On the heels of Sunday’s dramatic assassination of Osama bin Laden, two American military experts expressed concern that bin Laden’s death would spark violent retaliatory attacks against the United States at a panel Wednesday at the Institute of Politics.
“There is likely to be a threat spike in the next weeks and months because Al Qaeda will be trying to avenge the leader’s death as well as prove that they are still a viable organization,” said Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former American intelligence officer and senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
In the coming weeks, Mowatt-Larssen said that the U.S. will be engaged in a “race against time” to take advantage of a trove of intelligence that was collected at bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan before Al Qaeda changes its operations.
Some critics of the Obama administration have raised questions about the legality of Sunday’s operation, which was conducted without the knowledge of Pakistani officials. But Robert W. Kinder, a former senior advisor for the International Security Assistance Force and current student at the Harvard Kennedy School, said that the U.S. has sent a strong message to other countries that if a target is sufficiently important it is willing to set aside concerns over violating a country’s sovereignty and launch a strike.
“I think that a precedent has been set,” Kinder said. “If the stakes are high enough, the U.S. can send a group of soldiers in with or without Pakistan’s permission.”
But Mowatt-Larssen said that the search for bin Laden was a very specific case and one that the decision to launch the strike was not taken lightly by the Obama administration.
“There is this image of the U.S. cowboy flouting international law, but these are very hard decisions. You are putting your own people at risk, and it’s really a last resort. The default is to work collaboratively whenever possible,” Mowatt-Larssen said.
Beyond the current terror threat, all of the panelists raised concerns about the future of U.S.-Pakistani relations after the killing of bin Laden.
Wajahat Khan, a Pakistani journalist and fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center, warned against the dangers of the U.S. withdrawing from Afghanistan with the expectation that domestic political actors would resolve internal tensions. Khan said the U.S. followed such a strategy to disastrous results when it shifted attention away from Afghanistan in the 1980s after aiding local forces—including bands led by bin Laden—wage a successful guerilla campaign against the Soviet Union.
“All of this started when [the U.S.’s] disengagement with that part of the world started,” Khan said. “Leaving Pakistan in charge of Afghanistan in the eighties is analogous to leaving a heroine addict in charge of the drug dealer.”
As the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan becomes more complex, Khan said that there is a possibility of Pakistan growing closer to China. Khan said that the Pakistani military, which views itself as a caretaker of the Pakistani state and wields significant influence with the government, has grown frustrated with American policymakers who, he said, have shifted their policies between presidential administrations.
“The Chinese have succeeded where the Americans have failed,” Khan said. “Americans have an in-built inconsistency because of their democratic setup because their policies have to change ... The Chinese have been more consistent.”
Students said that after hearing the panelists, they were concerned about the future of U.S.-Pakistan relations.
“I think this will lead to a huge blow to the trust between the two countries,” said Erum K. Sattar, a student at the Law School. “And trust is the bedrock of any relationship.”
—Staff writer Monica M. Dodge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.