/or the essential desired outcome of such negotiations," she wrote on the Brookings' website.
"Bin Laden's demise may create a more permissive environment for Taliban Central to make such a commitment, saying that whatever new leadership emerges after bin Laden's death is not the same old al Qaeda, with which the Taliban has not been willing to break for over 15 years."