Obama, Osama, and What's Next In Pakistan

In the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, I am reminded of that great Navy SEAL commercial where there’s no words or music -- just footprints on a beach being washed away by the waves. It recalls George Orwell's observation that we sleep peaceably in our beds at night “because rough men stand ready to do violence on our behalf.” U.S. Special Forces are the best in the business, and the bin Laden operation shows the persistent lethality and reach of the U.S. military.

As for President Obama -- good for him. This is the first time he’s coming across like a true commander-in-chief. It’s his best moment. Some conservatives will no doubt temper their joy over bin Laden’s death with the thought that this will help President Obama in 2012. My advice: now is not the time for such thoughts. Rejoice. The election in 2012 will be about the $14 trillion debt and the price of skim milk. But this will certainly be a feather in Obama’s cap. The operation happened on his watch and so he will reap the requisite historical rewards. The full truth will emerge over time. For instance, the intelligence that led to bin Laden came from interrogating terrorists at those maligned secret CIA prisons and detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

So for now, enjoy the irony. Obama got Osama! If you told that to an American in the weeks after 9/11, they’d probably ask “Who’s Obama?” “Oh, he’s a guy in Chicago.” What a country.

Our serious attention should turn now to the broad strategic implications emanating from this raid. American policymakers will be forced to rethink the charade that is the U.S.-Pakistan alliance. President Obama stated that “our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding.” But is this true? If it is, how is it true? Why didn’t we forewarn the Pakistanis about this raid before it happened? Were we worried they would tip bin Laden off, leaving him enough time to escape?

Think about it. Osama bin Laden was the most wanted man in the world since the mid-1990s. There was a very large bounty on his head. He was particularly tall and recognizable. And he was found in a $1 million mansion 35 miles from Pakistan’s capital, in the same town as Pakistan’s West Point-like military academy. There is no way the Pakistanis were unaware of Osama bin Laden’s location.

As Steve Coll writes: “It stretches credulity to think that a mansion of that scale could have been built and occupied by bin Laden for six years without its coming to the attention of anyone in the Pakistani Army.”

President Asif Ali Zardari has a lot of explaining to do. A Pakistani intelligence official told CNN that Pakistan “passed along raw phone-tap data to the United States that eventually led to Osama bin Laden’s killing, but they failed to analyze or interpret the information themselves.” That sounds fishy and contrived.

It’s hard to imagine Osama bin Laden surviving in a cave for a decade. Who did we think he was, Cody Lundin?  No. It makes perfect sense that he was being protected. There was bin Laden’s videotaped message to the United States on the eve of the 2004 presidential election, which clearly looked like it was recorded in a studio. Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, has been known as a “state within a state” for some time. It supports Mullah Omar’s Taliban, the deadly Haqqani network, and is said to have orchestrated the barbaric Mumbai attacks in 2008.

So where should we go from here?