The killing of Osama bin Laden could provide Pakistan an opportunity to reverse its downward slide, though changing course will not be easy. The country must decide whether to decisively confront Islamist violence, or continue with the military’s current policy of supporting jihadi militants with one hand even as it slaps them with the other.
The most intensive manhunt in history ended on 2 May 2011 with the killing of Osama bin Laden. When an elite squad of helicopter-borne US Navy SEALs slipped into Pakistan from Afghanistan, they returned with the body of al-Qaeda’s founder-king. To the relief of many around the world, the man who had attacked and physically eliminated all he perceived as enemies of Islam – Soviets and Americans, Iraqis and Pakistanis – was dispatched to his watery grave.
Initially, the Pakistani government claimed cooperation in the operation. But this was flatly rejected by those who had laid and executed the intricate plans. John Brennan, assistant to President Barack Obama for homeland security and counterterrorism, said, ‘We didn’t contact the Pakistanis until after all of our people, all of our aircraft were out of Pakistani airspace … we were watching and making sure that our people and our aircraft were able to get out of Pakistani airspace. And thankfully, there was no engagement with Pakistani forces.’ The director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Leon Panetta, hinted at Pakistan’s complicity with al-Qaeda when he said, ‘It was decided that any effort to work with the Pakistanis might jeopardise the mission: they might alert the targets.’ Significantly, President Obama did not thank Pakistan.
For Pakistan it was, as columnist Ayaz Amir put it, the mother of all embarrassments. For years, the country’s military and civilian leaders had flatly denied bin Laden’s presence in the country. Some had slyly suggested he might be in Sudan or Somalia. Others confidently claimed that he had died from a kidney ailment, or perhaps was in some intractable area protected by nature and terrain, and thus outside of the effective control of the Pakistani state. But as it turned out, of course, the world’s most famous and recognisable terrorist’s abode was within walking distance of the famed Pakistan Military Academy at Kakul, a short distance from Abbottabad, where, just days earlier, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani had declared that ‘The terrorist backbone has been broken and inshaallah we will soon prevail.’
Pakistanis, who think of their military as a fine fighting force, were angry and appalled that the American invaders got away with the raid scot-free. The military consumes a huge chunk of Pakistan’s national resources; it had just purchased sophisticated AWAC aircraft, continues receiving delivery of modernised US F-16s, and has a nuclear arsenal that could soon rival Britain’s in size. But the hugely expensive system proved unable to detect, much less confront, the five slow-moving helicopters that flew in south from Jalalabad. Two of these landed and stayed for 40 minutes almost next to the brigade headquarters of the Second Division of the Northern Army Corps in Abbottabad. They left without engagement. It was only when the Americans had exited Pakistan’s airspace that air defences were scrambled.
For multiple reasons, bin Laden’s killing has become a bone stuck in the throat of Pakistan’s establishment, which despises the Americans but is formally aligned with them. This bone can neither be swallowed nor spat out. To approve of the Abbottabad operation would infuriate the Islamists, who are already fighting the state. To protest too loudly, however, would suggest that Pakistan had willingly hosted the king of terrorists.
One clear consequence of the US operation was to put into stark relief the humble subservience of Pakistan’s civilians to their military masters. As the story broke on Pakistani news channels, the elected government quaked. It was too weak, corrupt and inept to take initiatives. Thus, there was no official Pakistani reaction for hours after President Obama had announced the success of the US mission. A stunned silence was finally broken when the Foreign Office declared that ‘Osama bin Laden’s death illustrates the resolve of the international community including Pakistan to fight and eliminate terrorism.’ Hours later, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani described the killing as a ‘great victory’. Thereupon, Pakistan’s high commissioner to the UK, Wajid Shamsul Hasan, rushed to claim credit: ‘Pakistan’s government was cooperating with American intelligence throughout and they had been monitoring [bin Laden’s] activities with the Americans, and they kept track of him from Afghanistan, Waziristan to Afghanistan and again to North Waziristan.’
This welcoming stance was reversed almost instantly. A stern look from the military, which had finally decided to condemn the raid, took a few hours in coming. Praising the killing of the world’s most wanted terrorist was now out of the question. In its moment of shame, the government furiously twisted and turned. Official spokespeople babbled on, becoming increasingly senseless and contradictory. Without referring to the statement he had made that very morning of 3 May, High Commissioner Hasan abruptly reversed his public position, now saying: ‘Nobody knew that Osama bin Laden was there – no security agency, no Pakistani authorities knew about it. Had we known it, we would have done it ourselves.’
Tongue-tied for 36 hours, president and prime minister awaited pointers from the army, following them dutifully after they were received. But simple obedience could not satisfy the army. Gen Kayani announced his unhappiness with the government: ‘Incomplete information and lack of technical details have resulted in speculations and misreporting. Public dismay and despondency has also been aggravated due to an insufficient formal response.’ The threat was barely veiled: the government must proactively defend the army and intelligence agencies, or else…
Thus prodded, a full eight days after the incident Prime Minister Gillani broke his silence. He absolved the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and army of ‘either complicity or incompetence’. Before an incredulous world, he claimed in a statement that both suggestions were ‘absurd’. Attempting to spread the blame, he declared in Paris, before his meeting with President Sarkozy, ‘This is an intelligence failure of the whole world, not Pakistan alone.’
Prime Minister Gillani, more loyal than the king, had somewhat overstretched himself. Even the head of the ISI, Lieutenant-General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, was not confident that he had done a good job. In appearing before an in-camera session of the Parliament, Pasha broke a long tradition of being unanswerable to civilian authorities, but it is said his offer was met with dead silence. Servitude to power runs thick in the blood of Islamabad’s politicians, which is why they wrote, some decades ago, into the Pakistan Constitution that it is a crime to criticise the armed forces of Pakistan or to bring them into disaffection.
Though the incompetence of the civilian government is legendary, the responsibility for the present debacle lies squarely with the military. Except when the military has itself been the government, Pakistan’s strategic decision-making has been entirely invented and executed by generals who consider their interests to be synonymous with that of the country. Pakistanis have good reason to fear their army. Although it might not have won any war against India, it has been victorious on all four occasions when it moved against civilian governments. It is unsurprising that on nuclear weapons, Kashmir, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan-US relations, the army alone makes the decisions.