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3 Questions: Fotini Christia on the war in Afghanistan

MIT political scientist on the implications of Bin Laden’s death for the war in Afghanistan and U.S.-Pakistan relations.
Fotini Christia
Fotini Christia
Photo: Donna Coveney

What impact will the death of Osama bin Laden have on the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan? And what effect will it have on the often-tense relationship between the United States and Pakistan? Fotini Christia, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science, is conducting ongoing research in Afghanistan and has written widely on the subject. MIT News spoke to Christia about the outlook in the region.

Q. What is the reaction to the death of Bin Laden in Afghanistan, where he and al-Qaida were located at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks?

A. Among people in government in Afghanistan, the first reaction is fear that we may pack up and leave, since we went in to get Bin Laden back in 2001, and now he’s dead. I think people on the government side will be trying to communicate that there is work to be done still. On the Taliban side, the main body of the Taliban is not really linked with Bin Laden and al-Qaida [any longer]. To the degree the Taliban leverages the killing, they may use it as a way to mobilize more suicide bombers. They just announced they will be starting their spring offensive, which involves blowing themselves up in strategic contexts, in ways that compromise government security forces. They are trying to show us that the forces we build are totally vulnerable. Symbolically, then, the Taliban may use this event to build up the sentiment of the locals in terms of existing anti-Americanism.

Q. What about some of the political pressure in the United States for a faster withdrawal? Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has started talking about that, for instance.

A. This death basically gives fodder to people who feel we should be moving out of there faster, for sure. But the mission has changed. Things have evolved and developed, and Bin Laden has been a marginalized figure. There is a lot of symbolism in having killed Osama bin Laden, objectively. But it doesn’t mean the end of al-Qaida, and it doesn’t mean the Taliban will be running to negotiate for peace, either, since Bin Laden was not driving the Taliban insurgency. Moreover, the way things have been planned [by the United States and its allies] it would be really hard for the transition to go faster, even if the pressure for that to happen will be greater. For President Obama, this is a huge success, because people didn’t think it was possible, but at the same time it creates expectations now that he will not be able to meet.

Q. What does this portend for the U.S.-Pakistan relationship?

A. This is an embarrassment for Pakistan. There is no plausible deniability there. Bin Laden lived in a fortified compound less than a mile away from a military academy that would be the equivalent of West Point [in the U.S.]. Of course, Pakistan has a crisis of leadership, and there is always this argument that the civilian government doesn’t know what the army knows, and the army doesn’t know what the I.S.I. [the Pakistani intelligence agency] knows, and everybody can blame someone else. But nobody in their sound minds would think the Pakistanis would not know. So in a context where the relationships are already tense … I think [U.S. Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton was being strategic when she basically thanked Pakistan for their cooperation and said it would be continuing. They know this relationship is so tenuous and that the Pakistanis have been playing a double game. I’m sure when the intelligence suggested Bin Laden was right there, the [U.S. officials] were probably kind of shocked at the audacity of the Pakistanis.

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