A year ago on May 2, American special forces attacked the safe haven of al Qaeda’s top leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, killed him and took his body away. His death triggered reactions in Pakistan that were least expected: instead of being relieved that a man whose organisation had killed thousands of innocent Pakistanis was finally eliminated, it fell into a paroxysm of rage over the American commando operation. The country’s military establishment and, indeed many Pakistanis, felt that they had been betrayed by what they saw as a brazen assault on the country’s sovereignty. Our relations with the ally were already soured by the capture of the CIA contractor Raymond Davis in Lahore, who had killed two Pakistanis.
In fact, two ruptures took place after the attack on Osama bin Laden. Pakistan set itself on the course of ‘disengagement’ with the US; and the Pakistan Army became alienated from the incumbent PPP-led government. Then in November came the Salala incident, where American gunships killed Pakistani troops at a border check post. This caused a halt to Nato supplies through Pakistan at a crucial time in the American engagement in Afghanistan. Following this, the government in Islamabad faced the charge of treason at the Supreme Court for having conspired — through its ambassador in the US — against the Pakistan Army.
Lack of trust became the reason why the operation to ‘get Osama’ was kept secret. The Americans said that every time they shared information with the Pakistani establishment about the impending operations against the terrorists, the latter were forewarned. They felt that Pakistan wanted operations only against those elements that were killing Pakistanis in Pakistan and not against those who were attacking American and Nato targets in Afghanistan. Journalist Saleem Shahzad was mysteriously killed in Pakistan when he reported that the al Qaeda had penetrated the personnel of the Pakistan Navy. This was exacerbated by the widespread feeling in Pakistan that the war on terror, started by a now-discredited former army chief General Pervez Musharraf, was “not Pakistan’s war”.
Pakistan, too, had to answer some questions about the presence of bin Laden in Abbottabad. A judicial commission was set up which is still inquiring into his death at the time of writing. While living in Pakistan, Bin Laden was visited by his lieutenants and devotees, including his wife. The Americans say they found evidence that bin Laden communicated with Mullah Mohammad Omar, leader of the Afghan Taliban and with Lashkar-e-Taiba. International opinion is, by and large, of the view that the safe haven must have been organised on some level by elements inside the Pakistani establishment, but the US has consistently said that there is “smoking gun” to suggest that his presence was facilitated at any official level.
The facts that are known tell us that the al Qaeda is located at the top of the terror pyramid in Pakistan and the Taliban owe allegiance to it. Furthermore, elements whose presence in North Waziristan Pakistan doesn’t necessarily mind are also, unfortunately, linked to al Qaeda. The Punjabi Taliban and the non-state actors traditionally known to act abroad in favour of the state are busy distributing subversive literature produced by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al Qaeda. After having concluded that the al Qaeda has been more or less eliminated in Pakistan, the Americans are now telling us that it is still strong after succeeding in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and even Nigeria.
On the face of it, Pakistan has other more urgent crises to overcome. There is the corruption of the executive linked to power shortage and malfunction of state institutions and politicians who are busy destabilising the country by fighting dangerous agitational battles against one another. But the real crisis which the world sees, but most Pakistanis don’t, is terrorism and the dwindling writ of the state in the face of it. Behind this erosion of internal sovereignty stands the towering figure of a dead Osama bin Laden threatening the very foundations of the state.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 2nd, 2012.