Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Sorting through some of the post Bin Laden mess in Pakistan...

by Salman Hameed

This has been the worst-case scenario for Pakistan. Osama bin Laden was killed deep inside Pakistan - but not by Pakistani forces. The fact that he was found in Abbottabad, near of Pakistan's major military academies, gives a feeling that intelligent services of Pakistan (or at least some of its parts) have been caught with their hand in the cookie jar. But the reality is messier than this. So here is an attempt to sort through some of the mess.

The killing of Osama bin Laden is a perfect bookend to the uprisings in north Africa and the middle east. The indigenous revolts against the autocrats and the increasing demands for a democratic order were already a slap in the face of the medieval, nihilistic worldview of Al Qaeeda. Like the earlier Kharijites and then definitely like the later Assassins (Hashashins),  Al Qaeeda may have been successful in wreaking some havoc, but not any leaving any constructive and long-lived ideology. And just like the other groups, they will also be consigned to the dustbin of history.

But the issue for Pakistan is different. This is another crucial point in its history. I followed some of the Pakistani political talk shows yesterday - and there was justifiable anger on them. Much of the focus was on two things: a) The issue of sovereignty and anger over the fact that Pakistani government was not informed about about the raid, and b) that Osama is not dead. The latter claim was even made by the former Chief of Army Staff (the most powerful position in Pakistan), Mirza Aslam Baig. I think the issue of sovereignty is a legitimate issue, but the proclamation of a fake Osama killing is crazy for the simple reason that it would be an ultimate PR nightmare for the US if an authentic Osama tape shows up now. I think we can be pretty certain that Osama bin Laden is dead.

But one logical question was mostly missing from the Pakistani discourse: It is quite clear that there were at least some influential people must have known about Osama's hiding place in Abbottabad. It is unlikely that no one in the ISI or the military had ever looked into the residents of a big compound near a military academy - and the military academy where the current Chief of Army Staff visited just earlier this year. So the question is, who in the right mind thought that it was a good idea to keep Osama hidden deep inside Pakistan? Did these people (whoever they are) think about the political fallout for Pakistan? After all, the US and the world reaction is quite predictable in this case. Were they really acting in Pakistan's best interest? May be I missed these questions, but I did not hear them on the talk shows.

Then much of the discourse in the US has been missing pragmatic Pakistani concerns. Here, the key focal points has been that Pakistan has been playing a double-game and all this time the US has been providing billions of dollars to search of Osama. This is a deeply problematic narrative. From Pakistan's perspective, US is going to leave Afghanistan - just as it did in 1990. The current Afghan government is hostile to Pakistan and a close ally of India. Pakistan justifiably feels threatened and wants its own allied Taliban in the Afghan government. Much of the battle in Afghanistan is about the competition for influence between India and Pakistan. The talk about solving Afghanistan situation without dealing with Pakistan and India is like trying to fill a water bucket with a gaping hole at the bottom.

Similarly, bringing up the issue of aid can (and should) be perceived as outright insulting. Pakistan has been paying a heavy price for Afghan war. Much of this is of its own making (blowback from extremists groups trained to fight a proxy war against India, and also in Afghanistan), but much is also the direct result of the US war in Afghanistan. But then how should we evaluate the cost of allowing the deeply unpopular (and unethical) drone attacks that have also killed scores of civilians? What about the number of Al Qaeeda operatives that have been arrested and shipped to Gitmo? And not to mention that some of the terrorist attacks in Pakistan have been the very result of Pakistani government being perceived as an American ally. And so there lies the tragedy. Instead of a fine balance on a tightrope, Pakistan's example would be of being tossed from one hot pot to another and back.

What can and should be done? In the short run, Pakistani government has to investigate who are the people that knew of Osama bin Laden's hideout and those who harbored him. It has to follow wherever the trail takes them to - including - the military and/or the ISI. Similarly, the US should not get carried over by the fact that Osama was found in Pakistan. A stable Pakistan is still in the best interest of US - and the continuous use of drones may be winning the short-term battle at the expense of the long-term war.

What a mess!

Two articles of interest:
An excellent article on Slate about Pakistan and US being Frenemies. And here is a good behind the scenes look at the hunt for Osama bin Laden (it reads like a good spy thriller).

Also check out this excellent and very reasonable interview with Saleem Ali (about 7 minutes long) from University of Vermont. 


Mohamed said...

Salman. Thanks for another fair and balanced report on things. Thanks also for the great links!

Akbar said...


Akbar said...

(Ok so you haven't blocked my comments, good. I had been trying to comment and commend on you link about LPOD by Umair, but wasn't successful)

In my view, US is being carefully cooperative in Pakistan's interest in this whole scenario. On one hand, it is difficult for me or anyone to believe that this operation was carried out without Pakistan's complete cooperation, especially when it involved choppers...I am yet to hear about any stealth helicopters in service, unlike F-117 or B2 etc. Remember, terrorists groups have so far massacred 34000+ pakistani civilians and servicemen with no end or halt in sight. This number can easily be multiplied by 10s or 20s if the fallout of this operation falls on Pakistani army and intelligence. So the best scenario that can be brought forward is to keep Pakistani involvement out of the scene.
This funniest part is to dispose his corpse in the sea. I would rather believe in parallel universe than this. To me it seems he was killed years ago. Just a right time was awaited to bring out the merchandise in the market when it would get the highest price. In my view, it is time when US may be intending to colclude its mission in Afghanistan and this may be a part of justification of the process. Anyways, just an opinion.

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