Thursday, May 5, 2011

What Did Pakistan Know?

WHICHEVER way you cut it, Pakistan’s authorities are in a bind over the discovery, and killing, of Osama bin Laden by American Navy Seals in Abbottabad, a military town just north of Islamabad. The hollow claims made for many years by Pakistani rulers, military chiefs and spooks that Mr bin Laden, other al-Qaeda leaders and Taliban bosses were being allowed no refuge inside Pakistan, have been spectacularly exposed. The fact that he had last been holed up not in some wretched mountain cave but in a specially built, fortress-like compound within a mile of a prestigious military academy, in a town bristling with Pakistani military men, is a damning detail to which Pakistan’s authorities are struggling to respond. It is possible—just about—to imagine that Pakistan’s rulers, notably the revered military intelligence network, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), were too incompetent to spot the world’s most-wanted man hiding under their noses. On this reckoning, America’s spies were able, eventually, to track him to a compound known locally as “Waziristan Mansion” and then to deploy a team of 30 to 40 Navy Seals to kill him, whereas the local men, despite enjoying significant local, linguistic, cultural and other advantages, were outfoxed by al- Qaeda’s boss. More likely, but no more attractive for the likes of the ISI, is that at least some in power in Pakistan knew that Mr bin Laden had been forced by American drone attacks to shift from a mountain hideout to this urban shelter. On this score Mr bin Laden (and probably others, such as the Aghan Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, who was reported earlier this year to have been taken by the ISI to Karachi for medical treatment following a heart attack) was being afforded some measure of protection by Pakistani officialdom. Why? Perhaps so that he could be used, one day, somehow to promote Pakistani interests among fighting groups in Afghanistan, or perhaps so that he could be used as leverage over the Americans on a “ rainy day”, as one Afghan intelligence officer speculates. Either way, Pakistan’s authorities now look humiliated by the actions of their American ally. It remains unclear how much, if at all, Pakistan’s rulers co- operated in the successful hunt for Mr bin Laden. In the hours after his death American and Pakistani sources offered contradictory accounts of whether the Americans worked entirely alone in the striking operation that killed the al- Qaeda leader, although the Pakistanis may have helped with intelligence- gathering. The sour bilateral diplomatic and intelligence relations of the past few months suggest collaboration was probably limited. The ISI has intensely resented the deployment of large numbers of American intelligence contractors in Pakistan’s cities in the past year or so; miffed, it exposed the identity of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Islamabad chief in December; and earlier this year one American contractor, Raymond Davis, became the centre of a swirling diplomatic row after he killed two Pakistanis in Lahore. America-Pakistan relations may yet deteriorate further. Barack Obama’s administration has wisely tried to bolster Pakistan’s civilian government, for example by handing over aid for development separately from the billions worth of military help it provides. And it has become increasingly critical of the Pakistani army, pressing it to take action against the Haqqani network, an insurgent group with bases in Pakistan that is responsible for much of the violence in eastern Afghanistan, and to crack down on Islamist terrorist groups, notably a collection known as the Punjabi Taliban. Mr Obama may now feel pressure from American voters to demand that Pakistan’s military men start co-operating much more: having described Pakistan as being home to the “cancer” of terrorism, the American leader may decide that putting greater pressure on Islamabad will bring more gains than prolonged years of large- scale fighting next door in Afghanistan. The mood in Pakistan itself is dour. Islamabad remained relatively quiet on May 2 nd. Violence in Karachi, the commercial capital, on that day was the result of long-running political rivalry, rather than anything to do with al-Qaeda. Inevitably conspiracy theories swirled, including an imaginative suggestion that Mr bin Laden was not killed in Abbottabad at all, but that Americans brought his corpse there from the mountains and then staged a gunfight in the dark in order to embarrass Pakistan’s leaders. Several residents of Abbottabad itself, not an area known for religious extremism, said on Monday that they considered Mr bin Laden a “hero” but still did not believe that he had been living among them. Across the border in Afghanistan the greater question is whether the removal of al-Qaeda’s leader might hurry the withdrawal of American troops. American talk in the hours after Mr bin Laden’s death of having inflicted a “ crippling blow” on the terrorist network soon gave way to the observation that Mr bin Laden had long seemed inactive as a leader. For example he failed to make public pronouncements over the Arab Spring uprisings. In addition, the nature of al-Qaeda “ franchises” , and the spawning of numerous local jihadi groups in Pakistan and beyond, suggest that the death of the leader is not the death of al-Qaeda. In one way the death of Mr bin Laden could encourage progress in Afghanistan: his removal might make it easier for the Afghan Taliban to disavow their previous ties to al-Qaeda, helping to open the way to provisional peace talks with the government of Hamid Karzai. Yet Mullah Omar, their hardline leader, has resisted such a move and it is not evident that more junior leaders will be able to persuade him otherwise now.