STUTTGART, Germany — By most accounts, al-Qaida’s presence on the ground in Afghanistan is negligible. Years of drone attacks have left the organization battered and decentralized as affiliate groups spring up in other parts of the world. Perhaps as few as 150 fighters remain in Afghanistan today, according to intelligence estimates.
Still, the death of Osama bin Laden has the potential to influence the security situation on the ground in Afghanistan, according to analysts. With the elimination of al-Qaida’s chief on Pakistani soil, the focus now is on Pakistan’s government and whether it can ever be a true partner when it comes to hunting down al-Qaida or the Taliban, which operates in havens along the country’s border region.
“The president was masterful,” said Nick Pratt, a terrorism expert at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany. “He gave a lot of credit to the Pakistani government. I don’t know if it was deserved, but he gave the Pakistanis an option.”
Now, after Navy SEALs hunted bin Laden down in a palatial mansion in the Pakistani army garrison town of Abbottabad, analysts say there can be little doubt that high-level Pakistani officials had knowledge of his whereabouts. Could this be the kind of leverage needed to push Pakistan into closer cooperation on security issues in the region? Can Pakistan’s arm be twisted into targeting the Taliban presence in the northern frontier regions of the country where Pakistan has been reluctant to deploy forces?
“If that happens, it will have a dramatic change on the security situation in Afghanistan,” said Pratt, a former Marine who worked covertly in Afghanistan in the 1980s and once drove through the town where SEALs carried out their assault. “But that requires some political finesse, which I have never seen in the Pakistani government.”
The more likely scenario?
“Pakistan will continue to fester,” Pratt said.
“I’m a skeptic that (the capture of bin Laden) will make any difference,” added Shashank Joshi, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
For years, Americans have been pressuring Pakistan to take a stronger stand against various militant groups in the country, and it usually falls on deaf ears as politicians face a constituency that is decidedly anti-American, Joshi said.
“I just don’t see that changing,” he said. “If the Americans could work out where bin Laden was, why couldn’t the Pakistanis, given their intelligence gathering capability on the ground?”
Meanwhile, some analysts suggest that bin Laden’s death could reverberate in Afghanistan in different ways.
“The death of Osama bin Laden does not end the war against al-Qaida, but it is a significant victory, and it may help conclude the war in Afghanistan,” said John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security. “Reconciliation negotiations with the Taliban demand that they renounce al-Qaida, renounce violence, and accept the terms of the Afghan constitution. Renouncing AQ is easier if the organization is no longer effective — and yesterday’s actions will further decrease its effectiveness.”
In the aftermath of Sunday’s operation in Pakistan, there also have been questions about what the future will look like for al-Qaida and who within the organization will fill the leadership vacuum.
“The death of bin Laden marks the end of a key chapter in the [war on terrorism],” said Juan Carlos Zarate, senior adviser on terrorism at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former deputy national security adviser. “You can’t imagine the end of AQ without the death of [bin Laden.]
Though weaker, al-Qaida has survived by morphing into a less centralized organization and remains dangerous. Few envision the elimination of bin Laden as a death blow to the organization.
“Core al-Qaida has lost operators and money, but what they’ve done is decentralize,” Pratt said. “Al-Qaida is an ideology, it is not an army. Bin Laden recognized it had to outlive him. I think it is survivable.”
Spinoff al-Qaida groups now operate in a host of countries and regions, including Yemen, Somalia and territory across northern Africa.
But while al-Qaida’s future is uncertain, so is the U.S.’s relationship with Pakistan. Will there more cooperation in the future?
Obama, in his speech to the nation Sunday night, sounded a hopeful note.
[I]t’s important to note that our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding,” Obama said. “And going forward, it is essential that Pakistan continue to join us in the fight against al Qaida and its affiliates.”
Joshi, however, said he had doubts about how much support Pakistan provided in the targeting of bin Laden.
“I would treat any future claims of a joint operation with suspicion,” Joshi said. Perhaps airspace (permission) was provided on a moment’s notice. It doesn’t mean they willingly cooperated. It means their arms were considerably twisted. They were not trusted.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Kevin Baron contributed to this story.