Osama bin Laden's death comes at a time of intense crisis between the United States and Pakistan. Its repercussions have the potential to launch the bilateral relationship off a cliff, or to bring U.S. and Pakistani strategic interests into better alignment.
Some Pakistanis, already enraged over U.S. drone strikes and the Raymond Davis affair, are more concerned about the U.S. raid in Abbottabad being a violation of Pakistan's territorial sovereignty than they are about bin Laden's death. If terrorists launch a wave of reprisal attacks, Pakistanis will be on the receiving end. Some will undoubtedly question whether their security interests were well served by bin Laden's killing.
Pakistan's leadership will have doubts about continued U.S. engagement in their region, what with bin Laden dead and a phased military withdrawal from Afghanistan taking shape. For all their frustrations with Washington, they also fear abandonment.
Many Americans, convinced that Pakistan has done less than it might to confront radical militants and terrorists, see their worst suspicions confirmed by the fact that bin Laden lived in a large, well-protected compound right under the Pakistani military's nose. Either Pakistan's intelligence service is terribly incompetent, fatally compromised, or both, raising questions about its utility as a partner.
Americans and Pakistanis, therefore, have reasons to give in to their mistrust. A more constructive outcome is possible, but it will require both sides to think about long-term interests rather than near-term frustrations. If handled smartly, bin Laden's death could mark a major reversal of momentum for extremists and their supporters throughout South Asia.
That reversal would have to start in Islamabad, where too many military and intelligence officials have actively or passively supported militants and terrorists as a means to project influence into Afghanistan and India. They will need to rethink such strategies. Recognizing that no terrorist group can escape Washington's reach, Pakistan should now lend its unconditional support to confronting and eliminating the wide range of terrorists operating from its soil.
But that would not be enough. Bin Laden's death hardly clears the way for disengagement from Pakistan. Disengagement is likely to enable the rise of a new, perhaps even more dangerous, generation of terrorists. Instead, America's strategy for the post-bin Laden era must be a far greater commitment to helping Pakistan overcome the political, economic and security conditions that make it an appealing safe haven for terrorists like bin Laden. Such an effort will be costly, and it will take years.
Unfortunately, bin Laden's death is more likely to exacerbate tensions between Washington and Islamabad than to encourage such farsighted cooperation. But this would be a tragic waste of an historic opportunity to write a more positive chapter in U.S.-Pakistan relations.