The South Asia Channel

The bin Laden aftermath: Salvaging the U.S.-Pakistan relationship

Awaking to the news on Monday morning that al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had been killed by U.S. Navy SEALs in Abbottabad, Pakistanis had two ways to react: express outrage that the world’s most-wanted terrorist had successfully sought sanctuary within their country’s borders, with or without the assistance of Pakistan’s security establishment; or, decry the ...


Awaking to the news on Monday morning that al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had been killed by U.S. Navy SEALs in Abbottabad, Pakistanis had two ways to react: express outrage that the world’s most-wanted terrorist had successfully sought sanctuary within their country’s borders, with or without the assistance of Pakistan’s security establishment; or, decry the fact that the United States had violated Pakistan’s national sovereignty with a unilateral strike deep into its territory.

The fact that the Pakistani state and independent media have opted for the latter is no doubt frustrating for Washington, which is urgently trying to assess whether Pakistan remains an ally in the effort to stamp out terrorism. Since the news of bin Laden’s killing broke, the Pakistani media has been railing against the American "insult" and "invasion" of its territory. The government, too, issued an obdurate statement describing the U.S. raid of bin Laden’s compound as an "unauthorized unilateral action." What should have been an introspective moment has already become a defiant one. Rather than ask why bin Laden was able to live in Abbottabad, possibly since 2005, Pakistanis are asking how the U.S. managed to penetrate Pakistani airspace and hover for 40 minutes before leaving.

While Pakistanis fret about territorial violations, U.S. government officials have started asking difficult questions about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad, and the nature of his support network within the country. Some members of Congress have called for economic assistance to Pakistan to be significantly reduced or suspended. Such enough-is-enough reactions are understandable, yet counterproductive, for they will only stir more defiance and reactionary tendencies among the Pakistani public. 

The fact is, Pakistanis are largely unmoved by the killing of bin Laden, but they are anxious about its potential fallout. The nation is currently bracing for a blowback, as the Taliban threatened retaliatory attacks barely hours after bin Laden’s death had been announced.There are also widespread concerns about more unilateral strikes on Pakistani soil, especially after U.S. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers announced on Monday that at least a dozen senior al-Qaeda leaders are based in Pakistan.

Moreover, the Indian reaction to the news of bin Laden’s killing has hardly helped matters. More than future U.S. actions, Pakistan fears that India may be emboldened by the Abbottabad raid to launch unilateral strikes against terrorist camps proximate to the eastern border. It is this cumulative paranoia of what might yet ensue that informed the weak response to the incident by Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir, who stated that the bin Laden operation "shall not serve as a future precedent for any state, including the U.S. Such actions undermine cooperation and may also sometime[s] constitute threat[s] to international peace and security."

In this perceived moment of vulnerability, the Pakistani public sphere is unlikely to turn against the Pakistan Army (except to criticize it for failing to prevent the U.S. incursion) and question its role in the bin Laden fiasco. Although the military and intelligence apparatus are the progenitors of Pakistan’s current predicament (whether through duplicity, complicity, or incompetence), they are also being framed as the nation’s last hope

Since Pakistan’s creation, the army’s institutional imperative has been to ensure state survival against threats posed by external enemies. The post-bin Laden concerns about interventionism play right into what Dr. Hasan Askari Rizvi has termed the Pakistan Army’s "savior complex." In an ironic twist, a moment that should spark a crisis of credibility and a call for accountability could become an opportunity for the army to consolidate its role as the nation’s protector against a variety of outside threats deemed to be existential. If this happens, the U.S. can only expect more of the same in its dealings with Pakistan.

But in the army’s protectionist stance lies a rare opportunity to chart a new course in U.S.-Pakistan relations. Earlier this week, the Pakistani Ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, said that the government would conduct internal investigations to determine how bin Laden was able to live undetected in the Pakistani heartland, and whether any state or security officials were helping to shelter him. On Thursday, however, the Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir backtracked on this idea, suggesting that investigations into the whole episode be left to historians.

Pakistan’s civilian government should not back down from the chance to conduct an inquiry. By supporting the civilian government in such an effort – whether in terms of capacity, by helping establish protocols and a timeline, or by applying back channel pressure on military officials to comply — the U.S. and other members of the international community can help Pakistan’s nascent civilian government hold the army accountable. Such a move would significantly boost the government’s credibility by helping it answer the Pakistani public’s many burning questions regarding the bin Laden incident.

No doubt, inquiries in Pakistan are a bit of a sham, a highly refined form of political dodging and deferral. The current government alone has launched several inquiries into matters ranging from corrupt practices in accommodating Hajj pilgrims to match-fixing allegations against members of the national cricket team. None of these have yielded positive outcomes. Moreover, historic inquiries such as the Hamoodur Rehman commission – which investigated alleged atrocities committed in Bangladesh during the 1971 war with India – have set a poor precedent for such processes (that report was not made public until decades after the fact, and was found severely lacking).

But this needn’t be the case again. Citing pressure from the international community to provide answers, the civilian government should appoint an independent, public commission to investigate the nature and scope of bin Laden’s network within Pakistan. The commission should also investigate the army and intelligence agencies’ claim that bin Laden’s presence, and the U.S. raid it provoked, were the consequences of an "intelligence failure." Such a commission should be empowered — and encouraged — to summon high-ranking military and intelligence officials for interrogation.

This inquiry must be a purely civilian exercise that drives home the fact that the Pakistan Army is ultimately accountable to the Pakistani people through their elected representatives. It should be conducted solely by Pakistanis, without any foreign interference, but its findings should be shared with the world. And if the commission determines that bin Laden’s presence and the Abbottabad raid resulted from army and intelligence failings, it should launch a stringent review of the Pakistan Army’s defense expenditure. 

These actions will help reorient the conversation in Pakistan to focus more on the pitfalls of the country’s current national security strategy. It will also put U.S.-Pakistan relations back on the right track. Seeking long-term, sustainable bilateral relations with Pakistan, the U.S. enacted the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009.  Assistance mandated by that act seeks to support Pakistan’s democratically elected civilian government to develop increased oversight of national security issues, and maintain "effective civilian control of the military" and its institutions.  

Despite the positive language, though, the Obama administration has prioritized military-to-military exchanges with Pakistan, owing to a narrow focus on counterterrorism operations and the military and political endgame in Afghanistan. The recently concluded episode involving Raymond Davis, the CIA contractor who shot and killed two Pakistanis in Lahore in January, showed the extent to which the U.S. government is willing to defer to military officials at times of crisis. However, it is the world’s historic reliance on the Pakistan Army that led us to Abbottabad. A new approach by the U.S., and a new debate within Pakistan, may yet show us the way out. 

Huma Yusuf is a columnist for Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper and the Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.