The killing of Osama bin Laden could be a transformational moment for Pakistan and its military. The country has an opportunity now to decide whether it wants to decisively confront Islamist violence or face the consequences of the military’s current policy of giving support to jihadis with one hand even as it slaps them with the other. If Pakistan chooses this second path, it will be increasingly vulnerable to internal chaos, more drone strikes and more direct U.S. action against the jihadist groups openly operating in the country.
Soon after American commandos in helicopters descended from the skies early Monday in Pakistan , they carried back the body of Al Qaeda’s founder-king. His hosts are still rubbing their eyes, wondering how it all happened and why Pakistani air defenses remained inactive.
Subsequent suggestions from Pakistani and U.S. leaders that Pakistan played a significant role ring hollow. President Obama, in his televised speech on the completed operation, said “our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to Bin Laden.” But, just as he stopped speaking, his top national security aides declared that the United States had not told Pakistani leaders about the raid ahead of time. Far from giving Pakistan’s armed forces a role in the action, the U.S. saw them as a potential threat.
On numerous occasions, Pakistani military and civilian leaders had emphatically stated that Bin Laden was not in the country. Some suggested that he might be in Sudan or Somalia. Others insisted that he might already have died from a kidney ailment, or perhaps that he was in some inaccessible area, protected by nature and terrain, and thus outside the effective control of the Pakistani state.
But then it turned out Bin Laden was not hiding from U.S. drones in some dark Waziristan cave but rather living comfortably inside a specially constructed and fortified house in the modern, peaceful and extraordinarily secure city of Abbottabad. Using Google Earth, one sees that the deceased lived within easy walking distance of the famed Pakistan Military Academy at Kakul, the place where army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani declared April 23 that “the terrorist backbone has been broken and, inshallah, we will soon prevail.”
Even the famously ferocious retired Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul —Pakistan’s former intelligence chief who is an open Bin Laden sympathizer and advocates war with America — isn’t buying the claim that Pakistan’s military was unaware of Bin Laden’s whereabouts. In an interview, he said he found that idea “a bit amazing.” Aside from the military, he noted, “there is the local police, the intelligence bureau, military intelligence, the ISI; they all had a presence there.” And Pakistan’s intrusive intelligence agencies are very good at sniffing out foreigners.
So why was Bin Laden sheltered in the army’s backyard?
Gen. Pervez Musharraf was army chief when Bin Laden’s house in Abbottabad was being constructed. Back then, Pakistan’s political pundits used to speculate about which Al Qaeda or Taliban leader would be miraculously “found” on the eve of some important U.S. military or political leader’s visit to Pakistan. And one was usually produced. Important arrests included those of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the Kuwaiti-born senior Al Qaeda leader who was arrested in Rawalpindi, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a Taliban leader arrested in Karachi. The American visitors generally left pleased.
It is quite possible that Bin Laden was being kept in reserve by the army, the ultimate trophy to be traded in at the right time for the right price, either in dollars or political concessions.
Alas for Pakistan’s army, American Navy SEALs have now killed the golden goose, and a potential asset has turned into a serious liability. For officials to appear joyful would infuriate the Islamists, who pose a real threat to the state. On the other hand, to criticize the killing would suggest that Pakistan had knowingly hosted the king of terrorists.
With Bin Laden gone, the military has two remaining major strategic assets: nuclear weapons and America’s weakness in Afghanistan. It will surely try to extract maximum advantage from these factors. But this will not ensure the peace and prosperity that we Pakistanis so desperately crave. It will not solve our electricity or water crises, move us out of dire economic straits or protect us from suicide bombers.
It is difficult to be optimistic. A few days before Bin Laden’s killing, speaking on the occasion of Martyrs Day, Kayani acknowledged that Pakistan was going through difficult times but stressed that “the nation’s honor and integrity” had precedence over its prosperity. One wishes he had subsequently addressed the nation and explained how Pakistan’s honor and integrity has been preserved by sheltering the world’s most wanted terrorist on its soil, and how a state allowing violent jihadist organizations to operate on its soil can ever become prosperous. Sadly, as yet we have only silence from him.
Pervez Hoodbhoy, a professor of physics in Lahore and Islamabad.