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Bin Laden: too big to hide under the carpet? May 4, 2011

Posted by southasiamasala in : Afghanistan, Gordon, Sandy, India, Pakistan , trackback

Sandy Gordon

The crucial issue is the future of nuclear-armed Pakistan, a country of 160 million, mixing a highly sophisticated – albeit semi-feudal – elite with a poorly educated, poverty ridden peasant and tribal mass base.

The US will be doing its sums, including with the material seized from the Bin Laden compound in Abbottabad.  Should it emerge that any elements in the Pakistani administration knew of his presence, it will be hard for the US to justify the US$3 billion aid package it provides to Pakistan each year, especially when it is bleeding financially itself.

Added to this, the timing of Bin Laden’s killing could give additional credibility to the plan to commence the US drawdown in Afghanistan by this July and complete the process by 2014.  Given its massive financial problems, the US badly needs to refocus away from its wars and on to the economy. Ironically, conservatives, so complicit in starting the costly war in Iraq, now want to see the military budget, which will remain tight, refocused on major weapons systems and away from ‘boots on the ground’.  For them, the new challenge is China, not obscure Islamists in far off places.

Given these factors, Bin Laden’s death provides an opportunity to ‘start the beginning of the end’ in Afghanistan.

India is worried.  In New Delhi’s view, 2014 is too soon to achieve the desired outcome in Afghanistan – continuation of the Karzai regime or something like it. India’s worst nightmare would be a pan-regional conurbation of Taliban-like forces stretching from Herat to Lahore. Its second worst nightmare would be a reprise of something like the 1996-2001 arrangement, in which the Pakistani military elite was able to rely on a friendly, if Islamist, regime in Kabul.

Having indulged in a little ‘cricket diplomacy’, India has now greeted Bin Laden’s death with a serve against Pakistan.  Home Minister Chidambaram has commented that the fact Bin Laden was located in Abbottabad – tantamount to a garden suburb of Islamabad – for five years means the record of the Pakistani state in knowingly harbouring terrorists continues.  New Delhi would like to see the US guiding hand to continue on Pakistan’s shoulder, no matter that Islamabad does not always steer the desired course.

Prior to Bin Laden’s death there had been reports that Pakistan had been attempting to set up an alternative support base to foster its strategic objectives in Afghanistan.  According to these reports, Pakistan put to Karzai that Afghanistan, like Pakistan, become more strategically reliant on China.  If correct, Islamabad would have been mindful of the impending US drawdown and of the fact that, as in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pakistan would then become strategically irrelevant to the US.

Even if these reports were correct, military-strategic support (as distinct from financial support) from China for Afghanistan was never a realistic proposition.  China has been free-riding on the US in the Middle East and South West Asia.  It now has massive oil investments in Iraq and significant emerging investments in Afghanistan, including a US$4 billion copper mine.  Ever more dependent on Middle East oil and gas, it is all too happy for the US to do the military heavy lifting and financially to eviscerate itself in the process.  Nor has it been Beijing’s style to become strategically involved in its many areas of influence.

Reports that Pakistan has attempted to play the China card, if true, would indicate that the Pakistani governing elites are aware that the game is starting to unravel and that the US is preparing to call it a day.  If it emerges that elements of official Pakistan have colluded in hiding Bin Laden, that process can only intensify.

Meanwhile, the tensions generated by the Pakistan-US relationship on both sides have become palpable.  Hitherto, the two have tried to sweep the uncomfortable elements of the relationship under the carpet, each for its own purposes.  The US still needs Pakistan to deal with Taliban safe havens such as North Waziristan and as a vital transit point into Afghanistan. The Pakistani elites are to an extent dependent on the US relationship economically and militarily.  The compromise involved has meant that Pakistan has continued to host drones, while at the same time publicly excoriating the US for the loss of civilian life involved.  On its part, the US has provided sophisticated equipment – including F16 fighters – to the Pakistani military and supported the stumbling economy.

The immediate questions are: How much life is left in this arrangement?  Who will cut and run first?  Will Bin Laden’s death provide the trigger?

My guess is that there is still some juice left in this particular lemon, mainly because the alternatives are so bleak for both parties.  Perhaps the charade can continue for a year or two at most.  But that is not long in strategic terms.   The question then will be: what next?



1. Rana Ganguly - May 11, 2011


The commando raid and execution of Osama bin Laden at Abbottabad earlier this month, which was exclusively an American operation, has reopened many old questions. It has been long suspected that powerful elements within the Pakistani government, army and military intelligence have played a not insignificant role in sponsoring global terrorism and major events like the attacks on the World Trade Centre, the Indian Parliament and more recently, Madrid, London and Mumbai. Accusations of Pakistan being a safe haven for terrorists from the governments of neighbouring countries including Afghanistan and India, who for decades have been at the receiving end of numerous terrorist attacks, appear to have been substantiated. That the leading terrorist in the FBI’s most wanted list was not in Afghanistan or even in the hilly border regions of Pakistan’s frontier province but comfortably ensconced in a huge mansion with noticeably high unscalable walls next to a major military installation located barely 50 kms from the national capital, points to the protection enjoyed by bin Laden from the highest levels of government and military in Pakistan. The recent developments provide considerable evidence of Pakistan’s complicity rather than incompetence.

The involvement of powerful rogue elements in the Pakistani ruling elite in the proliferation of the global jehadi terror network for nearly two decades has now come to the fore in the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s execution. The country threatens to implode and the Frankenstein monster that they helped create now threatens to consume them. The Pakistani army and ISI are deeply embarrassed as they had no clue of the raid by US Navy SEALs until after it was executed. On the one hand they are now accused by the US and the global community of being guilty of complicity at its worst, and incompetence at its best (though less credible to most pundits) while on the other hand they have also lost the trust of their wards-the various terrorist groups including the Al Qaeda, the Taliban and the Lashkar-e-Taiba. These groups have perhaps for a long time enjoyed the benefit of numerous tip offs whenever information on their location and possible attacks has been shared by the US and NATO intelligence agencies with the ISI and other Pakistani security agencies. The decision of the US not to share such information on this occasion, that resulted in one of the most successful strikes, is a testimonial to the trust deficit between the two administrations. The New York Times quoted senior US administration and military officials that President Obama had insisted on an assault force to hunt down bin Laden to be large enough to fight its way out of Pakistan if confronted by hostile local police officers and troops. It shows that he was willing to risk a military confrontation with Pakistan in order to capture or kill the leader of Al Qaeda.

An article in the New York Times on 9 May talks about the tilt towards a near adversarial relationship between the C.I.A. and the ISI since the Bin Laden raid. The refusal to hand over the nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan for questioning, the recent Raymond Davies episode, and more recently after the Abbotabad operation- the leaking of the identity of the CIA station chief in Islamabad and the refusal to allow US intelligence officers to question bin Laden’s widows are but a few instances of the significant lack of cooperation that the US has continued to face from its valued ally in the war on terror. It raises serious questions about Pakistan’s worth as an ally. Pakistan’s confusion was evident through initial media reports (including in the Geo News Channel) circulated by government and military agencies that claimed Pakistan’s direct involvement in the raid and that the Pakistani army and police had formed protective cordons around the house during the commando raid to prevent undesirables from escaping the compound or entering it to assist the Al Qaeda leader. Subsequently after US media releases clarified the facts, these reports were withdrawn and the embarrassment and frustration of the Pakistani leadership upon retraction of earlier statements was clearly visible

Some experts monitoring that region claim that the Pakistani political and military establishments have been guilty for a long time of both commission and omission. The dangerous double game played by these actors, who have on one hand sponsored and nurtured terrorist groups and on the other hand selectively cooperated with the western ‘allies in the war against terrorism’, has been for the purpose of sustaining a war that brings in billions of dollars in aid, both economic and military, for which there has been no accountability. Bin Laden’s Al Qaida, the Taliban and the Lashkar e Taiba, among others, have been strategic assets nurtured for that purpose and for furthering Pakistan’s ambition to dominate the region through the back door. This ambition is also believed to have included weakening western military dominance by drawing them into a protracted asymmetric war with guerillas in a hostile terrain with patchy and suspect support from a local ally with its own vested interests. While some of this aid money is speculated to have found its way into the coffers of corrupt ministers and military brass, other bits are suspected to have been diverted to provide men and materiel to the terrorist groups enjoying state patronage.

Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and the visions of a dangerous situation arising out of these weapons falling into the hands of the Taliban have so far acted as a deterrent for the US and its allies in taking Pakistan to task. While Pakistan has always claimed to be America’s ‘front line ally’ in the war on terror and claimed many sacrifices in this pursuit, military cooperation and intelligence shared with Pakistan has not always yielded desired results for the NATO forces. ISAF supply convoys from Pakistani ports to Afghan cities have been repeatedly attacked. On numerous and critical occasions the Pakistani army and ISI have refused to cooperate with NATO forces and the CIA operatives in that theatre to ensure that their wards are allowed to escape drone attacks and precision raids from elite commando units. Unilateral American tactical raids and drone attacks have mostly been condemned as an attack on Pakistan’s sovereignty. The vocal religious right that does not represent a majority of the Pakistani people has been leveraged to good effect to build opinion and convey Pakistanis’ resentment at their soil being used by infidels to pursue ‘fellow Muslims’. Sensing America’s impatience Pakistan has on occasions handed over a few Taliban leaders who eventually turned out to be ‘small fish’ that were not worth the trouble interrogating.

Pakistan claims to be a big contributor to the war on terror and presenting figures on lives lost in the pursuit of the Taliban and other terrorists. It is acknowledged that Pakistan has in recent years deployed its armed forces to contain the Pakistani Taliban albeit with limited success However, experts have learnt to distinguish between elements in the ruling elite that are themselves well protected by their security agencies and are at the bottom of this mischief from the general population and ordinary civilians and soldiers who are treated as cannon fodder and collateral damage by these scheming perpetrators. Interestingly on this occasion the global community has indicated no sympathy whatsoever for Pakistan’s complaint of the breach of its sovereignty. That the number one terrorist in the world was actually comfortably housed within a short distance of the national capital and very close to the perimeter of a major military installation, perhaps under their protection, has in a way substantiated the long held suspicion of Pakistani complicity. This has also justified to the global community the means adopted by the US to bring bin Laden to final justice. They have begun to understand the new great game that Pakistani army and its proteges are engaged in pursuit of their ambitions in the region and globally. The dreams of reestablishing an Islamic Caliphate with Pakistan based elements leading the charge has been a major motivator effectively used by the sponsors of the Al Qaeda.

The information the US has secured from bin Laden’s residence has the potential of exposing the connections that the ISI and Pakistani military brass had with bin Laden’s Al Qaeda and the Taliban and could, in fact, establish their patronage and sponsorship of the terror network and support to the proliferation of the Al Qaeda franchise worldwide. At the cost of speculation, the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani (a former ISI chief) and his former boss General Pervez Musharraf could all be implicated. Quite a few of their predecessors in both the ISI and the Pakistani General Staff who have been interviewed on CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera, have refused to believe that Osama bin Laden could have survived within Pakistan for so long without the knowledge, and perhaps support from powerful sections within the ruling elite.

It is an established fact that the Pakistani army is the most powerful institution in that country and the government of the day can only stay in power as long as it cooperates with the army brass and enjoys their support. Again, within the army the ISI is the most powerful unit as reflected by many of the chiefs having ISI backgrounds. Countries in the volatile neighbourhood including Afghanistan and India, who have been at the receiving end of the proxy war perpetrated by Pakistan’s strategic assets, have been long aware of Pakistan’s role in supporting these terrorists but their appeals to the global community to ‘act’ have so far fallen on deaf ears. The refusal to dismantle the terror infrastructure even after the Mumbai attacks and the safe haven provided to other leading terrorists including Dawood Ibrahim, Mullah Omar and Omar Sheikh had convinced the Afghan and Indian agencies of Pakistan’s support to these elements. The US has proof of ISI complicity in the Mumbai attacks after it established the identities of the ISI ‘handlers’ of the terrorist group that attacked Mumbai through telephone conversations that were tapped during the siege of the hotels.

The American attack could also set a precedent for countries like India to launch a similar commando raid or a precision missile attack to eliminate Dawood Ibrahim and the terrorists’ ISI handlers involved in the Mumbai attack. However, this is the time for restraint and engagement rather than hounding Pakistan. There are enough liberal constituencies within Pakistan that can be engaged constructively to prevent it from imploding. The rogue elements in the ruling elite, the military and the ISI in particular, that have been responsible for this long standing global problem need to be identified, held accountable and purged. The US’ economic and military aid to Pakistan should be temporarily stopped until conditions for the resumption of its flow can be renegotiated and agreed upon. Pakistan may try to play the China card to dissuade a resolute Obama and the Congress from doing so but the likelihood of China providing support to Pakistan, in view of the prevailing global opinion and the Al Qaeda activities in its own troubled Uighur region, is doubtful. The US and its allies now need to call Pakistan’s bluff and provide it with an ultimatum to wind up the entire infrastructure of terror and move quickly to secure the nuclear establishment in Pakistan from falling into the wrong hands.

These steps may not end jehadi terrorism altogether but with the winding up of this support base and increased and sustained vigilance and cooperation between countries the frequency and intensity of such attacks can be reduced steadily.