That a dozy hilltop town, home to the Sandhurst of Pakistan, was also home to Osama bin Laden should not surprise anyone. What is surprising is why all those clever analysts sitting in London and Washington don’t really understand (or pretend not to understand) the reality of the Pakistan-American relationship.
First the capture: It makes sense that bin Laden was found in Pakistan. If every significant Al Qaeda capture has taken place in that country, then why not this one? Al Qaeda operates in Pakistan with a degree of ease that it does not enjoy in other countries. And there are good reasons for this, which start and end with the country’s army.
It also makes sense that bin Laden was living close to the military. It’s no secret that he is admired among large sections of the general population. What matters more is that this includes a small number of influential officials in the military, in military intelligence and in the nuclear apparatus. The numbers are likely small: but powerful enough to provide the Al Qaeda founder with a base in a part of the country where you don’t get to live in a military-run housing complex unless you have the right connections.
It is too early to say what the terms of bin Laden’s residence would have been. One likely scenario may have been a form of house arrest, similar to that experienced by Pakistan’s disgraced nuclear scientist A Q Khan: another hero who enjoys top-level support from within military intelligence, but is persona non grata abroad. Except that there is scant evidence of security, or soldiers at the time of the raid. It is more likely that bin Laden was a guest and not an inmate.
The discovery of bin Laden’s Abbotabad lair should at least dispel two myths. Myth number one is that Pakistan’s army does not, as David Cameron claims, look both ways. It only looks one way: and that is in the direction of its own national security. Myth number two: there is one country that the Pakistani military genuinely fears; genuinely believes is a threat to its security and its state religion. That country, more than India, is America.
Pakistan is a faith-based state. It was created largely for people of one faith. Its constitution says that laws must be based on religion. If a man or woman applies to join the army of such a state, they will have signed a covenant that says: We are the citizens of an Islamic state. If any country or individual threatens either our families, or our faith, then we are prepared to die defending both. India in the eyes of the military threatens Pakistan’s borders, but largely because of a shared history that goes back centuries, there is no deep ideological conflict between the two countries. America, on the other hand, is seen by the military to threaten, both the country’s borders, but also its state religion. It doesn’t matter how many times President Obama says that there is no war on Islam. None of the Pakistani soldiers fighting alongside those of the US believes this.
Bearing this in mind, one critical feature of western foreign policy now looks incredibly naïve at best; at worst, a disaster. This was the courting of Pervez Musharraf. General Musharraf is about the last ally the west needed in its war on terror. He promised the kind of support to the US that was practically impossible for his country to deliver. But when someone puts a suitcase containing billions of dollars of free money on your desk, and asks in exchange for the Moon, you are not going to immediately turn it away.
If America wants Pakistan on side; if it wants to see a stable Pakistan that is not a haven for terrorists and that doesn’t export terrorism, then it needs to recognise that it (America) is the elephant in the room. It is not merely an observer; but a player, and a player whose military presence in the country is having a heavily destabilising effect.
If President Obama genuinely wants to help that country, then he needs to convince his defence establishment to keep out of the country’s affairs for at least a generation. Keeping out of Pakistan’s affairs is not the same as withdrawal, Somalia-style. America could adopt a more intelligent engagement. The US could build as many schools as it can afford to and there will still be more to build. It could run high-tech hospitals, create elite universities and send plane-loads of American Muslims to speak at Islamic conferences. But what it absolutely must do is keep away from security and governance.
That is of course easier said than done. Why? Because there are huge vested interests which will be threatened on both sides.
The US military is the world’s most powerful. There is an argument that it needs to be able to interfere in the affairs of other nations at the very least to maintain spending at current levels. The Pakistani military, too, has a disproportionate amount of influence in society. As in Egypt, as in Indonesia before the fall of Suharto; like Turkey before Erdogan, it is not only a fighting force, but a state within a state. It has tentacles reaching into all sectors and all levels of society. It runs factories, hospitals, schools and universities. It has an investment arm and its own philanthropic foundation. It has its own real-estate division that parcels out land and housing to military families and those who can claim connections.
But both the US and Pakistan need to decide what is more important: is it more important to keep their soldiers busy fighting wars that mess up the rest of the world. Or is it more important to think intelligently and decide on a course of action that could benefit everyone.
Barack Obama has shown that he can pull a trigger when needed. He has earned the title of Commander in Chief. Now more than ever he needs to use the rest of his famously professorial brain and save us all from the American and Pakistani hawks who would like to suck us all into their war games.