Mohsin Zeb takes a break from his studies to analyse the implications of Bin Laden’s death on the relationship between Pakistan and the US.
As everyone now knows Osama Bin Laden, leader and architect of Al Qaeda, has been killed. Gunned down by an elite Us Navy SEAL team in Abbotobad, merely some 60km from Pakistan’s picturesque capital. The news was gladly received in capitals and defence establishments around the world, and in the United States at least, site of Al Qaeda’s most gruesome terrorist attack almost a decade ago, spontaneous scenes of celebration erupted in New York and in Washington DC. In so far as the personal battle between the United States and Al Qaeda’s leader goes, it is now over. A resounding American victory, which will almost certainly translate into a second term for President Obama. If he was on shaky electoral ground prior to this, he isn’t anymore. He has succeeded where Clinton and George W. Bush failed; he has brought Osama Bin Laden to account.
The objective of this article is not to dwell on the particulars of the operation, I am neither privy to such details nor am I am military analyst. I am however a political scientist and a PhD candidate currently undertaking a PhD in US-Pakistan relations in the post Cold War period. It is this bilateral relationship that I will put under the microscope after 24 tumultuous hours that have forever reshaped the ‘War on Terror’ and the Obama presidency. The questions raised about US-Pakistan ties by this development are many and the ramifications this will have on bilateral ties could be globally significant.
From what I can gather, this is the official chain of events. The US has been aware of Bin Laden’s location for sometime and had last week decided to proceed with an operation to take him out. No one was informed about the pending operation, including Pakistan on whose territory the raid took place.
The direct implications of that chain of events are massive. In the first instance, it implies that there is no trust whatsoever between the United States military and intelligence community and their Pakistani counterparts. Given that Pakistan is often heralded as a key ally and major player in the War on Terror, such a damning admission is indicative of a poisoned relationship. Pakistan is a designated Major Non NATO Ally and a frontline state in the battle against Wahabbist extremism. The US administration and media underscore the defence and intelligence cooperation often, seemingly only to make nice sound bites to placate Islamabad. In addition, a few billion a year is given to keep the Pakistanis onside. Evidently, this is a hollow relationship, as issues impacting Pakistan, indeed events within Pakistan itself, are not shared with the Pakistani establishment owing to a trust deficit. I ask you dear readers, what type of alliance can there be if one party so distrusts the other? The reality appears to be this:
Pakistan complied with US demands after 9/11 under threat of force and is paid/feted as a means to sustain that cooperation. On the ground, the trust deficit is so damning that the US deems it unwise to share data with Pakistan, lest elements within its establishment aid the enemy.
As for Pakistan itself, this episode reveals a sorry or sad state of affairs. It seems impossible to any informed Pakistan watcher that the Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) or Military Intelligence (MI) or the military high command (GHQ) were wholly unaware of Bin Laden’s presence a stone’s throw away from the Pakistan Military Academy. One can conclude only two possible explanations for this scenario. Either the Pakistani military and intelligence community are so grossly incompetent that they were unable to find out who lived in a million dollar, dual walled secured compound down the road, or (and much more sinisterly if true) a substantial degree of the establishment was wholly aware of who lived there and kept mum in order to protect the Al Qaeda head honcho.
The US is insisting as I type that Pakistan was unaware of Bin Laden’s residence there, which is quite damning as stated. It is feasible (likely even) that the US downplays Pakistan’s role or knowledge to let the Pakistani establishment operate a ‘plausible deniability’ defence to avoid the backlash amongst radicals at home. It is unbelievable to anyone familiar with the region that they would not have been aware, which raises a further and much more complex question.
It has long been suspected that elements within the ISI and military were sympathetic towards Al Qaeda and playing a double game. The US decision to hold this information and not share would be based on the fear that once the Pakistanis knew, Bin Laden would know too and move again. Is this the smoking gun that links the ISI and co to Islamist extremism? The ISI has two options: declare their utter and complete incompetence or accept that it is a compromised organization with ties to terrorists.
Is it possible that the ISI and GHQ knew and the civilian leadership, headed by an utter incompetent in Asif Zardari, did not? The ISI is often known to be a ‘state within a state’ but the dubious games may have come out into the open. Something here doesn’t compute. Bin Laden was meters from military and intelligence centers, in the heart of Pakistan. If they really did not know, I am lost for words. If they kept quiet, I am outraged. It’s a plot that would make a great movie, except this isn’t Hollywood. This is real life. Countless lives rest on cooperation between such agencies against terrorism, and yet it seem clear to me that a major pillar of that defence structure is rotten.
What America does now I am not so sure. It will question Pakistan about this strange scenario wherein one of the world’s most reputable spy agencies was unable to scour its own backyard. It will raise suspicions about the allegiance of the intelligence establishment in Pakistan. Will the tenuous alliance now unravel completely?
What happens next is anyone’s guess. The subtext here is the real long-term story, Bin Laden is no more and thus that chapter surely closes. In doing so it has opened a puzzle that has much greater regional and global geostrategic consequences.