The killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. special forces in a helicopter assault on a sprawling luxury mansion near Islamabad is in line with the past capture of other Al Qaeda leaders from Pakistani cities, highlighting that the real terrorist sanctuaries are located not along Pakistans borders with Afghanistan and India but in the Pakistani heartland.
This, in turn, underlines another fundamental reality – that the fight against international terrorism cannot be won without demilitarizing and deradicalizing Pakistan, including by rebalancing civil-military relations there and reining in the rogue Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
Other terrorist leaders captured in Pakistan since 9/11- including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Al Qaedas third in command; Abu Zubeida, the networks operations chief; Yasser Jazeeri; Abu Faraj Farj; and Ramzi Binalshibh, one of the 9/11 coordinators – were also found living in cities across Pakistan. If there was any surprise about bin Ladens hideout, it is its location in a military town, Abbottadad, in the shadow of an army academy.
This only underscores the major protection bin Laden must have received from elements of the Pakistani security establishment to help him elude the U.S. dragnet for nearly a decade. The breakthrough to hunt him down came only after the U.S., even at the risk of rupturing its longstanding ties with the Pakistani army and ISI, deployed a number of CIA operatives, Special Operations forces and contractors deep inside Pakistan without the knowledge of the Pakistani military.
In recent years, with its senior operations men captured or killed and bin Laden holed up in Pakistan, the badly splintered Al Qaeda had already lost the ability to mount a major international attack or openly challenge U.S. interests. With bin Ladens death, Al Qaeda is likely to wither away as an organization.
Yet its dangerous ideology is expected to live on and motivate state-sponsored non-state actors. It will be such elements that mainly will have the capacity to launch major transnational terrorist attacks, like the 2008 Mumbai strikes. Even in Afghanistan, the U.S. militarys main foe is not Al Qaeda but a resurgent Taliban, which enjoys safe havens in Pakistan.
That is why the spotlight is likely to turn on the terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan and the role of, and the relationship between, state and non-state actors there. Significantly, as the CIA closed in on bin Laden, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullens, for the first time publicly linked the Pakistani military with some of the militants attacking U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Pakistans homegrown Islamist militias continue to operate openly, and the Pakistani army and intelligence remain loath to sever their cozy ties with extremist and terrorist elements.
For the U.S., Pakistan poses a particularly difficult challenge. Despite providing $20 billion to Pakistan in counterterrorism aid since after 9/11, the U.S. has received grudging assistance, at best, and duplicitous cooperation, at worst. Today, amid a rising tide of anti-Americanism, U.S. policy on Pakistan is rapidly unraveling. Yet Pakistan, with one of the worlds lowest tax-to-GDP ratios, has become more dependent than ever on U.S. aid.
Even as Americans exult over bin Ladens killing, Washington must recognize that its failed policy on Pakistan has inadvertently made that country the worlds main terrorist sanctuary.
Rather than help build robust civilian institutions there, Washington has continued to pamper the jihadist-penetrated Pakistani military establishment, best illustrated by the fresh $3 billion military aid package earmarked for the next fiscal year. After dictator Pervez Musharraf was driven out of office, the new Pakistani civilian government ordered the ISI to report to the interior ministry, yet it did not receive support from Washington, allowing the army to quickly frustrate that move.
After coming to office, President Barack Obama implemented a military surge in Afghanistan but an aid surge to Pakistan, turning the latter into the largest recipient aid of U.S. aid, although the Afghan Taliban leadership and Al Qaeda remnants remained ensconced in Pakistan. This only deepened U.S. involvement in fighting the wrong war and emboldened Pakistan to fatten the Afghan Taliban even as sustained U.S. attacks continued to severely weaken Al Qaeda.
Make no mistake: The scourge of Pakistani terrorism emanates more from the Scotch whiskey-sipping generals than the rosary-holding . It is the self-styled secular generals who have reared the forces of jihad and fathered the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jalaluddin Haqqani militia, and other groups. Yet by passing the blame for their continued terrorist-proxy policy to their mullah puppets, the generals made Washington believe that the key is to contain the religious fringe, not the puppeteers.
In fact, Pakistans descent into a jihadist dungeon occurred not under civilian rule but under two military dictators – one who nurtured and let loose jihadist forces, and the other who took his country to the very edge of the precipice.
Without reform of the Pakistani army and ISI, there can be no end to transnational terrorism or even to genuine nation-building in Pakistan. How can Pakistan be a “normal” state if its army and intelligence remain outside civilian oversight and the decisive power remains with military generals?
Until the military’s viselike grip on power is broken and the ISI cut to size, Pakistan is likely to remain ground zero for the terrorist threat the world confronts. And the only way Al Qaeda can reconstitute itself is if the Pakistani military succeeds in reinstalling a proxy regime in Afghanistan.
Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and author of Asian Juggernaut.