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Status Quo Likely to Prevail in Pakistan After Osama

by Pervez Hoodbhoy, 10 May 2011

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Mail Today, 8 May 2011


by Pervez Hoodbhoy

For once it is the Pakistani military and intelligence that is feeling the heat

OSAMA bin Laden’s capture and killing provides the Pakistani state an opportunity to make a clean break with the past.

It could choose to decisively confront Islamist violence and give up the military’s current policy of giving support to jihadis with one hand even as it slaps them with the other. Nothing would be more welcome for the people of a nation which is being steadily destroyed and made unlivable by the monsters created by disastrous policies of the past.

But, judging from the outcome of the corps commander conference held on May 5, three days after the killing, there is as yet no hint of introspection or a change of course. Instead, the mood largely reflected anger at America and frustration at being by- passed. America was accused of having betrayed Pakistan’s trust and for using intelligence provided to it by the ISI for “ unilateral military action”. A frosty period is clearly up ahead, frostier even than after the Raymond Davis affair weeks earlier.

Military chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, said he would demand a 25- 40 per cent cut in the number of US Special Operations personnel based in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s anger comes from the deep embarrassment of being in a situation where only two possibilities exist — complicity in hiding bin Laden or incompetence in detecting his presence. According to those who had laid and executed the intricate plans for killing bin Laden, Pakistan’s armed forces had no role in the action.

Although scooped up from its soil, shot in the head, and then buried at sea, the event was not announced by General Kayani or President Asif Zardari. Instead, it was the US president who declared that bin Laden’s body was in the custody of US forces.

Wriggling out of this situation will be not easy. On numerous occasions, Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders had categorically stated that bin Laden was not in the country. Some suggested that he might be in Sudan or Somalia. Others hinted that he might already have died from a kidney ailment, or perhaps that he was in some intractable area, protected by nature and terrain and thus outside of the effective control of the Pakistani state.

But then it so turned out bin Laden was not living in some dark cave in the mountains of Waziristan. Instead, he had lived for years smack inside the modern, peaceful, and extraordinarily secure city of Abbottabad within walking distance of three major army installations.

His fortified house had been constructed in 2005, just around when Gen. Musharraf had been boasting of selling off Al- Qaeda leaders to the Americans for cash. It is possible that the virtual incarceration of bin Laden, away from real contact with his organisation, was to trade him off at a suitable time in the future for either dollars or political concessions. However, US Navy SEALS stole and killed the golden goose.

Pakistan’s generals may be redfaced today, but they are practiced survivors who have seen crisis after crisis with scarcely a scratch to show. In the recent past, this includes secretly sending militants and soldiers across the LOC in Kargil, allowing Dr A. Q. Khan to peddle his nuclear wares in the open market, and giving tacit permission to the Lashkar- e- Tayyaba’s military preparations and operations.

None proved fatal when discovered, and it is also unlikely that the bin Laden episode will be catastrophic for them.

There are strong reasons to believe that continuity is more likely than change.

The immediate pressure to change comes, of course, from the US. Understandably there is widespread anger there. Pakistan had harboured a figure who, as Americans saw him, was the epitome of evil and the cause of some 3000 deaths. Some angry congressmen have accused Pakistan of double- dealing and moved a Bill to cut off all aid.

But, this is unlikely to pass.

There is far too much at stake for this to happen, and it would lead to too serious a disturbance in the working relationship between the Pakistani and US militaries.

Ending this relationship would mean a huge loss for both sides because of the Afghan situation.

The ten year war in Afghanistan is approaching its end because the US is feeling its high economic cost, losing the lives of its soldiers, and becoming steadily aware of the impossibility of a military solution. The fortuitous killing of bin Laden is sure to hugely accelerate the growing realisation within the US that a diminished Al- Qaeda cannot justify indefinite occupation. But, until the US fully or largely withdraws from Afghanistan, it will remain dependent upon Pakistan both for allowing NATO supplies to be trucked across its territory as well as for limiting the operations of the Haqqani network in North Waziristan.

From the Pakistani side, the US withdrawal will have once again have brought the notion of strategic depth into the realm of possibilities and is thus to be welcomed. But the US will only leave if it is not seen to be defeated outright, and so it is in Pakistan’s interest to see that the US does not dig its heels in.

Moreover, its economy is too dependent on US largesse to survive beyond a few months.

Thus, neither side presently wants to upset the applecart.

One also expects that the status quo with India will prevail.

Indeed, it unlikely that Delhi will emerge with major gains from the bin Laden episode. Its major demand — the crushing of anti- India militant groups on Pakistani soil — will not be fulfilled.

Once its jubilation over Pakistan’s discomfiture wears out, it will realise that Pakistan’s strategic culture remains predicated on countering India.

Maintaining, expanding, and upgrading Pakistani nuclear forces to balance India’s growing military strength will continue to remain key.

China and Iran are two other neighboring countries that have also shed no tears over bin Laden’s killing. In the past, they have also complained about jihadist forces being harboured within Pakistan’s borders. Iran had seen 42 of its military personnel and leaders blown up in a suicide attack by Jundullah, a Pakistan- based organisation, in October 2009. But it has made no official comment on the bin Laden killing. China has complained about its citizens targeted in Xinjiang by terrorists who later hid in Lahore and Rawalpindi. But, as expected, support from this “ all- weather friend” remains undiminished. It has called for renewed support to Pakistan for countering terrorism and expressed disapproval of the US action without specifically condemning it.

One concludes that, at least for now, bin Laden’s killing will not cause a sea change either within Pakistan, or in its relations with other countries. A challenge by the elected government to the military can be ruled out — the former has dared not ask for an inquiry nor attempted to hold the military leadership to blame for the putative intelligence failure.

On the other hand, the bin Laden episode does put the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons under the spotlight once again. If the authorities were genuinely unaware of the world’s most wanted terrorist being virtually under their nose, their claims about Pakistani nuclear weapons being unassailable become questionable.

If evidence of a successful nuclear theft or hijacking emerges, the consequences could be extremely serious.

Thus, seeking to offset fears about its nuclear arsenal, the army has released an emphatic statement— “ As regards the possibility of similar hostile action against our strategic assets, the forum reaffirmed that unlike an undefended civilian compound, our strategic assets are well protected and an elaborate defensive mechanism is in place.” One can only hope they are more correct about their nukes than they were about bin Laden.

The author is professor of physics and teaches in Lahore and Islamabad