The revelation that Osama bin Laden was living less than a mile from Pakistan’s national military academy has raised serious questions about the efficacy of Pakistan’s military and intelligence services and brought into sharp focus the weakness of the Pakistani state.
There is now huge pressure from civil society and opposition parties to appoint a commission to investigate the raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, and to take action against those responsible for the lapses that allowed American forces to enter Pakistani territory undetected. The ability of the armed forces to guard the border with Afghanistan and the civilian government’s control over security matters have also been put into doubt.
The volatile situation in Pakistan is matched by the understandable outrage of Americans that the world’s most notorious terrorist lived unmolested for five years in a city teeming with Pakistani military officers. But any overreaction by Washington could endanger Pakistani democracy and further empower the military — or even lead to an outright military takeover. For the United States, support for Pakistan’s civilian, democratic government is the only way to assure regional peace, stability and prosperity.
Washington cannot separate its military relationship with Pakistan from its political relationship: America needs Pakistan’s cooperation to permit the smooth withdrawal of the majority of American troops from Afghanistan before 2012, while the Obama administration must disentangle itself from the Afghan war to help ensure the president’s re-election. And there can be no peace in Afghanistan without a modicum of Pakistani assistance.
For Pakistan, America’s military and economic assistance is vital. Moreover, when Pakistan is facing enormous domestic difficulties, it can ill afford to antagonize America. Leaders in both countries must therefore step back from confrontation and find ways to repair the damage. Pushing Pakistan’s political leadership to the brink is not an option.
Washington should avoid the temptation to pursue aggressive diplomacy, cut off economic assistance or intensify its Predator drone attacks. The most dangerous and counterproductive step would be for the United States Congress to drastically cut financing for Pakistan’s military. Such a punitive measure might satisfy the American need to express displeasure, but it would have several unhappy consequences.
First, it would reinforce the already strong perception in Pakistan that the United States is an unreliable ally that acts unilaterally. Second, it would confirm the view that the United States favors India and reinforce the Pakistani security establishment’s obsession with India as the enemy.
This, in turn, would renew Pakistan’s determination to maintain a strong voice and presence in Afghanistan — especially in Pashtun areas — through the Afghan Taliban and other groups unfriendly to the United States, a strategy that many in the security establishment believe will help Pakistan avoid encirclement by India.
This would be a very dangerous route for Pakistan to pursue, as it would invite reprisals and increase Western and Indian distrust of Pakistan. It might also embolden India to go after the Pakistan-based terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which India and the United States say carried out the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, and lead the United States to strike at the Taliban-allied Haqqani network in Pakistan. Such moves would create a vicious cycle of recrimination that would result in Pakistan and the region becoming even more unstable and chaotic.
To be sure, Pakistan’s India-centric policy is harmful and counterproductive. The present crisis provides an opportunity for the Pakistani military to give up this strategically misguided obsession. India should also use this window of opportunity to step forward and normalize relations with its neighbor, instead of gloating over Pakistan’s misfortunes.
The killing of Bin Laden proves once and for all that the Pakistani military cannot look the other way as Afghan Taliban gather in Pakistan. Failing to act with full force against Islamist extremists at home is no longer an option. However, the United States needs to show greater understanding and patience while Pakistan undertakes this necessary strategic shift.
If America tries to punish rather than support Pakistan in this difficult hour, the Pakistani military, in a dangerous test of wills, might pursue a course of action based on emotion and hyped-up nationalism that will only weaken the joint effort to fight terrorism.
Talat Masood, a military analyst and a retired lieutenant general in the Pakistani Army.