By Reva Bhalla

The death of Osama bin Laden is unlikely to have much of a tactical impact on the wider jihadist movement, but the killing does carry significant implications for U.S. foreign policy moving forward.

Let’s look at the most obvious fact.

Bin Laden was not killed up in the tribal borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan - he was killed in a highly secured compound, deep in Pakistani territory. The operation, carried out by U.S. Navy SEALs, appears to have been done independently by the United States and kept from the Pakistanis in order to avoid having the operation compromised, as the United States has been burned a number of times by Pakistani intelligence in pursuing high-value targets. U.S.-Pakistani distress is really nothing new, but the details of the operation do raise very important questions on the trajectory of U.S.-Pakistani relations moving forward. Pakistan knows very well, and the U.S. begrudgingly acknowledges, that the Pakistanis have vital intelligence links to al Qaeda and Taliban targets that determine the level of success the United States will have in this war. That is a reality the United States has to deal with and Pakistan uses those intelligence links as critical leverage in its relationship with Washington.

But what does Pakistan want out of its relationship with Washington?

Pakistan no doubt has been severely destabilized by the U.S. war in Afghanistan. That has in effect produced in indigenous Taliban insurgency in Pakistani territory. At the same time, Pakistan has a longer-term strategic need to hold onto an external power patron, like the United States, to fend against its much more powerful and larger neighbor to the East - India. And so that puts the United States and Pakistan in quite the dilemma. No matter how frustrated the United States becomes with Pakistani duplicity in managing the jihadist threat, the United States cannot avoid the fact that it needs to rely on Pakistan in order to forge a political understanding with the Taliban in Afghanistan in order to shape an exit from the war in Afghanistan.

In the short term, and Obama even carefully alluded to this in his speech, the United States needs, and more importantly expects, Pakistani cooperation in order to meet its goal of exiting the war in Afghanistan. But the Pakistanis, now feeling more vulnerable than ever, do not want this war to end feeling used and abused by the United States. The Pakistanis want the United States to not only recognize Pakistan’s sphere of influence in Afghanistan but also want that long-term strategic support from Washington.

The United States will continue conducting a complex balancing act on the subcontinent between India and Pakistan but really there’s very little hiding that deep level of distrust between Washington and Islamabad.


Strategic Implications of Osama bin Laden's Death is republished with permission of STRATFOR.


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