THE 9/11 attacks had turned the world upside down but the death of the architect of those attacks have not evoked a response even remotely comparable to the US attacks in September 2001.
In fact, Bin Laden’s killing has not had any significant impact anywhere except in Pakistan. For over a year now, since Bin Laden’s killing by US forces, Pakistan has been trying to find a way to overcome the embarrassing implications and repercussions of the incident. A recent statement by Pakistan’s federal defence minister about the country’s efforts leading to US intelligence agencies reaching Bin Laden’s hideout is an attempt at damage control.
A Pakistani security official’s briefing to some foreign journalists on the role of Pakistan’s intelligence in reaching Bin Laden was a similar but belated effort to try and clear the country’s position. Pakistan had lost that opportunity in the immediate aftermath, when Barack Obama publicly thanked Pakistan for its support. But the impact of Bin Laden’s death was miscalculated by the Pakistani security establishment.
The fear of revenge attacks by Al Qaeda and its affiliates and misperceptions of a public backlash in Pakistan and across the Muslim world were the leading factors that contributed to their assessment. The wave of retaliatory attacks apprehended by the establishment never materialised.
Contrary to various assessments, Pakistan faced few revenge attacks from Al Qaeda, although the number was higher compared to other parts of the world. Attacks claimed by the Taliban as a response to Bin Laden’s death included the May 2011 attack on Frontier Constabulary (FC) headquarters in Shabqadar area of Charsadda district, as well as attacks on US regional assistant security officers in Peshawar amongst others. The most devastating and embarrassing attack was the one that targeted Pakistan’s Mehran naval base in Karachi, where two PC-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft were also destroyed. Pakistan’s major security threat today comes from the Punjabi and tribal Taliban who have transformed into Al Qaeda franchises. A centrally controlled leadership might not contribute enough to restrain these home-grown militants from pursuing their agendas.
The Al Qaeda ideology and training have made these local groups more lethal. They are now strategically more diverse and their targets have also expanded beyond conventional sectarian motives to anti-state ones and whenever they find favourable circumstances they can turn into global jihadis.
Although Bin Laden had lost operational control of Al Qaeda before he was killed, his purpose had been served by that point. The militants no longer need a charismatic personality to keep their structures intact.
As far as the public reaction is concerned, findings of opinion surveys by some international forums reveal that the death of Bin Laden has not contributed much to changing the people’s threat perceptions. Their threat matrix still fluctuates between the US and Al Qaeda. The common man still perceives the US as an external threat and Al Qaeda and its affiliates as an internal threat to the country.
If asked to choose between the two, they may be inclined towards Al Qaeda. The factors that had contributed to the security establishment’s assessment have proved wrong and the country is still facing the consequences.
The first casualty of the May 2, 2011 incident was the Pakistan-US relationship, and although both sides are now trying to repair ties, civil-military relations in Islamabad fell to their lowest ebb, which ultimately led to the so-called memogate scandal. It seems that the political government has come out of the post-Bin Laden crisis and the security establishment has made compromises so far. The positive outcome of the crisis has been parliament’s active involvement in foreign policy formation.
Although parliament has not come up with any creative policy options, and even failed to provide broader principles for foreign policy mainly touching upon the tactical issues in the perspective of Pakistan-US ties, its ‘interference’ in major state policy formation is nevertheless encouraging and needs to be sustained.
In a broader perspective, Bin Laden’s death did not change the dynamics of international security challenges. Irrespective of the peaks and valleys in the level of threats, terrorism only changes its form and the challenge very much remains. The US cannot declare victory even after its decade-long war on terrorism.
The battle in Afghanistan is still testing Nato forces. Pakistan is also in a dilemma of which threat to prioritise; the conventional one or the challenge posed by non-state actors? Al Qaeda itself faces many challenges as the process it had triggered seems to have gotten out of hand.
The documents recovered from Bin Laden’s hideout show that he had lost operational control over Al Qaeda for all intents and purposes and was dependent upon a courier for communication with his fellows. This could be one factor that led to the decentralisation of Al Qaeda.
Bin Laden’s importance for the militants was symbolic and his authority was supreme although he was not exercising it. Ideology is the major bond that glues together the Al Qaeda franchise, and Bin Laden was the glue for Al Qaeda and its affiliates.
The Al Qaeda central command now depends on affiliates and allies, who often have only peripheral or ephemeral ties to either the core cadre or the affiliated groups. The post-Bin Laden era has not brought the sort of optimism for the international community that was expected. But for Pakistan, the key test is one of how to develop or strike a balance between challenges and responses.
The writer is editor of the quarterly research journal Conflict and Peace Studies.