Since the announcement, late Sunday night, of Osama bin Laden’s death, increasing amounts of scrutiny have been put on Pakistan, and rightly so. It’s impossible to imagine a situation where the world’s most wanted terrorist could live in a walled compound in a city of about 500,000 people that’s also home to the Pakistani military academy without any officials knowing about him. As Steve Coll has observed, it in fact appears as if bin Laden was being effectively housed under state control in what another observer has called “protected luxury.”
If there wasn’t already enough damning evidence against Pakistan’s complicity with radical Islamic terrorists, Osama’s death should seal the case shut. Yet leader after leader in Pakistan had vehemently denied that their country harbored the terrorist. It’s hard to tell whether this is the result of ignorance or duplicity. Regardless, it should force us to question the United States’ ability to continue its multi-billion dollar relationship with Pakistan under its current terms.
In addition to Osama bin Laden, Pakistan has now either served as a refuge or training ground for 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, and countless other international terrorists. It’s likely that al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Taliban chief Mullah Omar are also ensconced in Pakistan.
Pakistan is suffering from a deep, existential crisis that can be traced back more than 100 years, to when the first ideas of a separate Islamic state in South Asia first emerged. The schizophrenia evident in the country today is a consequence of this identity crisis, and it isn’t something that can be easily resolved through increased aid. In fact, if anything, the United States’ awkward relationship with Pakistan—a frenemy approach of rebukes and concessions—propagates the illness.
There is a military-jihadi complex in Pakistan in which each institution needs the other to survive. Furthermore, both the military and jihadists can operate without the help of the civilian government. Thus what the United States hears from President Asif Ali Zardari or Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani is likely not the whole truth about Pakistan’s intentions and motives.
It was President Obama himself who declared several months ago that the “cancer of terrorism” was in Pakistan. Whether he knew at that time about Osama bin Laden’s presence in the country or not, his remark was quite sentient. Nevertheless, killing the world’s most-wanted terrorist will not be enough to fundamentally change the nature of the battle against terrorism or eradicate the cancer from Pakistan. That will only be possible once Pakistan itself decides to fundamentally change the way it governs itself and pursues its national interest.
For more on how Pakistan’s history can help explain its crisis today, see my latest essay in the May/June issue of World Affairs.
(Defense Dept. photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. D. Myles Cullen)