Osama bin Laden's body has now been consigned to the Arabian Sea as the kingdom of Saudi Arabia was not interested in accepting his remains. His death, no doubt, has brought a large measure of relief to US security and intelligence officials who had been hunting him long before the terrible events of September 11, 2001. Despite this understandable sense of reprieve, it would be cavalier to assume that al Qaeda will now find itself in disarray thanks to bin Laden's demise. An unintended consequence of bin Laden's slaying is opening a window for the US to seriously pressure his host country, Pakistan, to end its opportunistic dalliance with terrorist groups.
Regardless of whether one is inclined to agree with experts who suggest that al Qaeda remains a tight-woven organization or others who suggest that it's a loosely connected set of ideological fellow travelers, the threat of al Qaeda remains. So does the threat from associated jihadi groups that have functioned as unacknowledged arms of Pakistan in Afghanistan and India.
Pakistan's security and intelligence agencies, it is well known, have long had a shadowy relationship with a host of terrorist and insurgent organizations. Several of them, most notably the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), have had ties of various sorts to al Qaeda. Some of these groups, notably LeT and JeM, had been spawned to exacerbate an indigenous insurgency in Indian-controlled Kashmir. Over the past decade they have indeed wreaked havoc within India. The LeT spearheaded the swarming terrorist attack on Mumbai in November 2008, culminating in the deaths of more than 160 hapless individuals.
Despite the discovery of bin Laden's retreat, it would be foolish to assume that Pakistan's security and intelligence agencies, which have long used these organizations to pursue a strategy of asymmetric warfare against its much stronger and larger adversary, India, will abruptly rein them in forever. At best, there might be a strategic pause in their nefarious operations to allow the dust from Abbottabad to settle and avoid drawing further unwanted attention to Pakistan and its security apparatus.
Consequently, it can be safely assumed that the regional dimensions of the terrorist menace will see further incarnations in the foreseeable future if not in immediate term. Of course, it's entirely possible that some rogue elements who no longer wish to heed their master's leash may well strain at the bit and proceed to carry out an attack or two for the sake of sheer vengeance. These attacks, however, may not be confined to easy targets in the subcontinent. Instead they may well be far from its shores. Such an argument is far from chimerical.
In recent years, both these organizations have witnessed "mission creep." Their intransigence is no longer confined toward Indian security forces in Kashmir or even soft targets in India. Instead their targets now include American and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in Afghanistan. Through their ties to al Qaeda they may even be in a position to extend their reach to other parts of the world, including key European cities. Indeed only the vigilance of intelligence and security agencies prevented LeT attacks on France, Germany and the United Kingdom in September 2010. Furthermore, the failed bomb plot in the heart of Times Square in New York City last year was also traced back to Pakistan.
It strains credulity to accept the argument that Pakistan's vast security establishment was wholly unaware of bin Laden's lair in the midst of a garrison town. According to credible news reports, key members of the highest echelons of Pakistan's military had visited the town in the past few weeks. Given the extraordinary security precautions that are taken when top military brass are on tour, the suggestion that the country's vast intelligence apparatus was unaware of bin Laden's presence borders on the ludicrous.
The deft claim of Pakistan's foreign-policy establishment that it, too, shares the world's delight in seeing bin Laden's end sadly also lacks credibility. Yet their members and counterparts in that country's security apparatus know only too well that Pakistan is unlikely to face either significant scrutiny or dramatic external pressure to forthrightly end all ties to terror and embark on a systematic crackdown on the sources thereof.
This knowledge stems from two vital assets that Pakistan has come to count on: The first is the accident of geography. Its proximity to Afghanistan makes it, at least for the time being, the only viable land route for the provision of logistics to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. There's growing US and allied frustration and displeasure over Pakistan's uncertain commitment to dismantling all terror networks and unwillingness to end sanctuaries for the Afghan Taliban. Yet in the absence of an alternative supply route to the ISAF, only a limited amount of pressure can be brought to bear on the Pakistani military.
The second is Pakistan's possession of nuclear weapons. Carrying out a daring but carefully calibrated incursion into Pakistani territory with the specific aim of seizing or killing Osama bin Laden is one matter. Contemplating a wider conventional operation into Pakistani territory to destroy Taliban hideouts could pose other dangers. This again calls for circumspection in dealing with Pakistan despite its obvious malfeasances.
Obviously, without US leadership and military capabilities, its allies, however, disenchanted with Pakistan's security establishment, lack the requisite ability to act alone. Secure in this knowledge, there is little likelihood that Pakistan's security planners will undertake a much-needed course correction on the terrorism front.
Given these constraints, what might the global community do to deal with the terrorist menace stemming from this part of the world? Obviously, the international community must not allow Pakistan's military apparatus to hold the world hostage as it seeks its perennial goal of establishing a bridgehead in Afghanistan to satisfy its desire for strategic depth against India through reliance on terrorist proxies. There is really one policy option that could actually induce a change in behavior, but one that would require challenging popular and deep-seated assumptions. This would entail reminding the Pakistani military that their access to a range of weaponry and financial assistance could be in jeopardy if some much-needed policy changes are not quickly in the offing.
The only country which can take the lead on this policy shift, of course, is the United States. For a decade the US has sought to bribe, persuade, cajole and on occasion, hector Pakistan to alter its policies. The results of these efforts have been limited at best. In the absence of a drastic reappraisal of existing policy strategies toward Pakistan, there is little reason to believe that its feckless military will make a genuine volte-face. Instead it will continue to plead helplessness, claim domestic difficulties or blithely deny involvement with elements of terror. The costs of such continued dissembling are far too high for the region or the world to pay. In the wake of this highly successful, remarkably daring and skillfully executed military operation against Osama bin Laden, the moment is indeed at hand to force a change in the Pakistani military's continuing dalliance with terror.