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US Official Sees Benefits, Challenges to bin Laden's Death

Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy
Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy

A senior U.S. defense official has made the first on-the-record comments from the department about the implications of Osama bin Laden's death.  The Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Michele Flournoy, said Thursday it could spur reconciliation in Afghanistan, but also poses new challenges for U.S.-Pakistan relations.  

Under Secretary Flournoy found herself in the interesting position on Monday of hosting long-scheduled U.S.-Pakistan security consultations.  It was just about 15 hours after President Barack Obama had announced that bin Laden was killed by American commandos in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad.  She says she had a specific message for the Pakistanis in that meeting.

"What we’ve been stressing in our conversations is the importance of strengthening our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan, and moving forward in a way in which that cooperation is visible and concrete and undeniable," she said.

Speaking to a small group of reporters at the Washington offices of the Aspen Institute onThursday, Flournoy said that "many steps" are needed, including help interpreting the information from bin Laden’s compound, cooperation on ways to put pressure on al-Qaida, and efforts to improve stability in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

She said she had "candid" conversations with the Pakistani officials about those steps and the future of U.S.-Pakistan relations.  Flournoy said new Pakistani moves are particularly important to ensure funding to continue bilateral cooperation.

"I do think that Congress will have to be convinced to sustain both civilian and military assistance to Pakistan," she said.

That situation was on display at about the same time across town, during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  The chairman, Democrat John Kerry, asked some questions that many members of Congress have been asking.

"What did Pakistan’s military and intelligence services know?  What is appropriate to think they should have known?  Who did they think was living behind those 15-foot [4.57-meter] walls?, he said.

Flournoy says there is "no definitive evidence" that Pakistani officials knew the al-Qaida leader was hiding in a town populated largely by retired military officers.  But she says the large volume of material taken from bin Laden's compound might prove otherwise.  

She also says the Obama administration believes it is important to continue America's partnership with Pakistan in the war on terror, despite concerns about bin Laden’s hideout and other issues, including the sometimes questionable activities of Pakistan's intelligence service.

Senator Kerry expressed a similar view, as did the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar.

"We must admit [that] Pakistan is not an easy partner.  But distancing ourselves from Pakistan would be unwise and extremely dangerous," he said.

Lugar said a break in relations with Pakistan would not only hurt  the war on terror, but also would weaken intelligence gathering, increase the danger of a Pakistan-India conflict, end U.S. involvement in helping to secure Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and make U.S. military operations in Afghanistan more difficult.

At the Aspen Institute, Under Secretary Flournoy said bin Laden’s death could hasten the end of the conflict in Afghanistan.

"I think now that Osama bin Laden is dead, some of the personal relationships that connected senior Taliban leaders to him, that tie is broken.  And I think that creates an opportunity for them to step forward and renounce al-Qaida and their affiliation with it," Flournoy said.

Flournoy said bin Laden’s death "dealt a very severe blow to al-Qaida," and that she hopes more Taliban leaders will accept Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s terms and join the reconciliation process.  Some members of Congress say the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, set to begin in July, should be accelerated.  But the Obama administration says the speed of the drawdown must still be based on the amount of progress made toward stability.

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