In the aftermath of the killing of Osama Bin Laden, big questions have emerged over Pakistan’s role and its relations with the US.
John Brennan, a counterterrorism adviser to Barack Obama, told journalists that it was “inconceivable” that Bin Laden did not enjoy a “support system” in Pakistan. While both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have emphasised Pakistan’s importance in fighting al-Qaeda, the circumstances of his discovery are damaging.
Carl Levin, a Democrat who heads the Senate armed services committee, summed up these concerns at a press conference:
I think the Pakistani army and intelligence have a lot of questions to answer given the location, the length of time and the apparent fact that this facility was actually built for Bin Laden and its closeness to the central location of the Pakistani army.
From the Pakistani side, there are questions, too – the US reportedly did not trust the ISI with news of Bin Laden’s whereabouts, which will not go down well, given existing tension over increased numbers of CIA agents in the country and public anger at ongoing incursions on Pakistani soil in the form of drone attacks.
The former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf told CNN:
America coming to our territory and taking action is a violation of our sovereignty. Handling and execution of the operation [by US forces] is not correct. The Pakistani government should have been kept in the loop.
Clearly, there are murky waters here – and many questions that might not be answered publicly. Logging on to Twitter yesterday, I was disturbed to see many tweets of the “Get them!” variety, calling for action against Pakistan. But many of those passing comment clearly have very little knowledge of the country’s state systems and the atmosphere there.
I’ve just returned from a trip to Karachi, where I was struck by quite how prevalent anti-American sentiment is. What might look to westerners like public sympathy for extremists is more often based on support for those holding their ground against the west, rather than agreement with extremist ideas. In an excellent article in today’s Financial Times, Ahmed Rashid suggests that now might be the time to challenge this narrative:
He was a hero to some Pakistanis because he defied the west and because the country is desperately short of heroes. Perhaps Pakistan’s leaders can now have the courage to turn around the mythology and show what Bin Laden really was – a political leech who introduced suicide bombing, helped to create the Pakistani Taliban and promoted intolerance in a country that was at relative peace with itself until he appeared on the scene.
Even the heavy death toll inflicted on Pakistan by terrorists is put at America’s door – with some justification, given that the Taliban were all but absent from the country until the US invaded Afghanistan. The country has been ravaged by the war on terror. Since 2001, terrorists have killed nearly 15,000 people there – a number that doubles to more than 30,000 when counterterror violence is taken into account.
However, effectively challenging the perception of Bin Laden as a martyr is difficult, given that there is essentially no cohesive state in Pakistan. The state itself – as in central government – is remarkably weak, because Pakistan is and remains a tribal society, more dependent on local feudal powers than central systems. This goes some way towards explaining why it took so long to capture Bin Laden.
The separation of powers, held by varied forces in Pakistani society – the military, the ISI, the government and local tribes – certainly helps to explain the country’s sometimes contradictory actions. This is why the government can co-operate with the US and sanction drone attacks even as the ISI fails to track extremists.
The intelligence service has a long history of alliance with extremist groups and, like the military, is reluctant to fight its own people. In the Times today, Anatol Lieven (£) draws a distinction between the ISI’s “hard” treatment of international terrorists and its more tolerant attitude to home-grown insurgents.
What is beyond question is that the relationship between Islamabad and Washington is vital to both sides. Oversimplifying the situation on the ground in Pakistan with a reductive “us and them” narrative serves no one – least of all the people of Pakistan, who are the most likely targets for retaliation attacks.