As soon as news of Osama bin Laden’s death was announced, the world media began asking tough questions about the extent of cooperation that Pakistan’s intelligence agencies and armed forces provided for this operation. If Pakistani forces did not know about the operation and had only been informed about it immediately prior to its execution, as is the prevalent view among analysts notwithstanding the diplomatic-speak of high level western government officials, then this raises very serious concerns, not just about sovereignty domestically, but about the lack of trust and credibility accorded to our armed forces internationally.
If, on the other hand, Pakistani intelligence and military played a key role in luring Osama to Abbottabad so that this operation could be conducted, as proposed in a Telegraph piece titled “Bin Laden killed: Whose side was Pakistan on in this shoot-out?” (May 2), then it would have been far better to take ownership of a job well done. Remaining silent for fear of extremist backlash is a no-win policy. Not only is it unwise to play both sides in this deadly war, but equally importantly, it will continue to confuse the nation about the extent of sovereignty violated, and can create doubts about the ability of the armed forces and intelligence agencies, give rise to unwieldy conspiracy theories and provide justifications to the Americans to increase solo operations within our territory.
If, for instance, those analysts that claim Pakistan was not told about the operation because it is not to be trusted are correct, then Pakistan will have very little sympathy if it protests the use of drones or the presence of boots on the ground in the form of Blackwater or otherwise, regardless of Pakistani domestic opinion on this issue. Globally, Osama and his al Qaeda ilk are considered the most wanted terrorists of our time and cooperating in hunting them down is looked upon favourably around the world. On the other hand, sheltering terrorists leads to bad press and negative ramifications for all Pakistanis, whether in the form of visa restrictions for students or calls for summoning our senior military command for questioning abroad, calls that historic adversaries like India support through their lobbies.
So the issue is not, as some aspiring politicians or media gurus in Pakistan have confused people into thinking, that our military is fighting America’s war for dollars. Instead, the question that is being asked internationally is: Has our military taken the money and yet played both sides? Has it tried to assist America at times and, at other times, assisted the terrorists who are fighting America? OBL’s presence so close to Kakul has brought all these festering issues to the fore and nobody can clarify them better than the powers that be.
To be fair, it must not have been easy for the establishment to cut ties from the Taliban that it helped create. The Russian invasion of Afghanistan was very destabilising for our region and the ensuing relationship between the American and Pakistani forces that joined together to use jihadi ideology to fight the invading Russians created severe long-term problems, not the least of which were evidenced by the gradual radicalisation of both Pakistan and its military, a phenomenon that helped General Ziaul Haq maintain his undemocratic hold on power and resulted in a draconian force taking hold in Afghanistan after the defeat of the Russians. Although we cannot rewrite history, we can make choices that serve our national interest and that interest does not lie in supporting draconian forces that are frowned upon the world over and have neither the ideas nor the funds to better the lives of ordinary people.
Pakistan’s strategic depth in Afghanistan will have to rely on the hospitality that was provided to Afghan refugees by our people for a very long period of time. The sooner we take a clear stand, aligned with the prevailing world opinion, and come clean with our people, the better it will be for Pakistan. Otherwise, if this duplicity continues, not only will Pakistan’s armed forces be maligned internationally, but our own people will begin to look upon them as incompetent or, at worst, insincere.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 6th, 2011.