The aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death has Pakistan reeling under contradictory impulses. The Foreign Office (FO), ever hewing close to the army, has categorically denied, on behalf of the government of Pakistan and the Army, having “any prior knowledge of the US operation against Osama bin Laden carried out in the early hours of May 2, 2011”. The official protest by Pakistan to the US against the operation confirms this position.
The FO also carefully denied complicity with the origin of the flight of the helicopters involved in the operation, while accepting that intelligence was exchanged with “the CIA and other friendly agencies about some foreigners in the surroundings of Abbottabad till mid-April 2011”. But this ‘help’ to the US operation is qualified: “Taking advantage of much superior technological assets, the CIA exploited the intelligence leads given by us to identify and reach Osama bin Laden, a fact also acknowledged by the US president and secretary of state in their statements.”
Why is the FO at pains to dissociate the government and the army from the operation, after admitting that Pakistan was acting in accordance with its commitment to the war against terrorism? The following formulation in the FO press release makes it clear: “The government of Pakistan and its armed forces consider the support of the people of Pakistan to be its strength. Any actions contrary to their aspirations, therefore, run against the very basis on which the edifice of national security is based.”
It is clear that in its war against al Qaeda and the Taliban, Pakistan is restrained by public opinion, which is split in favour of the terrorists. This bestows special importance to the CIA statement that Pakistan was not informed prior to the operation “because that could have resulted in the operation not being successful”. The ambivalence on the part of Pakistan springs from public opinion; and the lack of confidence the US has in Pakistan springs from this ambivalence. That Pakistan is still committed to the war against terrorism is clarified by its claim that it has ‘broken the back of terrorism’. However, anyone examining this from the outside will seriously question this position.
The statements emanating from the Presidency — which published an article in the American press under President Asif Ali Zardari’s byline — and the prime minister tend to be less troubled about admitting to feelings of triumph at getting rid of Osama bin Laden. Both statements do not necessarily contradict the FO line, but the willingness to defy the so-called public opinion in Pakistan is better expressed in their statements. One must keep in mind that the FO has admitted to exchange of intelligence on bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad up to April 2010.
The ISI, which has had trouble working with the CIA, has admitted that it is “embarrassed to have failed to capture Osama bin Laden” but has defended its record against mounting criticism of complicity between it and al Qaeda. It says it stopped keeping an eye on Abbottabad after 2003 (it doesn’t say why), but it is at pains to claim that it had fought al Qaeda: “The number of people of al Qaeda we have captured and killed, runs to hundreds. The number of people that we have picked up from the Taliban also runs to the hundreds, so one failure makes us out to be incompetent?” Finally the ISI statement says: “Had we known he was there, we would have captured him and handed him over to the Americans to silence the critics.” Would the people of Pakistan have forgiven the ISI for that?
The question which will continue to haunt us is: Why was the ISI neglectful of the Abbottabad situation while the CIA was not? Outside Pakistan, there will be other questions. When will there be a crackdown on organisations that are known to be involved in terrorism? Yes, there have been operations in Swat and Fata but what about jihadi outfits operating in Punjab and other parts of the country? It seems we are either unwilling, or unable, to take action against these organisations, many of which have been declared terrorist by the UN. The world outside also sees the establishment in Pakistan split over the terrorists and has been talking of ‘rogue’ elements within it. Only we can change that perception, through our actions.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 5th, 2011.
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