(I don’t need to link to anything, right? We all know what I’m talking about?)
For some time now, it’s been clear that the two most-likely places Osama bin Laden could be hiding are (a) somewhere in Pakistan; or (b) in the ground. Bin Laden had kidney disease, and needed access to modern medical facilities to survive for a lengthy period. Since he couldn’t just fly in for dialysis and then fly back to his cave, that meant he had to be hiding somewhere that such facilities were readily available. We already knew that he had fled to Pakistan immediately after the battle at Tora Bora, and Pakistan provided a better-connected network of al-Qaeda-sympathizers than probably any other country. So the odds were, if he wasn’t already dead, that he was in Pakistan.
And that’s where he turned out to be. Not only in Pakistan, but in a walled compound a stone’s throw from Pakistan’s military academy.
That location strongly suggests that the Pakistani military, and certainly Pakistani intelligence, knew where he was. Their behavior makes a great deal of sense. There was real political risk to simply handing bin Laden over to America given the level of emotional support for al Qaeda and the level of distrust for and even hatred of America within Pakistan. But bin Laden was himself a threat to the Pakistani state; they certainly wanted him neutralized. And America paid Pakistan a great deal of money to look for him. So keeping him where they could keep tabs on him, and keeping that fact a secret, was the most logical thing for the ISI to do.
Of course, that’s not proof, and neither I nor anyone else I’ve heard speculating has ever been to Abbottabad. But I have a hard time imagining that you could build a walled compound right near the Pakistani military academy without anyone in the ISI asking “I wonder who lives there?”
What does that mean about our relationship with Pakistan? Unfortunately, not much. Our own intelligence officials have suspected for years that at a minimum elements within the Pakistani “deep state” knew OBL’s whereabouts. We used both carrots and sticks to try to get the official Pakistani leadership to take action. The main carrot was lots of money and fancy new weapons; sticks included the escalating presence of American soldiers, CIA officers, and drones conducting operations within Pakistani territory. But none of this appears to have been sufficient. It strikes me as entirely appropriate that the United States, at least in this Administration, prioritized getting OBL higher than keeping Pakistan happy, but not so high that we were willing to risk an open break with Pakistan. Now that OBL has been killed, the balance ironically tips even further in Pakistan’s favor. Even though elements within Pakistan may have been playing a double game with us, our other interests in Pakistan apart from getting OBL haven’t changed. That’s just the way the cookie bounces.
We should be enormously proud of our intelligence services for tracking OBL down, and of the individuals who carried out this daring operation – and, as well, of the Obama Administration for setting the priorities that made the operation possible, and for successfully keeping it a secret until it was accomplished. Eliminating Osama bin Laden was an absolutely essential goal of our foreign policy; alive and at large, he remained an enduring symbol of defiance, the man who attacked the American capital and lived to tell the tale. Not anymore.
But the larger foreign policy dilemmas that we face in Central Asia haven’t really changed. Even al Qaeda itself (assuming one wants to treat it as a unitary organization for analytical purposes in the first place) won’t cease to exist by any means simply because its titular head and one-time financier is out of the picture. One can hope that, this essential mission having been accomplished, we can now have a serious conversation about what our other objectives are in the region, and what the costs and risks are of trying to achieve them.
As an aside: why was OBL “buried at sea” (i.e., tossed overboard)? Presumably so that there would be no grave for unsavory types to turn into a shrine. Conspiracy theories alleging that the whole operation was a hoax would proliferate under any scenario that didn’t involve OBL alive and in manacles, and even then some people would say he was an impostor (as some did with Saddam Hussein for a while). So, once we were satisfied that we got him, OBL’s body was just a burden.